Choices and Consequences
One important theme in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” is that of the consequences of choice. Louisa is faced with a choice between a solitary and somewhat sterile life of her own making and the life of a married woman. She has waited fourteen years for Joe Dagget to return from Australia. During this time she has, without realizing it, “turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm, serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side.” If she marries Joe, she will sacrifice a great deal of her personal freedom, her quiet way of life, and many of her favorite pastimes. On the other hand, if she chooses to remain single, she faces the disapproval of the community for rebelling against custom (women were expected to marry if they could); the villagers already disapprove of her use of the good china on a daily basis. She also faces the probability of growing old alone with no children to care for her. In the end, when Louisa discovers Joe is in love with Lily Dyer and breaks off the engagement, she feels more relief than regret. She sacrifices her “birthright” in favor of her independence; she chooses to remain alone, in “placid narrowness.”
Courage and Cowardice
Another important and related theme in “A New England Nun” is the relationship between courage and cowardice. Mary Wilkins Freeman shows us that it is often difficult to make decisions. For example, it takes all the ”meek” courage and diplomacy Louisa Ellis can muster to break off her engagement with Joe Dagget; and she shows more courage than he, perhaps, in being able to broach the subject. Furthermore, it is courageous for a woman of her time to choose to remain single given the social stigma of being an old maid or spinster. Yet it is her fear of marriage and the disruption it represents that prompts her to find this courage. Joe Dagget demonstrates courage, too, in his willingness to go ahead with the marriage. He knows he is in love with another woman but is willing to sacrifice his own happiness for what he believes is the happiness of the woman who has waited fourteen years for him to return from Australia. Yet, there is something cowardly about Joe, too. He is unable to tell Louisa the truth about his feelings even when she has told him she no longer wishes to get married.
Search for Self
Louisa Ellis moves toward greater self-knowledge through the course of the story’s action. In the beginning we see a person who, while sweet and serene, is the very model of passivity. She agreed to marry Joe Dagget because her mother advised her to do so. She waited patiently for him for fourteen years without once complaining or thinking of marrying someone else. And when he returns and she discovers she does not love him and does not want to get married, she plans to go through with it anyway because she doesn’t want to hurt Joe. She finally breaks off the engagement a week before the wedding; but even then she does so because she finds out Joe is in love with Lily, not because she decides to assert her own will. However, she does realize, after coming so close to sacrificing her freedom, how much she cherishes her ”serenity and placid narrowness.” While it is true Louisa has only returned to the passive life she has been leading all these years, she returns to it as a result of active choice—perhaps the one active choice she has made in her whole life. In making this choice, she has chosen her self and her own “vision” of life.
Duty and Responsibility
Duty and responsibility are important themes in “A New England Nun” and they were important issues for the New England society Freeman portrays. People were expected to be self-sacrificing and to put responsibility, especially to family or community, ahead of personal happiness. Freeman shows us, however, that too rigid a definition of duty can be dangerous. Both Louisa and Joe are willing to go through with a marriage neither of them really wants any longer because of a sense of duty. It is to this same notion of duty that Lily refers when she says “Honor’s honor, an’ right’s right.” Adhering to this rigid notion of duty and responsibility would make three people miserable and accomplish nothing worthwhile.
Flesh vs. Spirit
The conflict between flesh and spirit is a theme that runs through “A New England Nun” and is depicted through a variety of striking images. Louisa’s solitary life is largely a life of the spirit, or, as she says, of “sensibility.” It is contrasted with the life of the flesh as represented by marriage which, of course, implies sexuality. Throughout the story we find pairs of images that stand for the conflict between the two. The sexually suggestive “luxuriant” wild growth, all “woven and tangled together,” where fruit is ripening, is contrasted with Louisa’s carefully clipped and controlled little vegetable garden where she grows cool lettuce that she cuts up daintily for her meals. The “order and cleanliness” and “purity” of her home are contrasted with the “disorder and confusion” she imagines represent married life. Indeed she actually sweeps away Joe Dagget’s tracks after he has been in her house, symbolically trying to keep at bay all that he represents. And finally, we have Louisa sitting placidly once again at her window sewing at the end of the story while Lily Dyer walks past outside. Louisa is as contained as her canary in its cage or her old yellow dog on his chain, an “uncloistered nun” who “prayerfully” numbers her days. Lily is outside with the ”busy harvest of men and birds and bees” and she is “erect and blooming” in the “fervid summer afternoon.” Lily has, of course, embraced the very life Louisa has rejected. She will marry Joe in Louisa’s place.
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.