Religion and Economics
Mary Wilkins Freeman wrote most of her best-known short stories in the 1880s and 1890s. They provide a unique snapshot of a particular time and place in American history. The small towns of postCivil War New England were often desolate places. The war itself, combined with urbanization, industrialization, and westward expansion, had taken most of the young able-bodied men out of the region. The remaining population was largely female and elderly. Women like Louisa Ellis, who waited many years for husbands, brothers, fathers and boyfriends to return from the West or other places they had gone to seek jobs, were not uncommon. The area was suffering from economic depression and many were forced to leave to support themselves and their families. There were many widows from the war, too, often living hand-to-mouth and trying to keep up appearances. Also common were the New England spinsters or old maids—women who, because of the shortage of men or for other reasons, never married. They were numerous enough that they contributed to the making of a stereotype we all recognize today.
Freeman knew these New England villages and their inhabitants intimately, and she used them as material for her many short stories. She said she was interested in exploring the New England character and the strong, often stubborn, New England will.
New England was settled by the Puritans during the early years of colonization in America. Vestiges of Puritanism remained in New England culture in Freeman’s day and still remain today. Freeman often said that she was interested in exploring how people of the region had been shaped by the legacy of Puritanism. This is another question she examines in many of her short stories. In “A New England Nun” we can see traces of Puritanism in the rigid moral code by which Louisa, Joe and Lily are bound. Even if it makes them unhappy, Louisa and Joe both feel obligated to go through with their marriage because of a sense of duty. Lily echoes this same sense when she says she would never marry Joe if he went back on his promise to Louisa.
Women in the Nineteenth Century
Another aspect of nineteenth-century culture— not just in New England, but throughout the United States—that we find reflected in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s short stories is that culture’s attitude toward women. While contemporary readers may find Louisa’s extreme passivity surprising, it was not unusual for a woman of her time. “Calm docility” and a “sweet, even temperament” were considered highly desirable traits in a woman. We can see that Louisa has learned these traits from her mother; and in fact, many parents raised their daughters to be much like Louisa.
Although things were beginning to change in larger towns and cities in America, in rural areas there were not many occupations open to women. As a result, while marriage was considered the most natural and desirable goal for women, it was often economically necessary as well. The skills a woman like Louisa acquired—cooking, sewing, gardening—from her own mother rather than from formal education, were intended to prepare her for a role as wife and mother. For many women like Louisa, the idea of not marrying was almost too outlandish to consider. Like Louisa they had been taught to expect to marry, and there were few if any attractive alternatives available to them. To turn down a chance to marry was considered both unnatural and foolhardy.
One important artistic influence on Freeman’s work was realism. The same turbulent forces that shaped much of nineteenth-century American culture—the Civil War, the Reconstruction of the South, the industrial revolution—also affected literary tastes. Readers no longer liked the fanciful and heroic works of romanticism. Instead they wanted literature that reflected life as it truly was. William Dean Howells was one of the important novelists in this country to champion realism. Others were Henry James and Mark Twain. Howells was a friend and mentor to Mary Wilkins Freeman. However, it is possible Freeman would have been a realist even if she had not known Howells. Realism was in vogue and realistic short stories were what sold.
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.