Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1887 and in 1891 as the title story in A New England Nun and Other Stories, the story opens onto a scene of pastoral rural New England calm. In complete harmony with this scene is the protagonist, Louisa Ellis, as the third-person narrator takes the reader into her painstakingly—if not obsessively— ordered house. Louisa, who lives alone in the house now that her mother and brother have died, owns two animals: a canary that she keeps in a cage and a dog, Caesar, that she keeps on a chain in her yard. For 15 years she has faithfully waited for the return of Joe Daggett, her fiancé, who went to Australia to make his fortune.
The narrator depicts Joe’s return as a coarse, masculine intrusion into Louisa’s feminine and well-appointed house and life. His hearty sexuality echoes that of Caesar, doomed to be forever chained because he once bit a passerby. Louisa herself seems like the canary, comfortable within the boundaries of her enclosure. Clearly, the maleness and femaleness that Joe and Louisa represent cannot adapt to each other. Because both have become set in their gendered ways, and because both are decent and honorable people determined to keep their long-ago engagement promises, Louisa feels relief when, without their awareness, she stumbles across Joe and Lily Dyer, the pretty girl who takes care of his mother. Louisa overhears them confessing their love for one another. The next day, to their mutual relief, Louisa and Joe release each other from their engagement.
This much of the story is clearly told. In the ambivalence of the ending, however, Freeman challenges the reader to evaluate Louisa’s situation. By giving up marriage and, in those days, her only possible sexual outlet, has she sacrificed too much? Why must women make such choices? Will she actually feel happier living alone, owning her house, keeping her passions chained along with Caesar? Is she a version of Freeman herself, especially in her love of extracting essences from the herbs she gathers (seen by some critics as a metaphor for the writing process)? Freeman’s story and the ramifications of Louisa’s decision resonate with the reader long after the story actually ends.
Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. “A New England Nun.” In Selected Short Stories, edited by Marjorie Pryse. New York: Norton, 1983.
Glasser, Leah Blatt. In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Works of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.