“A Village Singer” is an 1889 short story by American author Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. The singer of the title is Candace Whitcomb, an aging soprano who has been ousted from the choir of her New England village meetinghouse in favor of her nephew’s lover, Alma Way. The story first appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine
in July 1889.
The story begins with the sound of the wind in the forest beyond the village. This sound is heard in the meetinghouse, where the whole village has congregated for the Sunday service. Today, for the first time, Alma Way is leading the village choir. She has been brought in to replace Candace Whitcomb, whom it is generally agreed is losing her voice with age.
Alma has a solo. She is nervous: “The most formidable mountain height of the world, self-distrust and timidity, arose before her, but her nerves were braced for its ascent.” Nevertheless, when she opens her mouth she sings well, and the congregation nods with satisfaction.
Through the open window comes the sound of another woman’s voice, singing a different hymn to a different tune; it is Candace Whitcomb, singing along to her parlor organ in the open window of her cottage, which stands near the church.
Alma is so distressed that she struggles to keep singing. The congregation pities her fiercely. One woman gives her a peppermint. However, later Alma has another solo, and again, Candace can be heard, trying her best to sing over her younger rival.
Afterward, the whole village rallies round to comfort Alma, including William Emmons, the elderly tenor who in the past has been romantically linked to Candace. The minister, Mr. Pollard, offers Alma his apologies and tells her he will speak to Candace. Alma’s lover, Wilson Ford, is waiting for her outside. Wilson is Candace’s nephew, and he is furious with his aunt. He threatens to go round and destroy her parlor organ, but Alma tells him that Mr. Pollard has promised to resolve the situation. Wilson is especially outraged that his aunt should have behaved so badly after the choir gave her a photograph album and a surprise party.
Wilson takes Alma home to his mother, and the narrator takes the opportunity to explain that although the couple has been together for ten years, they cannot marry because Wilson doesn’t want Alma to have to live with his difficult mother, Mrs. Ford. Privately, Alma would rather live with Mrs. Ford than be single. She is losing her looks, although Wilson doesn’t see it.
The story’s point of view
switches to Mr. Pollard as he arrives at Candace’s house. She does not invite him in, but he presses through the door. He explains to Candace that her singing was audible in the meetinghouse, professing to believe that Candace could not have realized it.
To his horror, Candace admits straight out that she deliberately disturbed Alma’s singing. She unfolds her grievances at length: she does not believe that she is losing her voice, and even if she is, she considers it unchristian of the villagers to fire her after so many years’ loyal service. She asks Mr. Pollard how he would feel if he were replaced by a younger preacher, and she points out that William Emmons is older than her and is still allowed to sing. She shows the minister that she is using the photograph album given to her by the choir as a footstool. She explains that the choir tricked her: first, they threw the surprise party—which no-one had ever done for her before—then they left her the album, which contained a note revealing that she had been fired.
Mr. Pollard decides that Candace is losing her mind, and he invites her to pray with him. She refuses. The narrator notes that Candace has always in the past been scrupulously respectful of clergymen, but “a New England nature has a floodgate, and the power which it releases is an accumulation.”
Candace declares that she will go on singing during Alma’s solos, and that evening she is as good as her word. After the service, Wilson bursts angrily into her house and threatens to destroy her organ. She disinherits him. As she goes to bed that night, Candace sees that a forest fire is raging in the trees nearby.
The next morning, she feels ill, and she recognizes at once that she is dying. She sends for Mrs. Ford, who nurses her. From her deathbed, she asks Mrs. Ford to dust off the photograph album, and she apologizes to Mr. Pollard. Finally, she asks for Wilson and Alma to visit. She tells Wilson she is leaving him her house so he can marry Alma, and she asks Alma to sing “Jesus, lover of my soul.”
Alma is much moved, but she sings beautifully:
“Candace lay and listened. Her face had a holy and radiant expression. When Alma stopped singing it did not disappear, but she looked up and spoke, and it was like a secondary glimpse of the old shape of a forest tree through the smoke and flame of the transfiguring fire the instant before it falls. ‘You flatted a little on — soul,’ said Candace.”