A New England Nun

by

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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A New England Nun Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is late afternoon in New England, and a gentle calm has settled in. A cowbell chimes in the distance, day laborers head home with shovels over their shoulders, and flies “dance” around people’s faces in the “soft air.” Louisa Ellis sits peacefully alone in her home. She had been calmly sewing by the window, and now she gently tucks her needle into her work and folds it “precisely” before putting it away in a basket. This is clearly part of a routine she’s done many times before.
The story begins with a feeling of peace and calm—the gentle descriptions of nature match the inner peace that Louisa Ellis feels when she is alone in her home and has time to do what she loves, like her needlework. This opening image sets up the contradiction that the story sets up over Louisa’s role as a woman: Louisa, carefully and “precisely” attending to her needlework, reads as a classically feminine housewife of this time period—however, she is alone (she does not appear to be anybody’s wife), which is untraditional and foreshadows Louisa’s desire to forgo certain gender norms.
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Louisa puts on a green apron and a hat with a green ribbon. She goes outside to her garden, picks currants for her tea, and sits on her back steps to take off the stems. She then carefully gathers the stems into her apron and tosses them into the hen coop, making sure no stems have fallen out of place onto the grass outside of the coop. She takes her time doing each of these things.
Louisa’s matching apron and hat signal her attention to detail and her interest in keeping her life orderly and organized. The fact that her daily tasks, like picking herself currants and stemming them, are done so slowly and carefully indicate the relaxed, meditative routine that Louisa has created for herself. Freeman also takes her time describing Louisa’s movements, which mirrors the slowness and serenity of Louisa when she is home alone.
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Once inside, Louisa—still calmly and slowly—steeps her tea. When it is ready, she prepares herself to drink it with “as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self.” Each item in the kitchen seems to be exactly where it should be: a small square table in the precise middle of the kitchen, the clean and starched linen tablecloth set on top of the table, a napkin placed next to a china tea set that sits on a tea-tray atop the table. Louisa notes that her neighbors whisper about the fact that she uses china, rather than more practical crockery, but she does not seem to care.
Again, the story describes Louisa’s movements as meditative and thoughtful. The fact that Louisa steeps her tea with as much care as she would use if serving a guest indicates the respect that Louisa has for herself and for the things that she takes joy in in life. The fact that she uses a delicate china tea set—even though the neighbors don’t approve—further signifies that Louisa prioritizes her originality instead of worrying about what the townspeople think of her.
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Louisa then eats some sugared currants, a plate of little cakes, one white biscuit, and a few pieces of lettuce for dinner. She thinks how much she enjoys eating the lettuce, which she grows “to perfection” in her garden. She eats “heartily” but “delicately.” When she finishes her meal, she brings a plate of corn cakes, which she’s baked herself, out to the back yard and calls to her dog, Caesar. A large white and yellow dog, chained inside a small hut in the back yard, appears at the door to eat the corn cakes. Louisa pats him on the head and goes back inside.
Again, Freeman shows Louisa taking pride and joy in the labor she does—however simple—like growing herself lettuce and preparing herself a meal. Louisa eating “delicately” again codes her as highly feminine, even as she lives a rather “unfeminine” life in that she is not living with a husband.
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Once back in the kitchen, Louisa carefully polishes the china tea set. Night has set in now, and she hears a “chorus” of frogs (and the odd toad) through the window—sounds that she very much enjoys. Louisa takes off her apron, revealing a smaller one underneath. She lights her lamp and sits down to pick her sewing back up.
This scene highlights the habituality of Louisa’s life—her days and nights have an ordered rhythm, and she is perfectly capable of caring for herself on her own. It also further underscores the pleasure Louisa takes in living alone—doing everything from polishing her tea set to calmly listening to the frogs outside of her window.
