Chains of love - An analysis of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun”

Term Paper, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 1,8

Free online reading


1. Introduction

2. Plot Summary

3. Narrative Perspective

4. Obsessions with Objects and the Need for Self-fulfillment

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. General Bibliography on Mary W. Freeman’s “A New England Nun

1. Introduction

“A New England Nun“ presents a late 19th century woman who is at a possible turning point in her life. She spent fourteen years in solitude and isolation, waiting for her lovers return. Yet, now that her fiancé has returned the prospect to enter marriage strikes her with awe. The aim of this examination of the short story by Mary Wilkins Freeman is to reveal the protagonist’s underlying habitual patterns that lead to her fear. In doing so, the focus will be on her relationship with objects and her joy at inane activities. Unfortunately, the restriction of word number will not allow presenting the totality of literary devices which Freeman uses to communicate the image of Louis Ellis. Nevertheless, it is the narrative perspective and some preeminent examples which will obtain priority. The eventual aim is to solve the underlying moral questions, namely “Is Louisa a strong or weak character?” and “Does her decision to become a spinster present a happy ending to the story?”.

2. Plot Summary

The setting of the story is a small town in New England. Louisa Ellis lives all by herself in a remote house, except for her dog Caesar and a canary in a cage. Fifteen years ago her first love Joe Dagget asked her to marry him, but soon after the engagement left the country to seek his fortune in Australia. However, he promised to return and marry Louisa. In the course of the fourteen years until his return Louisa always remained faithful to him and got used to living alone. She spends her days with housework, typical “maiden works”, such as sewing, cleaning, and cooking. She takes great delight in these duties and cares affectionately for her pets and possessions. For instance, she bakes corn cakes for her dog Caesar which had to spend the last fourteen years on a leach for having bit a neighbor and accordingly was ill-reputed to be a bloodthirsty monster.

The story recounts an evening on that Joe pays a visit to Louisa. He has finally returned to New England and is still eager to keep his promise to marry Louisa. The subjects of their conversation are quite trivial. They talk about the weather and Joe’s mother, as well as Lily Dyer, who nurses her. After about an hour he leaves again. Not only the canary got overly excited about Joe’s visit but also Louisa feels disturbed by the chaos Joe left, e.g. he changed the order of the books on her coffee table and he knocked over her sewing basket. While Louisa cleans she ponders about her upcoming wedding and laments that she will have to leave most of her possessions behind when she moves into Joe and his mother’s house. Furthermore, the fact that Joe wants to free Caesar raises great fear in Louisa.

A few evenings later, one week before the wedding, she goes for a walk. When she sits down to rest on a wall that is abundantly covered with berry bushes, she coincidentally overhears a conversation between her fiancé and Lily Dyer. She learns of their feelings for each others, but also of Joe’s intention to keep his promise to Louisa.

The next day, she breaks her engagement. Yet, she explains to Joe that she had grown too accustomed to her life in solitude to commit a change. She does not mention Lily or the fact that she overheard their conversation. Joe accepts her decision and leaves. Eventually, Louisa is content and anticipates a life in solitude and complete harmony.

3. Narrative Perspective

A New England nun reveals a multitude of literary devices. The characters, the environment, the objects mentioned in the story, and in a way the story itself all function to represent different themes. The central theme, to which most of the sub-themes contribute, however, is Louisa Ellis as a nun-like character, a New England woman at the end of the 19th century. Louisa Ellis is the protagonist of this story which is told from a third-person-narrative point of view. The fact that Louisa functions as a reflector figure for the narrative becomes clear in the very first lines of the story:

It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning. There was a difference in the look of the tree shadows out in the yard. […] There seemed to be a general stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence – a very premonition of rest and hush and night.[1]

The perception of the fictional world is highly subjective, as the notion that there was a “difference in the look of the trees” and the “arising stir for the mere sake of subsidence” indicate. Due to his omniscient ability an authorial narrator would as well be aware of these facts, and could hint the changes in the look of the trees to the reader, but it is more likely here, that the narration is a perception of the world according to the main character. For instance, later on, the reader learns that Louisa uses her china tableware everyday, a habit that is regarded with resentment in her neighbors. The information about the neighbors attitude towards Louisa is not presented in an authorial narration though, but again as Louisa’s anticipation.[2] A New England Nun accordingly does not only present a personal narrator, but a covert, homodiegetic narrator. The narrator focuses not only on a character, but is positioned within the story. It is Louisa Ellis who tells the story through the use of free indirect discourse. The example given above is only one passage were this becomes obvious. A clear prove is the following sentence: “Joe, buoyed up as he was by his sturdy determination, broke won a little at the last, but Louisa kissed him with a mild blush, and said good-by.”[3] The spelling of good-bye in this sentence reflects the New English accent. A dialogue between Joe and Lily later in the story also shows much of this way to recreate the people’s way of speaking. In contrast to the discussion between Joe and Lily, the presented sentence is not direct speech, but told from a third-person point of view, and therefore free indirect discourse. The description of Joe’s mother as a “domineering, shrewd old matron”[4] is another clear example of the free indirect discourse.

