“A New England Nun” opens with Louisa Ellis sewing peacefully in her sitting room. It is late afternoon and the light is waning. We see Louisa going about her daily activities calmly and meticulously; she gathers currants for her tea, prepares a meal, feeds her dog, tidies up her house carefully, and waits for Joe Dagget to visit. Joe and Louisa have been engaged for fifteen years, during fourteen of which Joe has been away seeking his fortune in Australia. Louisa has been waiting patiently for his return, never complaining but growing more and more set in her rather narrow, solitary ways as the years have passed.
During his visit, both he and Louisa are described as ill-at-ease. Joe sits “bolt-upright,” fidgets with some books that are on the table, and knocks over Louisa’s sewing basket when he gets up to leave. He colors when Louisa mentions Lily Dyer, a woman who is helping out Joe’s mother. Louisa becomes uneasy when Joe handles her books, and when he sets them down with a different one on top she puts them back as they were before he picked them up. Once he leaves, she closely examines the carpet and sweeps up the dirt he has tracked in.
Despite their awkwardness with each other, Louisa continues to sew her wedding clothes while Joe dutifully continues his visits. One evening about a week before the wedding date, Louisa goes for a walk. As she is sitting on a wall and looking at the moon shining through a large tree, she overhears Joe and Lily talking nearby. It quickly becomes apparent that they are in love and are saying what they intend to be their final good-byes to one another. Lily has decided to quit her job and go away. After they leave, Louisa returns home in a daze but quickly determines to break off her engagement. The next evening when Joe arrives, she musters all the “meek” diplomacy she can find and tells him that while she has “no cause of complaint against him, she [has] lived so long in one way that she [shrinks] from making a change.” They part tenderly. Although that night Louisa weeps, by morning she feels “like a queen who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession.”
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.