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A half hour later, Joe Dagget comes to the house. Louisa hears him approaching because of his “heavy step” on the way up to the house. She takes off her apron to reveal another one underneath—the apron she only wears for company. She begins to perform the same ritual of folding her needlework into the drawer as before. She finishes doing so just before Joe Dagget opens the door.
Louisa finishes putting away her needlework only just before Joe arrives, signifying that his presence is a break from the pleasant, orderly routine that she has settled into. His “heavy” gait contrasts with the way that Louisa’s life has been described: precise and delicate.
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When Joe comes into the home, Louisa feels like he “fills up the whole room.” There is a small yellow canary in a green cage next to the window, which had been asleep, and it wakes up and begins to frantically beat its wings against the wires of the cage. The bird has this same reaction every time Joe Dagget comes over.
Again, Joe’s presence is clearly alarming and not well-suited to Louisa’s lifestyle, which the story emphasizes by having the canary become agitated. Here, the reader gathers that Joe is likely there as a suitor, since it is unusual that Louisa lives all alone as a woman in this time period.
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Louisa and Joe greet each other with strained cordiality. She brings him a chair, and they sit across from each other, both of them upright and a little uneasy. They begin to talk about the weather. Their conversation seems stilted and a bit forced. Louisa asks about work and about Joe’s mother. When Louisa asks after Joe’s mother’s caretaker, Lily Dyer, Joe appears to blush. They each exchange positive words about Lily Dyer, about her work ethic and her looks.
At this point in the story, the reader is not sure of the relationship between Louisa and Joe, only that they live in separate homes. Their behavior together suggests that they are familiar with each other, but it does not indicate any deep excitement or romance between them. In fact, Joe’s blushing at the mention of Lily Dyer foreshadows that his he may have feelings for someone other than Louisa. Louisa’s lack of interest in Joe again emphasizes her uncommon status in society—a single woman, living alone, with no particular desire to change her situation. 
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Joe begins to fiddle with some books on a table—an autograph album and a Young Lady’s Gift Book. He picks them up, opens them, and sets the books back down opposite to how he’d found them. Louisa fidgets in her seat until she has to get up and rearrange the books so that the Gift Book is on top, as it was before Joe had touched them. Joe laughs uneasily, asking what difference it makes which book is where, to which Louisa replies that she always keeps them this way. Joe shakes his head, amused but also a little bewildered—he finds this behavior very peculiar.
Again, Joe and Louisa seem incompatible—for Joe, moving the books is inconsequential, yet for Louisa, the order of the books reflect the autonomy that she has come to cherish in her life and so their order is incredibly important. Joe might come off as a little careless, Louisa might come off as a little stern, but the story isn’t suggesting that one character is necessarily right or wrong—just that the two have fundamentally different priorities and are mismatched as a couple.
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An hour later, Joe is ready to leave, but on his way out he trips over a rug. Trying to regain his balance, he knocks over the basket where Louisa keeps her sewing. He makes an effort to try to pick everything all up, but Louisa stops him, insisting that she’ll clean up once he’s gone. Joe is uncomfortable, and Louisa is uneasy—Joe’s discomfort and clumsiness are making her nervous. When Joe finally walks out the door, he sighs as soon as he’s alone in the “sweet evening air.” Louisa, too, feels incredibly relieved to again be alone. Joe feels like he was a “bear in a china shop,” and Louisa feels as though she were the owner of a china shop that had just had a bear in it.
Once again, the interactions between Louisa and Joe are painfully uncomfortable, even though neither party is intentionally upsetting the other. Louisa’s desire to be alone again signifies that she is unusual for a woman of her time, in that she has built a happy life for herself outside of marriage or the church. The fact that the story incorporates Joe’s point of view as he exits Louisa’s house signals that the story has sympathy for both Joe and Louisa, even though it is Louisa’s things being spilled—this emphasizes that both characters are acting respectably to the best of their abilities.
