Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

These selected stories are from two of Freeman’s most popular and critically acclaimed collections, A Humble Romance (1887) and A New England Nun (1891). The stories focus on small-town New England life and the struggles of working-class people. Most of Freeman’s protagonists are women; they are usually older, often widowed or unmarried, but still vigorous and self-supporting. Both male and female characters vacillate between wanting solitude and freedom, and needing community and support.

Freeman’s characters display heroism within their economically and geographically circumscribed existences. Strong-willed to the point of stubbornness, they support traditional values of pride, honesty, frugality, and industriousness. Martha Patch, in “An Honest Soul,” works herself to exhaustion to ensure that she has correctly pieced her neighbors’ scraps into their respective quilts. Harriet and Charlotte Shattuck of “A Mistaken Charity” live frugally in order to avoid the poorhouse; other women—Aurelia Flower of “A Gatherer of Simples,” Jenny Wrayne of “Christmas Jenny,” and Betsey Dole of “A Poetess”—also live simply, supporting them-selves by means of their own work.

Freeman’s women often defy social convention. Hetty Fifield of “A Church Mouse” persists in living inside the church and working as sexton. Sarah Penn, in “The Revolt of ‘Mother,’ ” moves the contents of her cramped house into...

(The entire section is 507 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Freeman is most often associated with a group of late nineteenth century writers known as Local Colorists, who realistically portrayed specific regions of the United States. Like her contemporary Sarah Orne Jewett, Freeman wrote about rural New England; unlike most of Jewett’s work, which idealizes small-town life, Freeman’s fiction shows the restrictions as well as the benefits of close-knit communities.

Freeman’s critical reputation derives not only from her skillful, realistic regional depictions, but also from the universality of her themes and the stark precision of her style. She received the Howells Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1926; later that same year, she was one of the first women elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Freeman’s fiction continues to appeal to audiences. She portrays women’s concerns and their interior lives with psychological depth and complexity. Far from succumbing to the limitations imposed on them, her women characters take subtle yet significant actions to assert their independence and challenge the authorities who would otherwise continue to oppress them. One of Freeman’s many accomplishments in her fiction is the creation of characters who are neither glamorous nor adventurous, but who are admirable for the courage, boldness, and assertiveness they display in their everyday lives. In their own small ways, Freeman’s characters are revolutionaries: They express feminist sensibilities that, while lacking political support, result in more equitable social and economic conditions for themselves and for others.

Like many women writers, Freeman expresses the tension between the constraint of living (and writing) according to accepted social codes and the freedom of rebelling against those norms. Her women characters reject conventionality in quiet or private but nevertheless powerful ways: by rejecting marriage, supporting themselves, and living happy, fulfilling lives outside marriage or motherhood. She realistically presents women’s economic conditions in poverty-stricken rural New England, but she never makes her characters pitiable. Instead, these women triumph over adversity; this is Freeman’s enduring legacy.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Foster, Edward. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. New York: Hendricks House, 1956. Foster’s biography of Freeman provides extensive coverage of her life and her work. Much of Foster’s biographical information comes from interviews with people who knew Freeman personally. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with A Humble Romance and A New England Nun, respectively. Contains an extensive bibliography and an index.

Glasser, Leah Blatt. “Legacy Profile: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.” Legacy 4, no. 1 (1987): 37-45. Glasser summarizes the life and work of Freeman, and discusses Freeman’s long-term friendship with Mary Wales, with whom she lived for twenty years before she married Charles Freeman.

Pryse, Marjorie. Introduction and afterword to Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Pryse edited and selected the stories in this collection. The introduction gives general background on Freeman’s life and art, placing her in the context of other New England and Local Color writers; the afterword provides critical summaries of the stories.

Pryse, Marjorie. “An Uncloistered ‘New England Nun.’” Studies in Short Fiction 20 (1983): 289-295. Pryse reevaluates “A New England Nun,” viewing Louisa Ellis’ decision to remain solitary from a positive perspective. Within the...

(The entire section is 428 words.)