Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The No-Man's-Land of "A New England Nun"

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The No-Man's-Land of "A New England Nun"

Article excerpt

Critics have held widely varying opinions on the quality of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun," the quality of the characters, and even whether or not Freeman liked the spinster Louisa Ellis who is, ironically, the protagonist in this sexually dynamic short story. As Mary R. Reichardt says, "It is a tribute to the artistry of `A New England Nun' that various interpretations of the work have evolved over the years. The story, quite simply, is a masterpiece of ambiguity." By way of illustration, Reichardt then contrasts Marjorie Pryse's analysis of Louisa as "an `artist' and a `visionary,' `heroic, active, wise, ambitious, and even transcendent'" with David Hirsch's view that the story is "a study in obsession and sexual repression, a `rejection of life'" (91). Glasser poses the question, "Is Louisa, the heroine ... who has rejected the possibility of sexual fulfillment, as Hirsch suggests? Or is she the victorious, autonomous woman described by so many recent feminist critics ..., a brave woman who has in fact chosen her singular definition of self-fulfillment through defiant spinsterhood?" (33).

It is certainly tempting to see the story as one detailing the sexual frustrations and struggles with marriage in Freeman's life. The time in her own life most closely paralleling "A New England Nun" is that part including Hanson Tyler, a naval ensign upon whom Freeman apparently had a crush. He would be gone for long intervals of time, returning only when on leave (Reichardt 12). The long periods of absence and an assumed frustration at her apparently unrequited love may encourage biographically informed readers to read the story of Louisa and Joe as the story of Freeman and Tyler. Edward Foster says of this,

   Hamlin Garland and Willis Boyd Allen, who knew the writer, have at least
   inferentially suggested the identification of Miss Wilkins and her Louisa
   Ellis. Knowing that her parents had died while she was relatively young and
   perhaps guessing at the Tyler episode, they found the speculation difficult
   to resist. (108)

It is, indeed, "difficult to resist" because, as readers, we want to know what prompted the writer to write. "In my opinion, they were mostly mistaken," says Foster (108).

Even if Garland and Allen were not mistaken in their inferences, I think that it would certainly be a mistake to look for nothing other than biographical significance in this short story. Perhaps Freeman did draw from this relationship. Reichardt says, "Though little evidence exists that Hanson Tyler returned Freeman's affection, he evidently occupied a place in Freeman's romantic imagination for the rest of her life. In her last years, she wore his naval uniform buttons on her own clothing and once remarked to a friend, `[I]f there is an afterlife, he [Tyler] is the one person I should like to see' (Foster 194)" (Reichardt 76). She may have had this episode in her life partially in mind when writing the story. Additionally, Reichardt quotes a journal entry wherein Freeman recounts her discovery of an old dog that had been chained for 13 years because he bit someone when he was a puppy (93). This is, of course, the dog that would become Caesar in "A New England Nun." However, this dog was brought to a much different level by Freeman. In her hands, he was transformed from a simple chained dog into a powerful image of sexuality. The story may function, at some level, as biographical, but if it is a recounting of her relationship with Tyler, it has been transformed: as a subtle tale of sexual tension and ambiguity, it has taken on a life of its own.

The heart of the debate revolves around Louisa, her role in the story, and her role in New England life. We are struck immediately by the title of the piece, a powerful indicator of Louisa's unconventionality as well as her distinguishing qualities. A nun must give up sexuality and society in order to pursue a higher purpose, the service of God. …

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