This story about a woman who finds, after waiting for her betrothed for fourteen years, that she no longer wants to get married, is set in a small village in nineteenth-century New England. Critics have often remarked that the setting is particular but also oddly universal as are the themes Freeman chooses to treat. This village is populated with people we might meet nearly anywhere in rural America.
Point of View
“A New England Nun” is told in the third person, omniscient narration. That is, the narrator is not one of the characters of the story yet appears to know everything or nearly everything about the characters, including, at times, their thoughts. For example, the narrator tells us that, after leaving Louisa’s house, Joe Dagget “felt much as an innocent and perfectly well-intentioned bear might after his exit from a china shop.”
In general terms, a symbol is a literary devise used to represent, signal or evoke something else. For example, a fading red rose might be used to symbolize the fading of a romance. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom she has been compared, Freeman was adept at using symbolism in her short stories; but her touch is lighter than Hawthorne’s.
There are many symbols in ”A New England Nun.” For example, the chained dog Caesar and the canary that Louisa keeps in a cage both represent her own hermit-like way of life, surrounded by a “hedge of lace.” The alarm the canary shows whenever Joe Dagget comes to visit is further emblematic of Louisa’s own fear of her impending marriage.
There is a great deal of symbolism associated with nature and plant life in this story. The evening Louisa goes for a walk and overhears Joe and Lily talking it is harvest time—symbolizing the rich fertility and vitality that Lily and Joe represent. Louisa, however, feels oppressed by the sexually suggestive “luxuriant” late summer growth, “all woven together and tangled;” and she is sad as she contemplates her impending marriage even though there is a “mysterious sweetness” in the air. The tumultuous growth of the wild plants reminds us of and contrasts with Louisa’s own garden, which is tidy, orderly and carefully controlled.
Louisa sits amid all this wild growth and gazes through a “little clear space” at the moon. The moon is a symbol of chastity; Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, was a chaste goddess. Louisa will later choose to continue her solitary and virginal, but peaceful life rather than tolerate the disorder and turmoil she believes married life would bring. Lily, on the other hand, embraces that life; and she is described as “blooming,” associating her with the fertile wild growth of summer.
Freeman’s work is known for its realism—a kind of writing that attempts to represent ordinary life as it really is, rather than representing heroic, fantastic, or melodramatic events. Realism, as a literary movement, began in America following the Civil War. The disruption of the war, followed by the Reconstruction of the South and widespread urbanization and industrialization greatly changed the way America looked at itself and, in turn, altered literary models. The romantic approach of the earlier generation of writers, represented by Hawthorne, Melville and Poe, gave way to a new realism. Prominent writers of the Realist movement were Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells. Freeman can be further classified as a local color writer along with Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin, who wrote about life in California, Maine, and Louisiana respectively.
Mary Wilkins Freeman has frequently been praised by critics for her economical, direct writing style. She uses short, concise sentences and wastes little time on detailed descriptions. Her characters are sketched with a few strong, simple strokes of the pen. For example, the reader never really learns what Louisa Ellis looks like, but it does not matter to the story. We know what we need to know to keep us interested and to keep the story moving. Freeman is also known for her dry, often ironic sense of humor. One critic has called it “pungent.” It is the kind of subtle humor that makes us smile rather than laugh aloud. Freeman’s portrait of Caesar, the sleepy and quite harmless old yellow dog that everyone thinks is terribly ferocious, is a good example of her humorous touch. Freeman tells us “St. George’s dragon could hardly have surpassed in evil repute Louisa Ellis’s old yellow dog.” It doesn’t matter that Caesar has not harmed anyone in fourteen years. The mere fact that he is chained makes people believe he is dangerous. “Caesar at large might have seemed a very ordinary dog” she writes, ”chained, his reputation overshadowed him, so that he lost his own proper outlines and looked darkly vague and ominous.”
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.