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Symbolism in “A New England Nun”

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  • Pages: 8
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  • Category: Symbolism

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Mary E Wilkins Freeman’s fiction is often viewed simply as a depiction of the position of women in nineteenth-century New England. But behind the text lies an elaborate system of symbolism embracing themes from enclosure to desire. In this essay I will examine symbolism in “A New England Nun”.

            Freeman’s protagonist Louisa lives in an impeccable little home where the kitchen table sits “exactly” in the center of the room (Freeman par. 4). Her home is her haven, a “hedge of lace” (41).  She is ensconced in a space as ordered as her own placid quiet life. According to critic Janice Daniel, Louisa’s “is a life in which numerous actions, words, and attitudes imply enclosure” (par. 8).

The primary image of enclosure is the image of Louisa’s house. Critic Ann Romines also discusses Louisa’s housekeeping: “Louisa’s personality itself is inseparable from the “appurtenances” of her housekeeping, in a union of form and self, inner life and outer expression, which is quintessentially artful and is expressed through traditional tools of domesticity, contained in her sewing basket. Louisa’s housekeeping is expressly presented in terms of art. . .” (109). Romines sees Louisa and her home as one unit. Her home is the medium through which she expresses herself.

            Louisa’s belongings can also be examined symbolically. Perhaps her most prized possession is her tea service- a luxurious set of glass, china and silver. Freeman immediately identifies the unusual in Louisa’s tea service: ” Louisa used china every day– something which none of her neighbors did.

They whispered about it among themselves” (Freeman par. 4).  Daniel sees Louisa’s belongings and rituals as creating an individual space for her, defining for her ” a place in which she finds her own fulfillment”(par. 9). Her tea service is just one symbol of her rejection of society and creation of her own ideal home and life. Daniel also describes how Louisa’s choices reflect her personality:  ” Freeman is consistent with the use of enclosure images to reveal, not restrictive options, but preferences for a place that reveal individuality” (par. 13). Louisa’s house and belongings, while implying enclosure, also clearly reveal her own psyche.

            Caesar the dog can be read as another powerful symbol. He is “fat and sleepy”, rarely barks, “but there was a neighbor who bore on his hand the imprint of several of Caesar’s sharp white youthful teeth, and for that he had lived at the end of a chain, all alone in a little hut, for fourteen years”(Freeman par. 53). For a youthful transgression he has been exiled. Much like her dog, Louisa has also lived all alone for years while waiting for Joe. Critic Ben Couch examines the symbolic link between Caesar and Louisa:

            I argue that it is truly Louisa’s sexual self that suffers the remorse of having given her                 pledge too soon, thus leaving her sexual self chained, and scarring Joe with this pledge,                leaving her indelible mark on him . . . This provides us with a sort of vicious undercurrent          between the two in that Louisa has scarred Joe, implying that Joe may sub-consciously              feel that Louisa has left a violent mark on him all these years, preventing him from ex-             ploring his own sexuality”(par. 14).

According to Couch, Caesar symbolizes both Joe and Louisa’s repressed sexuality.

            Louisa’s actions often reveal a hidden symbolism. Her layering of aprons, for example, requires deeper analysis: “She heard his heavy step on the walk, and rose and took off her pink-and-white apron. Under that was still another–white linen with a little cambric edging on the bottom; that was Louisa’s company apron. She never wore it without her calico sewing apron over it unless she had a guest”(Freeman par. 8). Louisa has an apron for every occasion- even for receiving guests. She cannot put aside her apron for even a moment and thus has numerous versions of it. Critic Gregg Camfield discusses the symbolism behind the aprons:

             It is important, therefore, to read Louisa’s psychology with an appropriate appreciation              of Freeman’s tone. Louisa’s motions, if one surrenders psychoanalytic seriousness, are                    funny even as they speak to her motivations. Consider the Chinese-box parade of aprons              with which Louisa covers her genitals. Through the story, she dances a dance of a thou sand veils, removing one apron after another only to reveal yet further protection  below(“I Never” par. 30).

Louisa’s aprons are protective devices, covering her repressed sexuality and keeping her safe in her haven of female domesticity. They are another symbol of her exile from the world and from her own sexuality.

            The natural world surrounding Louisa is not without symbolic value. As the story opens the evening is beginning with “soft diurnal commotion”(Freeman par. 2) As night falls the cries of frogs and toads penetrate the silent house. The road beside her house is bordered by ” tall shrubs of blueberry and meadow-sweet, all woven together and tangled with blackberry vines and horsebriars” (Freeman par. 55). The natural world is luxuriant, loud, defiantly alive and disordered. Camfield examines the story’s setting: ” A premonition of rest and hush and night, marked by shadows, waning light, and frenetic activity that does nothing more than stir up dust that will merely subside all hints at mortality.

