Freeman tells the story of Louisa Ellis, a young woman who, due to circumstances beyond her own control, becomes the embodiment of a nun of a different cloth. Louisa patiently waits 14 years for her fiance Joe Dagget to return from his fortune-seeking in Australia. During this time Louisa learns to value her solitary life. Her days are spent ripping out seams for the joy of resewing them, distilling her herbs and flowers, and eating her meals off fine china (Baym et al. , 2008 p. 1621, 1624).
When Joe suddenly returns, Louisa’s peaceful way of living is threatened. Through the use of subtle irony and a nun-like character, Freeman demonstrates how a woman forced into a life of independence comes to desire it rather than the socially accepted role of wife. Freeman uses an understated touch of irony when describing the circumstances which lead to Louisa’s independence. After being engaged for a short time, Joe leaves Louisa to go make his fortune before settling down. Adhering to society’s beliefs that a woman must acquiesce to man, Louisa sends Joe away with a kiss, never thinking his absence would span fourteen years.
Louisa waits year after year for Joe and “always looked forward to his return and their marriage as the inevitable conclusion of things” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1624). It is the marriage waiting at the end of this separation which keeps Louisa from being ridiculed by society. However, it is this socially accepted situation which later teaches Louisa to love her independence. Epitomizing the nun-like quality of purity, Louisa chastely awaits the return of Joe. During this time Louisa was happy on her own and “never dreamed of the possibility of marrying anyone else” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1623).
While this may seem to hold romantic notions, it is anything but. Freeman states that “for Louisa the wind (of romance) had never more than murmured; now it had gone down, and everything was still” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1624). Through this quote, Freeman shows that Louisa’s feelings for Joe (the wind) were slight at best, and had since died down to nothing during his absence. Despite her lack of any affectionate feelings for Joe, Louisa embodies purity by remaining true to him. Seven years into Joe’s absence Louisa is pushed completely into a life of solitary. Louisa loses the last of her family, her mother and brother.
Joe’s return threatens Louisa’s solitary, peaceful lifestyle which he unwittingly created by leaving for such a long period of time. While mourning her impending loss of freedom, Louisa is determinably resigned to the fact that she will have to set aside her “senseless old maiden ways” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1624) in order to perform the duties of a wife and daughter- in- law. While upset about the changes this will bring about- a large home to clean, a husband and mother- in- law to care for, people to entertain, and a loss of time for herself- Louisa willingly accepts her new lot in life.
Accepting that her primary role will now be to serve others, she clearly demonstrates her dutiful nature. Adding another piece of irony to the story, Louisa overhears a conversation between Joe and Lily Dyer. The clandestine interview reveals that Joe is also going along with the wedding, not because of social expectations, but because he “ain’t going back on a woman that’s waited for me fourteen years, an’ break her heart” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1627). Once realizing that Joe is no more in love with her than she is with him, Louisa breaks off the engagement.
Freeman writes, “she (Louisa) felt like a queen who, after fearing lest her domain be rested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1628). Louisa is able to maintain her independent lifestyle while at the same time remaining true to herself by sparing Joe’s feelings. In a final subtle stroke of irony, Freeman compares Louisa’s newly won, socially scorned, independent lifestyle to one of the most accepted solitary lifestyles of the era- a nun. “She azed ahead through a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary; every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1628). The rosary beads are symbolic not just of how Louisa has been spending her days, but are also symbolic of a nun’s lifestyle of simplicity, purity, and prayer. For Louisa, not conforming to society’s roles and expectations of matrimony was not a matter of principle.
It was something she had been pushed into, learned to love, and refused to give up. Having saved her independent lifestyle of peace and solitude, Louisa was happy to continue her life “prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloistered nun” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 1628). In this line, Freeman makes it explicitly clear that Louisa was content to continue on with her celibate lifestyle. Louisa truly became “A New England Nun” of a different cloth. Through the use of subtle ironies Mary E.
Wilkins Freeman skillfully tells the story of her nun-like character Louisa Ellis. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” exemplifies her belief that women don’t need to be identified by a man. Nor do they need a man to find fulfillment in their lives. This is a theme that is just as relevant today as it was in the 19th century. References Baym, N. , Franklin, W. , Gura, P. , Klinkowitz, J. , Krupat, A. , Levine, R. , et al. (2008). The norton anthology of american literature. New York: W. M. Norton & Company, Inc.
Read: Everyday Use-Alice Walker – https://www.acpsd.net/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=6626