A number of critics have noted that the opening paragraph of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” very closely echoes the first stanza of English poet Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: The curfew lolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me. In Gray’s poem, written in the eighteenth century, the speaker wonders if the rural churchyard might contain the remains of people who had great talents that became stunted or went unrealized and unrecognized because of poverty, ignorance and lack of opportunity. He muses thai “some mule inglorious Milton” might be buried there—someone who possessed the talent of seventeenth-century poet John Millon, bul who remains ”inglorious” (or wilhoul glory) because lack of education made Ihem mule. Freeman closes her slory in Ihe same way she opens it. Louisa Ellis is sewing peacefully at her window in the lale afternoon light Thus Ihe opening and closing passages, with their allusions lo Gray’s elegy, stand as a sort of frame for the story itself, giving us a key lo one possible interpretation.
As Marjorie Pryse has demonstrated in her essay “An Uncloistered ‘New England Nun,'” Louisa Ellis is a woman with artistic impulses. She has “almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home” and has polished her windows “until they shone like jewels.” Even her lettuce is “raised lo perfection” and she occupies herself in summer “distilling the sweet and aromatic essences from roses and peppermint and spearmint” simply for the pleasure of it. Louisa might have been an artist had her society provided her with the tools and opportunity. Lacking these, she has funneled her creative impulse into the only outlet available to her. She has made her life her life’s work. Lacking paints, she has made her life like a series of still-life paintings of “delicate harmony.” Before the artist can begin to create, however, she needs a blank canvas or a clean sheet of paper.
As Perry Westbrook has noted, Louisa’s life is symbolized by her dog, Caesar, chained to his little hut, and her canary in its cage. She has become a hermit, surrounded by a “hedge of lace.” Her canary goes into a panic whenever Joe Dagget visits, representing Louisa’s own fears of what marriage might bring; and Louisa trembles whenever she thinks of Joe’s promise to set Caesar free. Like her dog and her bird she does not participate in the life of the community. Instead, she watches from her window. We might interpret Louisa’s life, her dog’s chain, and her canary’s cage as emblems of imprisonment, as does Westbrook; but they are also defenses. Caesar’s ominous-looking chain keeps the outside world away more than it restrains the dog since the dog has no desire to go anywhere. And the canary’s cage gives it a safe place to live. Likewise Louisa has found freedom in her solitary life. Just as she finds a “little clear space” among the tangles of wild growth that make her feel ”shut in” when she goes out for her walk that fateful evening, Louisa has cleared a space for herself, through her solitary, hermit-like existence, inside which she is free to do as she wishes. The space clearing gesture is a prerequisite to her creativity.
Although conditions were changing slowly, women in the nineteenth century did not have many vocational options available to them. Many of them received only a grade school education and then learned the rest of what was deemed necessary for them to know from practical experience in the home. Louisa, like her mother before her, learned to sew, cook, and garden in preparation for what was supposed to be her vocation as wife and mother. She was not taught to be a painter or musician. Hence, she channels her creative impulses into these other activities instead.
Critics have made much of the “narrowness” of Louisa’s life. Some see it as the very emblem of sterility and barrenness; yet these interpretations surely overlook the fact that the community itself is narrow. Here is a town that disapproves of even so much individuality as Louisa’s use of her good china. A rigid code of ethics is in operation here— one that dictates that Caesar must be chained for life because of one reckless act. Lily and Joe, for all their vitality and vigor, show themselves to be bound by this same narrowness. Joe determines to go through with a marriage to a woman he no longer loves because he is bound by a rigid sense of duty. Lily vows that she will not marry Joe even if he breaks off his engagement to Louisa because “honor’s honor, an’ right’s right.” Without Louisa’s intervention three people would be made miserable for the rest of their lives—all for the sake of duty. Louisa is the one who proves herself capable of stepping outside the narrow code. She alone is able to improvise an ending other than the “inevitable conclusion” the others see and a life for herself other than the one prescribed by her community. Her artistic sensibility allows her to provide a subjective, personal answer to what the rigid Puritan code of behavior sees as an objective question of right and wrong.
Furthermore, narrowness is not the same thing as sterility—or it need not be. Critics who have seen Louisa’s life as sterile are perhaps making the sexist mistake of assuming that the only kind of fertility a woman can have is the sexual kind. Because Louisa chooses not to marry and reproduce, she is then deemed “barren.” These critics have overlooked the richness inherent in Louisa’s deliberate life. She meditates as a nun might. She distills “essences,” which, as Pryse has noted, implies extracting the most significant part of life. Louisa “would have been loathe to confess how often she had ripped a seam for the mere delight of sewing it together again.” When she sets her table for tea, it takes her a long time because she does it “with as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self.” She uses the good china, not out of ostentation (there’s no one to impress, anyway), but out of a desire to get the most out of what she has. She has learned to value the process of living just as highly as the product. All her movements are “slow and still” and careful and deliberate and she savors every moment “prayerfully.”
Critics have also made much of Louisa’s passivity. We need to be careful about using twentieth century values to judge a nineteenth-century heroine. In the nineteenth century, passivity, “calm docility,” and a “sweet even temperament” were considered highly desirable traits in a woman. Parents raised their daughters to be this way; and we can see that Louisa has learned these traits from her mother (who “talked wisely to her daughter”) just as she has learned to sew and cook. Louisa is passive because that is what her society has made her. She is not, however, completely without volition. She does choose not to marry, even if only to continue her placid and passive life. The choice is an act that, as Marjorie Pryse rightly points out, sets her at odds with her community and requires some bravery on her part. Louisa would surely have been aware of the social stigma associated with being an old maid.
While we can not know Mary Wilkins Freeman’s intentions in writing “A New England Nun,” we do know she understood what it meant to be a single woman and an artist in nineteenth-century New England. She herself did not marry until the age of fifty. And while we can not know how Freeman really felt about Louisa’s placid and narrow life, we can note the tone of the story itself. Louisa’s life is narrow, partly by her own choice and partly because her culture leaves her few options. Yet she has managed to craft a rich inner life within this tightly circumscribed space. Like Thomas Gray’s “mute, inglorious Milton,” Louisa’s artistic gifts are somewhat stunted by her lack of education and largely unrecognized by her community; but they are not entirely unrealized.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Deborah M. Williams, “Overview of ‘A New England Nun,'” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.