The question “Who speaks?” becomes disarranged when the character Joe Dagget enters the story. Up until this point the narration focuses primary on Louisa’s life. After a dialogue between them several flashbacks function to tell the story of Louisa and Joe’s past and the feelings they had for each other. The reader obtains insight into both character’s mental state of being. Is the personal narration shifted to Joe? In fact, the narration only seems to devolve. The passage about Joe’s feelings towards Louisa claim that Joe was still in love with Louisa and that “the old winds of romance whistled as loud and sweet as ever through his ears”.[5] If this was really told from Joe’s perspective there would have to be an indication at his affair with Lily. As a matter of fact, the reader is fooled. Joe is not in love with Louisa anymore, but now loves Lily. Louisa, being the narrating character, does not know about this though, but anticipates that he still loves her. In contrast to this, Louisa’s emotional change is assured several times, for instance in the notion: “Louisa’s first emotion when Joe Dagget came home […] was consternation, […].”[6] The assumption that there was a shift in the narration is therefore wrong. Even if the reader seems to get insight into Joe’s thoughts and feelings, he is actually presented an anticipation of what Louisa believes Joe to think. The objective world is only presented through dialogue; everything else is the subjective point of view of Louisa.

Hence, the narrator is not reliable and the apparently “happy ending” becomes questionable. The composition of the final scene reflects the first scene of the story. Again, it is nature that is used as a catalyst to convey Louisa’s feelings. However, now it is presented as calm and peaceful.

Outside was the fervid summer afternoon; the air was filled with the sounds of the busy harvest of men and birds and bees; there were halloos, metallic clatterings, sweet calls, and long hummings. Louisa sat, prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloistered nun.[7]

The image from the beginning is iterated, but changed. This elliptic construction of the text creates unity and the image that changed for the better appears to represent the happy ending, the happy future that is ahead Louisa. As a matter of fact, this is again only an anticipation by Louisa. A nun-like existence, isolated from the world is, objectively regarded, not desirably. She withdraws herself not only from her former love, but strives to become a spinster. The notion “her heart went up in thankfulness”[8] is a lie, not only to the reader, but also to herself. However, due to the fact, that she is the narrator of the story, and she assures herself of her happiness, the whole world is presented sweet and harmonious. Nature functions as an allegory to convey this image. The exterior world is used to present Louisa’s interior world. It is mentioned just a little lines earlier that she cried the night after she broke her engagement.[9] This indicates her sadness, her true state of emotions which she suppresses.

Suppression is one of the major themes of the story, and will be discussed in detail later on, along with the allegories, similes and symbols that serve to convey this subject matter. It is important here do to note that all these literary devices have to be examined taking into account the fact that the narrator is not reliable.

In conclusion, Louisa is not only the protagonist and the narrator of the story, but also the subject matter of the text. Her perception of the world, her attitude towards love and her mental issues are in the center of the text. The narrative technique used by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman serves to mediate the picture of this New English woman very graceful. The narrative does not point at Louisa’s weaknesses, but lets her present herself. The reader does not judge over her, but identifies with Louisa Ellis and that way maybe comprehends why a future in spinsterhood can be desirable.

4. Obsession with Objects and the Need for Self-fulfillment

Louisa Ellis life as a nun is defined by the way in which she takes care of her home, with great accuracy and concentration. At the same time, her daily maiden duties bring her great pleasure in life; if anything, they are the only source of pleasure. In addition to sewing and taking care of her pets Louisa spends lots of time arranging her so-called “maidenly possessions”. So much the worse appears the prospect to marry Joe and move into his house, because she will then have to leave many of her treasuries behind.[10] Her difficulties to part with these objects show her relation to these, in actual fact, simple and inanimate things. For her, they are “dear friends”.[11] Monika M. Elbert has pointed out that Louisa’s possessions serve as substitution for social relations.[12] Louisa fairly leaves her house and lives completely isolated from other town inhabitants. If ever people come close to her house they pass by in hurry fearing the old dog in the garden. Furthermore, Louisa does not attempt to socialize with other people; she devotes all her energy towards her household. According to Elbert, it is a characteristic feature of Freeman’s protagonists to project hidden and suppressed desires onto household objects. To that respect, Elbert, by relating to Freud’s theory, defines the objects as a fetish. A fetish is commonly known to be an inanimate object to which a certain attachment is maintained, e.g. a sexual attachment. The person who establishes the fetish fixates on this objects and it becomes a substitution for the actual desire. The reason for people to create a fetish is, as Elbert also notes, fear and frustration. Louisa surely is a person suffering from these concerns. As a young girl she fell in love with a man who promised to marry her, but left shortly after the engagement. She stayed in New England with her family, but again she was left alone when first her mother, and then even her brother died. The last years in Louisa’s life were dominated by solitude and isolation. Even though her life is described as pleasant and fulfilled in the short story, the analysis of the narrative perspective proved that this information is not credible. Indeed, it is the narrative perspective that makes her tendency for suppression explicit.


[1] Mary R. Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997), [p.] 39

[2] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 40

[3] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 43

[4] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [pp.] 44-45

[5] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 44

[6] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 43

[7] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 49

[8] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 49

[9] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 49

[10] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 44

[11] Reichard, A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, [p.] 44

[12] Monika M. Elbert, The Displacement of Desire: Consumerism and Fetishism in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Fiction, Legacy: A Journal of American Woman Writers, 19:2 (2002): 192-215

12 of 12 pages


Chains of love - An analysis of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun”
University of Paderborn  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Object Matter - Modern American Fiction and the Culture of Things
Catalog Number
File size
424 KB
Chains, Mary, Wilkins, Freeman’s, England, Nun”, Object, Matter, Modern, American, Fiction, Culture, Things
Quote paper
Juliane Ungänz (Author), 2007, Chains of love - An analysis of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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