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"A New England Nun" by: Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman Literary Criticism

By Edited Mar 2, 2014 2 1

One's Choice equals their Consequence

            Human beings from the beginning of time have had to deal with the results of their decisions. Whether there good choices or bad, the consequences is waiting for them. In literature many works have become famous and drawn their readers in because of the main character having to make a choice and  are faced to live with that choice. Many of these literary works falls in the category of the nineteenth century woman. In this time her choices were limited not so much because she was forced to do something, but because she would let society pressure her into certain decisions. Freeman uses the character Louisa in “A New England Nun,” to show just how some women rebelled against the norm and made a choice against the options given in her time and in the end was satisfied with the consequences that she had to endure.

             This theme created by Freeman in this particular story could be analyzed from many angles, but in the end they all revolve around Louisa and her choices or else there would not be a story. This story pulls the reader in through the way Louisa has decided to live her life for the last fifth teen years. She lives in isolation and with a daily routine that never changes and has order. “Louisa Ellis could not remember that ever in her life she had mislaid one of these little feminine appurtenances, which had become, from long use and constant association, a very part of her personality.” (444) Louisa lifestyle of chosen isolation had become a part of who she was as a person, but most of all a woman in her time.

            The nineteenth woman was one that lived and chose a different lifestyle from Louisa. “The notion that men and women were divided into separate worlds, the public male and the private, domestic female, has influenced the way that historians interpret women’s lives… Following the introduction of the ‘cult of true womanhood’ and ‘the perfect day’, it was argued that women were situated in a domestic sphere that promoted the feminine virtues of mortality and motherhood.” (Welter) Hamlett and Wiggins argue in their article that the separation was  with the men and the women and although I do believe this statement, I also feel there is separation within the society of women in this time. For example, in a community of housewives, the women carry themselves to the world as if their actions revolve around their husbands and children. This is not true to a certain degree. These women live up to a standard made by the other women in the community. They must look and dress a certain way, have the best looking yard and throw the best social events and so on. The woman in the community that sets a part from the rest is not the woman who is the best at being a typical housewife, but because she is seen as taboo, hence Louisa.

            Louisa did sew, cook and clean like the other women in her society, but she did this in isolation and she did these things without having a husband and children. The closest thing she had to taking care of anyone was her dog that she kept in isolation as well. M. Jeanne Peterson makes a strong defense in favor of my argument using the Paget woman. The Paget women were upper-middle class women that chose to go against the typical, model woman in their time, thus seeking employment, education and physical activity, all which are against the norm. With these actions there were consequences. The women can be assumed to be viewed  as intimidating to the men in their society. These same women were also set a part from the other woman and raise the question which woman was the better woman? The independent woman or the woman who depends on her husband and takes care of the household. The Paget women’s chose was to be independent on a masculine level while Louisa chose to be independent on a feminine level. 

            Other choices Louisa made on the feminine level were one of agreeing to be a part of a fifteen yearlong courtship with Joe Dagget. For a woman that carries herself in a way that is content with being alone, one may wonder why she decided to enter a contract like courtship, but this choice better explains why she would do this. “They were to be married in a month, after a singular courtship which had lasted for a matter of fifteen years. For fourteen out of the fifteen years the two had not once seen each other, and they had seldom exchanged letters.” (447) This one decision opened the door for many other options for her and the future. Being that she was in a courtship she was able to use this to her advantage and use the loyalty as a way to remain  to herself. If Louisa wanted the lifestyle of the woman of her time, she could have relieved herself from this courtship and become a part of another courtship so that she could care for a home with her husband and have children of her own. Her choice to stay and stay loyal to Joe Dagget caused her to continue to stay celibate which meant she would not have children. To respect her name she was not a woman with a lot of men as visitors if she even had any visitors. “She had been faithful to him all these years. She had never dreamed  the possibility of marrying anyone else. Her life, especially for the last seven years, had been full of a pleasant peace, she had never felt discontented nor impatient over her lover’s absence;” (447) Therefore Louisa’s outcome in the end of living the life alone with just her home, Caesar, sewing and cooking while having the joy of looking out while she stays in was a result that she was content with, not one that she regretted.