The sexual activity of the night, of the mating calls of frogs and toads, is a defense against mortality, but as such it is messy and fully implicated in mortality itself” (Necessary Madness 148-149). According to Camfield, this “imagery of the sexually active world” reveals through contrast the sexual inactivity of Louisa’s own life and foreshadows the advent of sexuality in the form of Joe (Necessary Madness 148).  The vividly alive nature imagery can also be seen as a desperate call to life as contrasted with Louisa’s rather lifeless existence.

         In the concluding paragraph Freeman justifies the story’s title and uses the symbolic im- gery of a rosary: “She gazed 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” (Freeman par. 83). Louisa’s very life, its safety and placidity, is an act of devotion. Romines discusses the symbolism of the rosary: “The emblem of Louisa’s plot is the rosary, an endless circle of pearls, products of nature ordered into art. The beads tell-ingly link language, repetition, and devotion, expressing the enduring female traditions of the nun. Louisa does not question her choice of the metaphoric rosary”(111). According to Romines, Louisa’s choice is an almost religious act, a wholehearted embrace of the life that makes her happy, the life that in its simple perfection has nearly ascended to art.

         “A New England Nun” is a deceptively simple story with undercurrents of elaborate symbolism. Far more than just a tale depicting the plight of a domestic homebound New England woman, the story is a complicated mix of imagery and symbolism that reveal layers of meaning.

Accompanying this symbolism is a touch of wry humor, so understated as to be often missed.  After analysis the story reveals itself to be the tense depiction of a decision fraught with desire, anxiety, and retribution. Powerful symbols mask such issues as sexuality, art, mortality, individuality, and devotion.

Works Cited

Camfield, Gregg. “”I Never Saw Anything at Once So Pathetic and Funny”: Humor in the Stories         of Mary Wilkins Freeman.” ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly) 13.3 (1999):               215.

Camfield, Gregg. Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century           American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Couch, Ben. “The No-Man’s-Land of “A New England Nun”.” Studies in Short Fiction 35.2                  (1998): 187+.

Daniel, Janice. “Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman.”

          Studies in Short Fiction 33.1 (1996): 69+.

Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins.  “A New England Nun.”  A New England Nun and Other Stories.                New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1891.  83 pars.  24 August 2004.                                         <http://www.gpc.edu/~kjohnson/classes/readings/ newenglandnun.htm>.

Romines, Ann. Women, Writing & Domestic Ritual Women, Writing & Domestic Ritual.

         Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.


Camfield, Gregg. “”I Never  Saw Anything at Once So Pathetic and Funny”: Humor in the         Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman.” ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly) 13.3    (1999): 215.

         A short but concise article that analyzes the often-overlooked aspect of Freeman’s fiction-humor. Camfield begins by describing comedy and its evolution through the ages from its early form as amiable educational satire to the more modern view of comedy as “veiled aggression”(par. 3) He references thinkers such as Hobbes and Hutcheson to define comedy and then builds upon that definition to show the comedy in Freeman’s fiction. The article is easy to read and gives a good short background of the evolution of comedy.

Camfield, Gregg. Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century           American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

         This is a long scholarly book that examines images of domesticity in fiction. It covers such authors as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Washington Irving and Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as Freeman. Specifically it discusses humor and its facets-irony, satire, and comedy.  Camfield moves beyond the feminist criticism with which early American literature is often analyzed and opens up new vistas in various texts. An excellent book which points out humor where many would be afraid to.

Couch, Ben. “The No-Man’s-Land of “A New England Nun”.” Studies in Short Fiction 35.2                  (1998): 187+.

         A short article which examines the text symbolically, specifically pointing out sexual symbols and analyzing in greater depth the relationship between Louisa and Joe. Couch’s analysis of symbols such as the dog, the house, and the aprons is incisive and keen. However, the end of the article is slightly farfetched-Couch suggests that Louisa’s sewing is a symbol of masturbation but there is very little in the text to support his idea. Overall a great article as long as it is viewed with some skepticism at the conclusion.

Daniel, Janice. “Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman.”

         Studies in Short Fiction 33.1 (1996): 69+.

         A short, well written and well supported article examining Freedman’s use of “spheres” or physical places. Mainly about setting, it analyzes themes of enclosure running throughout the text of two of Freeman’s stories and postulates that Freeman’s women protagonists are similar to the “covered women” of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. It also examines objects in the story such as the aprons. Daniel argues that Louisa’s physical enclosure enables her to find true happiness. An excellent article with innovative views on setting, conformity, and individuality.

Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing & Domestic Ritual . Amherst: University of   Mssachusetts Press, 1992.

         This is a long scholarly book that examines the work of female writers such as Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sarah Orne Jewett as well as Freeman. Examines the role of women in the nineteenth century and analyzes how this role was reflected in fiction. Describes the ritual of domesticity and the changing roles of female writers. Examines without prejudice the role domesticity has in shaping women’s lives. A great unbiased book that discusses issues that are still relevant today and gives full weight to the importance of a woman’s work-whether it be writing or housekeeping.

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