Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman

Article excerpt

In writing about women and their "place" in nineteenth-century New England society, Mary Wilkins Freeman frequently used images that emphasize the places, spaces, and environments occupied by her female protagonists. Settings typically include houses, porches, yards, churches, parlors, and kitchens--spheres in which the "True Woman" of the times could fulfill society's expectations of her and where the emerging "New Woman" could still serve in her duties to others rather than to herself. At first glance, one might assume that, "as a realistic recorder of the status and sensibility of the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century New England woman" (Reichardt xi), Freeman is simply perpetuating that century's stereotypical images of woman's limited "place."

In addition, these stories further the concept of restrictive spaces with numerous images that reflect covering or containment. Freeman's women "cover" themselves with shawls, bonnets, gloves, and parasols; they "enclose" their homes with fences, rails, paint, and flowers; they "shield" interior furnishings with carpets, wallpaper, curtains, and quilts; and they "contain" their belongings in baskets, drawers, bags, and aprons. These and other images of enclosure emerge frequently and significantly, and the reader begins to wonder if Freeman's metaphorically "covered" women are any different from the earlier femes covert of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a term used to define one of two "places" traditionally assigned to women--unmarried or widowed femes sole, and married or "covered" women.

After all, her New England "nun," Louisa Ellis remains single and alone, enclosed by a future filled with days metaphorically strung together like encircling rosary beads. Also, one of Freeman's married women, Sara Penn, in her well-known "revolt," merely relocates from one enclosure to another when she moves her family from their house into the new barn. Much critical attention has been given to Freeman's protagonists as women who exhibit innovative qualities of independence, strength, and even rebellion; however, if they continue to be restricted and inhibited by Freeman's rhetoric of enclosure, are they indeed breaking through the traditional images of femininity or are they merely staying "in place"?

In the late nineteenth century at a time when women were beginning to move into traditional male professional, educational, and work spheres, still "they were not set free from constraining images of femininity" (Cutter 383). Even in legalese rhetoric, jurists referred to the married woman as a "feme covert." But one might expect a woman author writing about women to reflect the reality of those women at a time when the American female was beginning to develop a new consciousness of self--an identity not necessarily enclosed by the confinements of patriarchal and societal expectations. A closer look at Freeman's images of enclosure in the contexts of individual characters' situations does indeed reveal that attempt.

Instead of remaining passively static in restrictive places imposed by outside forces, Freeman's women--both married and single--actively determine and maintain places of their own choosing, enclosing themselves in situations and choices that reflect personalities and purposes conducive to the affirmation of self. Whereas Freeman's enclosure imagery may, at first, tend to focus the reader's attention on previously established stereotypes for woman's limited places, instead they clearly redefine and redesign for these women their own places that reflect self-definition. Freeman's female protagonists are satisfied with their particular existences; even though they may enjoy lifestyles that are non-conformist, even eccentric by community standards, they are content with their choices--with the places that they have determined.

Rejecting marriage, for example, as the traditional "place" for conventional young ladies in the nineteenth century is Louisa in the story of the same name. …

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