            Freeman’s climax of the story was when the reader was revealed some truths about Joe Dagget and the life he lived outside of Louisa. Lily Diver was another female character in this story that could be viewed as an antagonist to Louisa the protagonist in the sense that they were two women in the nineteenth century and in the same society that walked down different paths. Freeman brings in some characteristics of Lily through the eyes of the people in the village. “Lily Dyer was a favorite with the village folk; she had just the qualities to arouse the admiration. She was good and handsome and smart.” (450) It can be assumed the type of young woman Lily was, was one in the town that lived up to the standard and a woman walking on the path that was set before her. This is the same path that Louisa could have taken, but Louisa decided not to. In the story it is not until Lily’s heart comes into the argument with Joe that we see her make a choice that was unorthodox for a woman of her stature or in her traditional time. “I’ll never marry any other man as long as I live. I’ve got good sense, an’ I ain’t going to break my heart nor make a fool of myself; but I’m never going to be married, you can be sure of that. I ain’t that sort of a girl to feel this way twice.” (451) This statement made by Lily to Joe does differ from Louisa and her decision to in the end choose not to marry.

            In comparing Lily and Louisa and how both of them make similar, but different choices, it seems like a cause and effect situation between the two. With Lily she could not have the man she loved so she was willing to become a woman like Louisa and isolate herself from love and others because of her unhappiness. Louisa made her finally decision because hearing Lily and the love that Joe did in fact have for Lily she chose to let them have love and cancelled her marriage with Joe. Louisa could have done this too because she saw it as an escape out of a lifestyle she did not want to have. From the beginning of the story, the reader sees how uncomfortable Joe and Louisa are with how with one another. “He was afraid to stir lest he should put a clumsy foot or hand through the fairy web, and he had always the consciousness that Louisa was watching fearfully lest he should.” (447) The only compatibility the two had with one another was loyalty, but as far as Louisa wanted to live the rest of her life, is questionable because her life now was fine as it was.

            During the nineteenth century and even further back into history a marriage could be seen as an agreement with two people coming together to help the other out by living together and doing for one another. In Joe and Louisa’s marriage the agreement was more based on keeping a promise with one another. Traditionally according to Ranum, there were certain patterns in the common marriage. He looked at histories past marriages through literature as well through Victorian poetry. Through the story of Arthur he gives examples in literature and works by stating how in a story or poem the woman’s characters had a purpose and standard they had to meet. “Female characters are empowered to the extent that they fulfill the expectations of the dominant culture, and they are vilified when they fall afoul of society’s expectations.” (Ranum) Looking at Louisa through this argument she is  a character that goes against the custom, but she is not so much a villain because of the way Freeman portrays her in the story. The fact that she decided to sacrifice her promised marriage and possibility of Joe’s company and a change in her daily routine causes her to not be seen as the villain, but as the hero where in the end it seems like everyone is happy; the happily ever after fairytale ending for each character. 

            Louisa as a character and woman in this time made choices that were sealed once made and she indeed had to face and live with the consequences. To some it may seem as though this comment is too harsh for the situation, but it is not. Louisa was not forced in any way to feel the way she did or to choose the path she in the end chose. She could have decided to break her loyalty with Joe and eventually married, she could have decided to go through with marrying Joe even after hearing the conversation between Joe and Lily and lastly she could have continued sewing on her wedding dress in hopes of replacing Joe, but she did not. Louisa was content and pleased with her choices. Even though the entire time Louisa could have lived a life literally according to the title of the story, she did not in words, but in actions. She chose a life of a nun. Isolation, organization, a life without a lover, celibacy and content with it all, especially the ending results of this lifestyle as a nun. 

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Comments

Oct 15, 2012 1:04pm
Ernie
Thank you for a very interesting article. I really enjoyed to read it. Thumbs up!
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