Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930): “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ ” (1891) & Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941): “Winesburg, Ohio” (1919)

Critical Analysis

Seminar Paper, 2007

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ “

Sherwood Anderson: “Winesburg, Ohio”



HABE Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!”[1] This saying by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the main representatives of the epoch of enlightenment, says: “Have courage to help yourself with your own brain!” It is much more than just a dogmatic proverb, which can be seen by the fact that it has not only revolutionized humanity’s confidence in its own mind in an age when self-reliant mental activity was a foreign word, but also by its timelessness. There’s reason to argue its applicability both in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ “, written in 1891, and Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio”, composed in 1919. However, making use of autonomous thoughts does very often only avail if those are articulated adequately. Both works state that an inability or reluctance to express oneself respectively results in a loss of self-determination.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ “

Adoniram Penn, husband of the story’s main character Sarah Penn, hardly ever talks throughout the course of the tale. Yet, in the beginning, it is him giving instructions, although they are “almost as inarticulate as a growl”.[2] His success and the patriarchal society in those days allow him to be the only subject at home to talk at any time. Keeping this in mind, it is quite obvious that he doesn’t make use of his linguistic power too frequently. The author conveys the impression that ‘Father’ feels annoyed by any questionings and thus is neither a very sociable nor a talkative person at all. When ‘Mother’ asks him about the artisans graving nearby their house, “there was a sudden dropping and enlarging of the lower part of the old man’s face, as if some heavy weight had settled therein”.[3] Indeed, another massive burden called ‘need to communicate’ has just been imposed on an already depleted social part of the person.

Taking Sarah Penn in the focus, she is at the outset described as meek, but the “meekness had been the result of her own will, never of the will of another.”[4] The author could not have made a clearer statement about the woman’s personality. The readership is supposed to anchor a very positive and innocent image of Father’s wife by at first depicting her as humble and smooth, though adding supplementary information leads to an unwanted, yet very treacherous, almost suspicious attitude towards her.

Her inquiries about the causes of several craftsmen working in the fields lead to a sort of conversation since her husband replies, albeit merely succinctly. Giving the answers to her questions and thus causing her to get mad, the problem has been unveiled. Right thereafter, Adoniram decides not to say “another word”[5] and it can be interpreted as the first dimly sign of switching roles. Moreover, it is extremely interesting to perceive the way Freeman personifies the house, which is “infinitesimal” compared with all the barns, as the Mother. Her responsibilities, her opinions, finally is her whole power tiny in comparison with Father’s responsibilities, his points of view and eventually his mastery.

With the introduction of the children, the writer succeeds in establishing and deepening the impressions that the reader has already received through the portrayal of the married couple. On the one hand, there is Nanny who behaves a lot like her mother. Not only is she wondering about the workmen digging in the fields curiously, but is she articulating her thoughts and concerns (“I don’t see what father wants another barn for”[6] ) instantaneously, too. On the other hand, we have an apparently insolent young boy called Sammy with a demeanor resembling his genitor. Cutter makes a good point by citing: “Worse yet, Adoniram has taught his son Sammy to behave in like manner with discourse – to guard it jealously and to refuse women’s access to it.”[7] His reluctance to talk to the female parts of his family about the new barn confirms the arrogance slumbering within him. Certainly, a boy who has not yet grown up should not be asked twice or even more times to reply to his mother, even though he is occupied with “tying his shoes”.[8] So, the upbringing of the offspring proceeds in such a way that the gender roles are evidently distributed – males know the score and spontaneously opt for its enunciation, females may wonder, but they’re not supposed to know anything of importance. Even more interestingly, 19th-century children’s books “taught young boys to value competition, material success, and achievement, whereas young girls were taught to value cooperation and relationships”.[9]

Hereupon, Freeman inserts lines proving Father’s “linguistic control, a repression of discourse, rather than the inability to speak”, as Cutter argues eloquently.[10] Indeed, the head of the family is merely unwilling to interact. Since there was “never much conversation” going on at the dinner table, we can apprehend that the rest of the family is not allowed to talk unless explicitly requested to do so. Even though asserting a reluctance of expressing himself, his rare moments of speech lose their success increasingly. Sammy doesn’t listen to Father’s calls to come back to do some chores which leads to a reproach of Sarah for his incapability of reprimanding his cheeky son.