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Louisa puts all of her aprons back on and collects her things—the “scattered treasures”—that have fallen to the ground. She places her sewing materials back into their basket, straightens the rug, and begins examining the dirt on the carpet that Joe tracked in. She gets a dustpan to sweep it up.
Louisa immediately wants to set things as they were before Joe entered her home, highlighting how eager she is to live a life that does not involve Joe’s presence. Living alone as a woman is not a traditionally feminine experience for the time period. However, Louisa’s “treasures” are her needlework, and sewing is a traditionally feminine pastime in this setting. So, once again, the story highlights the duality of Louisa, who both embodies and pushes back against traditional feminine roles.
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Although Joe comes to visit Louisa twice a week, he is still not comfortable in her home, since he feels clumsy and uneasy when he visits, as though he is “surrounded by a hedge of lace.” However, he and Louisa are engaged and will be married in one month, so he feels absolute and fervent loyalty to her. Their engagement was unusual: it began fifteen years ago, and Joe has been away in Australia, seeking his fortune, for fourteen of those fifteen years. Joe has now returned to marry the woman who has been “unquestioningly waiting” for him.
The story confirms that Joe and Louisa are engaged to be married but also adds that it has been an unusual engagement, since it’s lasted fifteen years and fourteen of those years were spent on opposite sides of the world. Now, the reader can more fully understand Joe and Louisa’s behavior, since it’s clear that they are two people acting out of duty to their old agreement and not placing their own desires before their promises. Still, the story is being ironic and a bit humorous by suggesting that Louisa has been “unquestioningly” waiting for Joe—clearly, Louisa has serious reservations about the prospect of marriage, and she is uncomfortable even being around Joe.
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Back then, Louisa, for her part, had encouraged Joe to travel. She and Joe had kissed good-bye, with Joe promising that it wouldn’t be long—then fourteen years passed until he returned. In that time, Louisa’s mother and brother had died, leaving her alone. But greater, internal changes had also taken place—Louisa had developed the ability to live alone, and she’d gotten so accustomed to her way of doing things that there was no longer “room for anyone at her side.” In fact, her first reaction when she heard that he was coming home was not excitement, but dismay. She had never cheated on him nor ever thought unkindly of him—and she had believed that she’d loved him when she accepted his engagement—she had just begun to imagine his return as something that would happen in another life.
Joe and Louisa are planning to go through with their engagement not out of passion or romantic love, but out of a sense of honor to the promises they made fifteen years ago. Louisa’s solitary life has changed her in a way that is irreversible—she now sees living alone as a source of freedom that she cannot imagine going without. Her inability to imagine a life with Joe confirms her strong desire to stay unmarried.
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Joe, too, had begun to feel apprehension just after he returned. Though he still found himself attracted to Louisa, the “winds of romance” eventually began “singing” another name. For Louisa, these winds had hardly ever really been there.
Again, both Joe and Louisa are concerned about their impending marriage, since neither feels romantically attached to the other anymore. But, although Joe is no longer in love with Louisa, it is noteworthy that the story adds that Louisa had never really felt the “winds of romance” for Joe, since this adds to the idea that Louisa accepting Joe’s proposal was only out of the societal expectation that a young woman marry.
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Louisa knows that if she marries Joe, she will have to leave her home and go to live at Joe’s homestead with his mother. She feels as though the “maidenly possessions” in her house are her friends, and she is distraught at the idea of leaving them. She also fears that she will no longer be able to use her still—where she distills fragrances, which she takes great pleasure in doing—because Joe and his mother would see distilling as a “pretty but senseless” hobby, meant for those who do not have husbands and houses to look after. In addition, she worries that she won’t be able to keep the new house clean and orderly, something she takes satisfaction in doing in her own home.
Louisa’s fear over losing access to her means of creating beauty and meaning in her life (like her still) speaks to the artistic intensity that she feels about the work that she does at home—whether that’s sewing, distilling, or even keeping the house clean. Louisa’s certainty that moving into Joe’s homestead would put an end to all of these activities underscores the difficulty that married women of this time period might have keeping up the activities that they enjoyed doing.
