Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

A New England Nun and Other Stories

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A New England Nun and Other Stories Summary

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Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman’s A New England Nun and Other Stories was first published in 1891. The collection exhibits the author’s many modes of writing, demonstrating her mastery of the romantic, gothic, and psychologically symbolic while showcasing her repertoire of literary devices, such as humor, satire, and irony. The stories are considered to be within the local color genre given their focus on native scenery, native dialogue of the characters, and values of the 19th-century New England landscape. The stories center on themes of women’s integrity and hardship, the idea of masculinity, and the commerce and culture of the time and place. “A New England Nun” takes a look at what happens when a woman who is so set in her simple ways is forced to change for someone else. In doing so, she discovers herself but may not understand what she is giving up in the process.

The story that gives the book its title, “A New England Nun,” begins with Louisa Ellis, who is serenely sewing in her sitting room. It is late in the afternoon, and the light is beginning to fade. We watch as Louisa meticulously performs her daily duties. She makes tea, prepares a meal, feeds the dog, and tidies up the house while waiting for Joe Dagget to visit. We see her finicky ways as she cares for her flawless house, canary, and old dog, Caesar, who has been chained up for roughly as long as Joe has been away because he bit a neighbor 14 years ago. Louisa and Joe have been engaged for 15 years. For 14 of those years, Joe has been in Australia to seek his fortune. Louisa has patiently awaited Joe’s return without complaint while becoming more and more set in her solitary way of life as the years have gone by.

When Joe arrives, a month before he and Louisa are to be married, both are described as uneasy. Joe sits straight-backed, fidgets with objects in the room, and eventually knocks over Louisa’s sewing basket. He visibly reddens when Louisa mentions Lily Dyer, a young woman who has been aiding Joe’s mother. Louisa seems unsure of how to act around this large male, who seems to be upending her orderly way of life. Both feel relieved when their visit ends. When he leaves, Louisa can sweep up the dust he has tracked in and get everything back in order.

The omniscient narrator reveals the course of Joe and Louisa’s relationship. When Louisa was young, she had thought of herself as being in love with Joe, though it becomes evident that Louisa was never really very passionate. When Joe was gone, she inherited her mother’s house and brother’s dog and grew to enjoy her quiet single life. Now Louisa feels reluctant to trade this life for the one offered by Joe. His mother lives in his house, and she is a domineering woman who would find little value in Louisa’s particular housekeeping. One major fear she has is that Joe will free her dog. Louisa thinks he will go on a rampage throughout the neighborhood if freed.

Though they are awkward around one other, Louisa continues sewing her wedding clothes while Joe continues visiting her. Joe, however, has fallen for Lily. Both Louisa and Joe feel bound by honor to their engagement, though, and they plan on seeing the marriage through.

When the wedding is a week away, Louisa comes to change her mind. Sitting outside in the evening, resting during a late stroll, Louisa overhears as Joe and Lily talk about the feelings they have for one another and the duty they have to deny such feelings. Upon hearing this, Louisa has found a reason to end their engagement and does so. She does not mention knowing about Lily to Joe and simply states that she has gotten used to living a certain way and does not think she can change. Having broken things off, Louisa cries a little, not quite knowing why, but wakes the next morning to a great feeling of relief.

Now Joe finds himself free to marry Lily, and Louisa can be herself, a nun who has gone about creating her own hermitage. She will not sacrifice her orderly home for Joe’s disordered one, and she will not experience children or passion.

The caged canary, who beats its wings frantically whenever Joe enters the house, can be seen as a symbol for Louisa’s way of life and state of mind. The chained dog, Caesar, also acts in this capacity. Louisa has essentially caged herself off from the outside world and from new experiences. Though she is content to live within this cage she has created for herself, it serves to wonder what life would be like if she could free herself from her set ways and embrace what life has to offer.