Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500
Throughout the narrative, it is clear that Adoniram and the majority of the townsfolk adhere to a strict division of labor. From Adoniram’s perspective, what goes on in the barns, fields, and sheds is none of Sarah’s concern. From the town’s perspective, any woman who willfully upstages her husband by commandeering one of his barns must be either insane or fundamentally lawless. By alluding to the town’s reaction, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman offers objective evidence of the debilitating impact that preconceived notions can have on both the individual and the community at large. She underscores her point by dryly noting that any deviation from the town’s routine is enough to stop all progress.
Freeman is both sympathetic and opposed to the norms that strictly define spheres of action. She casts Sarah as a woman who indulges her husband’s every whim, while painting Adoniram as a man who is simply incapable of understanding his wife’s reactions or comprehending how important a new house has become to her. His confusion is suggested midway through the story, when Freeman notes that despite the admiration that the neighbors have for the fast-growing barn, Adoniram often returns from his inspections with an air of injured dignity. He very much wants Sarah to rejoice in his success and to share his pleasure. Hence, his final comment: “I hadn’t no idee you was so set on’t as all this comes to.”
His shock and lack of understanding are used not as an indictment, but as a statement about the normative way of life in small New England villages. Adoniram is portrayed not as an evil man, but as one who is oblivious to anything beyond his own sphere of influence. So long as his needs are tended to, his only concerns are increasing his holdings and bettering his ability to provide for his family in the ways in which he has been taught. So long as his family is not objectively suffering, he feels he is fulfilling his marital contract.
Sarah is less interested in the quantitative gains and more interested in the qualitative aspects of her family’s life. While she appreciates all Adoniram has done to give them a sense of security, she is concerned with her daughter’s future and feels that a new house is a prerequisite for Nanny’s future well-being. It is for this reason that she must strike out in her own direction and demonstrate to him that there is a world beyond the barns and sheds that he holds so dear.
Freeman’s depiction of the son, Sammy, leaves the reader with a sense of hope. While he is depicted initially as a coconspirator with his father, he ultimately emerges as a man who is willing to adapt to new circumstances and put himself on the line in defense of change. Although his voice quavers, his defense of his mother’s decision bravely announces the advent of a new era.