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Louisa is also particularly concerned about the issue of Caesar, her dog. Caesar is now a sleepy and older dog but, in his youth, he bit the hand of a neighbor, who still carries the scars. That neighbor demanded the dog either be killed or “completely ostracized.” Louisa’s brother, alive at the time, had built the dog a small hut in the backyard and tied him up. Since then (for fourteen years), Louisa has kept the dog in this state—tending to him fondly but never releasing him. The dog has a terrifying reputation around town, as everyone remembers the bite. Louisa only feeds him corn-mush so as to never set off his “dangerous temper” with the taste of meat. Louisa is convinced that Joe will let Caesar loose and that the dog might “rampage” through the village.
Louisa’s feeling that Joe will let Caesar loose indicates that, after marriage, the husband’s choices overtake the wishes of the wife. Louisa wants to remain autonomous and make her own decisions, but she understands that she won’t be able to do this if she marries Joe. Louisa feels security and satisfaction in the confines of her home, and she believes Caesar is at his best alone in his hut, too.
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Yet, despite all of Louisa’s concerns about the marriage, she feels like she cannot betray Joe by going back on her promise to marry him. So, she continues to sew “exquisite little stiches” into her wedding dress.
Again, Louisa displays traditional feminine behavior by sewing stiches into her wedding dress but comes across as an untraditional woman of her time because she would rather live alone than marry. The story is also building sympathy for Louisa here by showing that, despite all of Louisa’s fears and concerns, she won’t hurt Joe and go back on her promise.
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One night, just a week before their wedding, there is a full moon, and Louisa goes for an evening walk. She takes in the cherry trees, apple trees, and blueberry shrubs. She admires the moon, “twinkling like silver,” and the shadow it casts on her path. She feels a sweet, mysterious feeling in the air and wonders to herself what a particular fruit off to the side might be.
Again, as in the beginning of the story, Louisa is alone and feels at peace, a mood mirrored by the calm, beautiful New England evening. Louisa seems to have more of a capacity to take in the beauty of the nature around her when she is on her own, which again underscores her preference for being alone rather than married.
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Just before she is about to leave, Louisa hears voices. She thinks she’ll stay hidden and let the people pass, but they take seats along the path, so she isn’t able to go on without being seen. Then, she recognizes one of the voices: it is Joe Dagget’s. Louisa realizes that Joe is with Lily Dyer. Lily is lit by the moonlight, and Louisa notices how lovely Lily looks, full of “rustic strength and bloom.”
Throughout the story, Louisa is complimentary of Lily’s looks, which signifies a level of good-will from Louisa to Lily. Lily and Joe, alone together under the moonlight, are clearly hoping to share a private moment together. But the story evades more clichéd love-triangle dynamics—where those in “competition” might resent each other—by showing each character’s continuous desire to maintain a sense of honor and decorum.
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Thinking they are alone, Lily and Joe begin to speak. Lily says that she’ll be leaving town, and Joe replies, with feeling, “I ain’t got a word to say.” He then says that he’s not sorry about what happened yesterday, when the two of them had “let on how [they] felt about each other.” But he also says that he can’t break the heart of the woman who’s waited for him for fourteen years. To this, Lily responds that if Joe were to leave Louisa, she wouldn’t love him anymore, and Joe insists that this would never happen. Lily responds: “honor’s honor, an’ right’s right,” again insisting that she’d never accept any man who left another woman for her.
Joe and Lily show fierce loyalty and sacrifice during this conversation by putting their own wishes after what they think is right. There is, of course, a light ironic humor to this scene, since the reader understands now that both Louisa and Joe feel as though they’d be better off if they weren’t married to each other, but they both worry about hurting the other’s feelings. The story is not mocking their concerns, but it is showing how constraining (even absurd) marriage can be as a social expectation.