Thereinafter, Mrs. Penn uses the short-term absence of Nanny to “talk real plain” to her husband. It seems as if she feels fairly uncomfortable confronting him with her complaints as her demand to see him “jest a minute” sounds apologetic. His attempts to escape the argument encourage her and mark the turning point of the whole story. Freeman elegantly describes how Sarah “stood in the door like a queen” who was about to tell her husband insistently to listen to her now. Since he “sat down heavily”, we can perceive a switch of power roles.[11] His subsequent failure of articulation paves the way for his wife’s harsh and relentless accusations. She points out the fact that “there ain’t another woman in the whole town whose husband ain’t got half the means you have but what’s got better” and that Adoniram is “lodgin’ [his] dumb beasts better than [he is his] own flesh an’ blood”. The author has Sarah emphasize several times that she doesn’t complain at all. Quite obviously, she fails to mediate this feeling to her readers. Maybe she tried to say that Mother’s accusations are far beyond being called complaints. She is very plainly, as announced, asking for a more appropriate accommodation for a well-off family and really cares for her children. As Cutter quotes from another Freeman work:“Father’s are for animals; mother’s are for the human and relational”.[12] Furthermore, the whole scene entirely turns around “the binary system of silent women/speaking men” which the above-mentioned essay writer discerns. Sarah “takes the key to the citadel – language – and attempts to unlock the door to change”, but Adoniram remains silence, even though it derives more from “a refusal to speak” and can therefore be considered as a “deliberate act of volition, a deliberate repression of speech”.[13] Quite pathetically, Father trots out after explaining that he could not stand there talking all day long. He seriously considered her wife’s monologue directed towards him as a dialogical interaction. Finally, her anger and despair rockets to such an altitude that she starts thinking about taking action. The “scanty pattern for the shirts” she is cutting out resembles her vague plan of revolt.[14] Significantly enough is it her daughter Nanny to ignite the idea of a revolt by considering “the wedding in the new barn”. The articulation of Nanny’s thoughts is the starting point for the revolt led through by Mother and eventually supported by Sammy who is changing sides. Father is, as stated before, in general unwilling to communicate with his family, but once it comes to all his barns and the animals which are his assets, the story unveils a talkative man enthusiastic about the subject matter.[15] With regard to Mrs. Penn the adjectives “smoothed”, “steady” and “set” stand for Sarah’s resolve to take action after her husband’s being away on business. According to her common sense, “unsolicited opportunities are the guide-posts of the Lord to the new roads of life”.[16] Funnily, she is “adopting male models” and “speak[s] like a man” in order to reach the destination she had made up.[17] Having lived under and thus experienced male discourse patterns throughout her entire life, she tries to achieve her goals using them since they represent success. The effort to combine language with action (she gives instructions to the haymakers, but she also tackles the problem herself) turns out to be fruitful. Only a short resistance from the craftsmen in the first instance and no murmurs at all from her children were to be seen. They are simply “overawed”[18] by her success in communicating “her system of values, her focus on home, connectivity”.[19]

The move from the old house to the new barn caused confusion all over the village after all. The minister serves as the village’s representative and is rendered inarticulate by Sarah during their discussion. Using a terse language and demonstrating a sheer determination to remain “fixed”, Mr. Hersey sees his efforts to cause a change to her mind go to hell in a handbasket. She lives Immanuel Kant’s claim: “I’ve got my own mind an’ my own feet, an’ I’m goin’ to think my own thoughts an’ go my own ways, an’ nobody but the Lord is goin’ to dictate to me unless I’ve a mind to have him (...)”.[20] There was nothing left for the minister to oppose. The entire community didn’t show any courage to lean against her decisions, all they did was whispering – showing some sort of inability to express themselves as well.

Nanny and Sammy were impressed by their mother’s performance. Freeman underlines that “an inborn confidence in their mother over their father asserted itself”. To the very surprise, it is Father’s former counterpart Sammy to step forward first and clearly announcing that they’ve come to live in the newly built barn. Adoniram, who was “saying something, but they could not hear what it was”, turns pale and was more than obvious shocked about the incidents which had happened.[21] He is “literally speechless” and at a “loss of words”. As Mother has “wrested control of language”, he surrenders to her requests. Sarah Penn has become a “speaking subject”[22] and has thereby loosened herself from the just about giant oppression of her desires. The children experience an achievement through their brave making use of language. Last but not least, Father’s once reluctance to articulate changed to an inability to speak and therefore led to an ever-decreasing self-determination. In the end, he accepts whatever his wife claims and does not take any more efforts to enforce his will. Nevertheless, Freeman strives to see a profit for both parties, as she writes:

“There was a clear glow in the sky. Before them stretched the smooth level of field: in the distance was a cluster of hay-stacks like the huts of a village: the air was very cool and calm and sweet. The landscape might have been an ideal one of peace.”[23]

Yet, by using a modal auxiliary in the last sentence, she offers her readers an individual outlook, showing her own inconclusiveness about the future, too.


[1] Kant, Immanuel, 1784: Was ist Aufklärung? In: Berlinische Monatsschrift, pp. 481-494.

Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins, 1891: The Revolt of “Mother”. In: The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7/2007. Volume C. Norton: New York, p. 635.

[3] Freeman, 1891, p. 635.

[4] Ibid., p. 635.

[5] Ibid., p. 635.

[6] Freeman, 1891, p. 636.

Cutter, Martha J., 1991: Frontiers of Language. Engendering Discourse in “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ “. In: American Literature, Volume 63, No. 2, p. 284.

[8] Freeman, 1891, p. 636.

[9] Cutter, 1991, p. 282.

[10] Ibid., p. 283.

[11] Freeman, 1891, p. 638.

[12] Cutter, 1991, p. 282.

[13] Ibid., 283ff.

[14] Freeman, 1891, p. 639.

[15] Freeman, 1891, p. 640.

[16] Ibid., p. 641.

[17] Cutter, 1991, p. 285.

[18] Freeman, 1891, p. 642.

[19] Cutter, 1991, p. 290f.

[20] Freeman, 1891, p. 643.

[21] Freeman, 1891, p. 644.

[22] Cutter, 1991, p. 290f.

[23] Freeman, 1891, p. 645.

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Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930): “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ ” (1891) & Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941): “Winesburg, Ohio” (1919)
Critical Analysis
Samford University
American Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Hausarbeit, Literatur, Amerikanistik, Vergleich, Freeman, Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio, Revolt of Mother, American Literature, Buchvergleich, Critical analysis, Literaturanalyse
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Johannes Vees (Author), 2007, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930): “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ ” (1891) & Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941): “Winesburg, Ohio” (1919), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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