22 pages 44 minutes read

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

A New England Nun

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1891

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Summary: “A New England Nun”

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman’s "A New England Nun" was first published in 1891's A New England Nun and Other Stories. The collection exhibits the author’s many modes of writing, demonstrating her mastery of the Romantic, Gothic, and psychologically symbolic genres. The stories focus on the native scenery, dialogue, landscape, and values of 19th-century New England. The stories center on themes of women’s integrity and hardships, femininity versus masculinity, and the commerce and culture of the era. In the story “A New England Nun,” the protagonist refuses when she is forced to change for someone else. In doing so, she discovers herself but may not understand what she is giving up in the process. For page citations, this guide uses the 1891 edition of A New England Nun and Other Stories, available on Google books for free download.

“A New England Nun” begins with Louisa Ellis, who is serenely sewing in her sitting room. It is late in the afternoon, and the light is beginning to fade. We watch as Louisa meticulously performs her daily duties. She makes tea, prepares a meal, feeds the dog, and tidies up the house while waiting for Joe Dagget to visit. We see her finicky ways as she cares for her flawless house, canary, and old dog, Caesar, who has been chained up for roughly as long as Joe has been away because he bit a neighbor 14 years ago. Louisa and Joe have been engaged for 15 years. For 14 of those years, Joe has been in Australia to make his fortune. Louisa has patiently awaited Joe’s return, becoming more set in her solitary ways as the years have gone by.

When Joe arrives, a month before he and Louisa are to be married, both are described as uneasy. Joe sits straight-backed, fidgets with objects in the room, and eventually knocks over Louisa’s sewing basket. He visibly reddens when Louisa mentions Lily Dyer, a young woman who has been caring for Joe’s elderly mother. Louisa is unsure how to act around this large, rustic man, who seems to be upending her orderly way of life. Both feel relieved when their visit ends. When he leaves, Louisa can sweep up the dust he has tracked in and get everything back in order.

The omniscient narrator reveals the course of Joe and Louisa’s relationship. When Louisa was young, she had thought of herself as being in love with Joe, though it becomes evident that Louisa’s feelings were never as passionate as Joe’s. While Joe was gone, Louisa’s mother and brother passed away. She inherited her mother’s house and brother’s dog and grew to enjoy her quiet single life. Now Louisa feels reluctant to trade this life for the one offered by Joe. His mother lives in his house, and she is a domineering woman who would find little value in Louisa’s particular housekeeping. One of Louisa’s main fears is that Joe will free Caesar, whom she believes is vicious.

Though Louisa and Joe remain awkward around one another, Louisa continues to sew her wedding clothes while Joe continues to visit. Both Louisa and Joe feel bound by honor to their engagement. They plan on seeing the marriage through because they fear they will break the other’s heart. Even though Joe has fallen in love with Lily, he plans to honor his promise to Louisa.

When the wedding is a week away, Louisa overhears something that changes her mind. Sitting outside in the evening, resting during a late stroll, Louisa hears voices on the other side of the wall. It is Joe and Lily. Louisa listens as they talk about the feelings they have for one another and the duty they have to deny such feelings. Upon hearing this, Louisa has found a reason to end their engagement and does so. She does not mention knowing about Lily to Joe and simply states that she has gotten used to living a certain way and does not think she can change. Joe reluctantly agrees that he too thinks it is for the best. He tells Louisa to contact him should she ever need anything. He kisses her and leaves. Having broken things off, Louisa cries a little, not quite knowing why, but wakes the next morning to a great feeling of relief.

Now Joe finds himself free to marry Lily, and Louisa can be herself, a nun who has gone about creating her own hermitage. She will not sacrifice her orderly feminine home for Joe’s masculine one, and she will never experience children or passion.