Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831

Freeman uses an omniscient narrator throughout these stories, and the tone is both wryly ironic and sympathetic to the plights of the characters. Freeman’s use of irony undercuts the pathos of her plots; her wry sense of humor saves the stories from becoming too sentimentalized.

Her characters are often outcasts from society who are nevertheless productive, upstanding individuals. Christmas Jenny, who lives alone in the mountains above the village, is the object of unkind village gossip, yet she spends her meager income on rehabilitating injured animals and in caring for an adopted deaf-mute boy. Aurelia Flower also adopts a young girl; she proves her love for the child despite the grandmother’s bias against her profession as a “yarb-woman.” Nicholas Gunn misanthropically rejects all visitors until he realizes Stephen Forster’s need for shelter and companionship.

Many of her women characters are artists, either traditionally or nontraditionally defined—singers, herbalists, quilters, seamstresses, even “A Poetess.” Not only do they support themselves with their art, but they also find fulfillment through these activities. Characters’ names reveal their occupations or personalities: Martha Patch is a quilter, Fidelia Almy has a faithful soul, and Aurelia Flower is an herbalist with a heart of gold.

Freeman’s symbols come from the natural world and ordinary objects. In “A New England Nun,” Louisa Ellis’ dog Caesar represents her pent-up, misunderstood passion. Martha Patch’s lack of a front window (and the perspective it would afford) shows how circumscribed her life is until her neighbors reach out to help her, offering to put a window in for her. Aurelia Flower restores her neighbors’ health with her herbal preparations, just as she restores her adopted child to a loving home. The black silk dress that Elizabeth and Emily share in “A Gala Dress” and then give to Matilda Jennings represents sisterhood, not only the biological bond the sisters share, but also the generosity and friendship they extend to their neighbor.

Elderly persons are recurrent character types in the stories, and they reveal Freeman’s concern with old-age discrimination and the value of the elderly. Older couples still go courting, work outdoors, take care of their own homes, and are—or would like to be—fully contributing members of society. Too often, however, they are ignored or devalued, as is Barney Swan in “A Village Lear.” In “On the Walpole Road,” the seventy-year-old Mrs. Green is a role model and source of wisdom to the younger woman, Almira. Harriet and Charlotte Shattuck reject the “Mistaken Charity” of their neighbors when they escape from the poorhouse to return to their dilapidated cottage outside the village; although they live there meagerly, they are nevertheless independent and beholden to no one.

Freeman does not avoid presenting the more negative aspects of small-town life in her fiction; the pernicious effects of idle gossip appear in several of the stories. The church, a central institution in her small New England towns, is just as often the source of censure and hypocrisy as of comfort and support to its parishioners. Recurrent details reveal the area’s poverty: the villagers’ meager resources, the small yields of their assiduously tended gardens, the frugality they must practice in order to survive, and the frequent mention of the poorhouse as another central village institution. Although poverty is usually material, it can also be spiritual—as is Nicholas Gunn’s until he takes in Stephen Forster. Similarly, the hypocritical Christians of “A Village Singer” and “A Mistaken Charity” do not realize until too late the ill effects of their well-intentioned interventions in their neighbors’ lives.

Some characters seek solitude as the alternative to repressive village life. Although characters such as Christmas Jenny and Nicholas Gunn seem to prefer their hermit-like status, others enjoy living alone but also value the community around them. Martha Patch is grateful for her neighbors’ aid when she has nearly starved to death; Aurelia Flower discovers the joys of motherhood without being married. Louisa Ellis, in Joe Dagget’s absence, has elevated her solitude almost to an art form, in which simple sewing and the distillation of herbal preparations bring her more pleasure than does human interaction.

Finally, echoes of Puritanism recur in Freeman’s stories and are seen as a literary legacy from Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her characters struggle with issues of conscience and against their own (and others’) strong wills. In “Conflict Ended,” Marcus Woodman steadfastly refuses to enter the Congregational church, because of a ten-year-old dispute. Adoniram Penn of “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” rejects his wife’s requests for a new house and only realizes the value of his family when Sarah Penn forces the issue by moving into the barn. The church officials’ investigation of Jenny Wrayne’s home is described as a witch-hunt in “A Christmas Jenny.” Like Hawthorne’s short stories, Freeman’s are masterpieces of psychological depth which make use of their locale’s history and unique character while conveying themes that endure beyond their temporal and spatial boundaries.

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