Form and Content
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 spacious barn her recalcitrant husband has built instead of the new house she wanted. In “A Village Singer,” Candace Whitcomb refuses to accept the congregation’s decision to replace her as soprano soloist and speaks passionately against old-age discrimination.
Courtship plots frequently appear, but they receive nontraditional treatment. Louisa Ellis of “A New England Nun” has waited fifteen years for her fiancé’s return; when he finally arrives, she realizes that she prefers living on her own. In “A Patient Waiter,” Fidelia Almy has waited for her beloved’s letter over the course of forty years; she dies without getting the letter but remains pathetically hopeful to the end. Similarly, “Two Old Lovers” and “A Conflict Ended” both deal with long-term courtships. “Up Primrose Hill” has two courtship plots: In one, Maria Primrose rejected Abel Rice years before; in the other, Abel’s nephew Frank Rice and Annie Joy counterbalance the mistake of the older generation when they decide to marry.
Friendships between women are the central focus in “On the Walpole Road,” “A Gala Dress,” and “Sister Liddy.” Only two of the stories have male protagonists: “A Solitary” and “A Village Lear.” In all the stories, Freeman’s careful use of natural detail—plant and animal life, the weather, the landscape—creates vivid settings. Her use of New England dialect also contributes to the stories’ regional authenticity.
The stories are simple and to the point, without extraneous exposition. Dialogue between characters is usually brief, but Freeman’s laconic New Englanders manage to convey much meaning despite their taciturnity. The stories’ endings are often ironic; several conclude with the death of the central character. Although they are understated, Freeman’s stories contain a psychological depth and literary richness that transcend the confines of their surface details.
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...
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