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Joe again insists that he is not leaving Louisa. He and Lily’s emotions are heightened and their voices “almost angry.” Louisa continues to listen. Joe does admit that he wishes Lily wasn’t going away, but she insists that it’s best. Joe asks her if she’ll “fret” much over him, to which Lily says that she won’t be worrying over a married man. However, her tone changes, and she says kindly that she won’t ever marry another man, promising “I aint that sort of girl to feel this way twice.”
Joe and Lily clearly have more passion between them than Louisa and Joe ever did, yet they still are determined not to break up Joe and Louisa’s engagement. Their profession of love is moving, because it shows just how much they’re willing to sacrifice in the name of honoring a promise.
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After Lily says this, Louisa hears a “soft commotion” from where Joe and Lily are sitting. Then Lily stands up and insists they “put a stop” to what they’re doing and says she is going home. Louisa is “dazed” by what she’s heard, and she makes her way home.
The story insinuates that Joe and Lily kiss, but the tone does not denounce them for it, simply calling it a “soft commotion,” which is both a light joke and a gentle way to make sure this suggestion of a kiss does not ruin either of their senses of honor. Louisa, Lily, and Joe have so far all put their promises first and their true feelings second.
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The next day, Louisa goes about all of her house chores, but she does not work on her wedding dress. She meditates by the window. Later that night, Joe comes by. Louisa summons all the “diplomacy” she can muster and breaks up with him. She is still a little stunned and is almost unsure if she heard them correctly the night before. Nonetheless, she does not want to betray the fact that she is happy to break the engagement, and she does not mention Lily Dyer, only saying that she couldn’t see herself making such a change as to marry Joe, seeing as she’d lived for so long in one certain way.
The fact that Louisa continues going about her chores after overhearing Lily and Joe shows how attached Louisa is to her routine, even when she is grappling with a life-changing decision. Louisa acts “diplomatically” during the breakup, assuring that both her honor and Joe’s honor are kept intact—this is a humble move by Louisa, which stresses how much she does value respect and honor, even as she values her own sense of freedom and happiness, too.
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Joe responds honestly, saying that he does agree it might be better this way. But he underscores the fact that it is Louisa, not he, backing out of their marriage. He says, “I never shrank, Louisa…I’d have stuck to you till my dying day.” She replies that she knows. When the two say goodbye that night, it is “more tenderly” than it had been for a long time. The two are both moved by their parting.
The story casts Joe in a sympathetic light and emphasizes his desire to act honorably above all else. He finally gets his reward—he is no longer obligated to marry Louisa, but crucially, he did not have to be the one to end it. Both he and Louisa are relieved by the decision not to marry each other, and they find a newfound respect and closeness in admitting to each other that their marriage was not going to work.
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Once alone again in her home, Louisa weeps briefly. However, the next morning she feels “like a queen” who now, finally, has full and permanent control over her domain. Now, she thinks, she will be able to tend to her tasks as she pleases, Caesar won’t cause any harm and can remain in his hut, and even the canary in the cage won’t be disturbed.
Louisa cries at saying goodbye to Joe, showing the respect that she feels towards him and that her decision to end the marriage was more based on her needs than on Joe as a person. However, Louisa now finally has what she’s desired the whole story—a guarantee that she may go about her life on her terms. She feels content and peaceful—even regal—in her home, emphasizing the luxury she feels simply in having a place to herself.
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Later, Louisa does her needlework completely at peace. Lily Dyer passes Louisa’s window, and Louisa feels no ill-will towards her. She sees the days ahead of her now like “pearls on a rosary.” Outside, the air is busy and sweet: there is the sound of bees, birds, and men at work. Louisa sits in her home “like an uncloistered nun” contentedly thinking about her future.
In the end, each character gets what is best for them, which they have all earned by behaving with unimpeachable honor. It is noteworthy that Lily Dyer walks by in this final scene, as this emphasizes that while Louisa feels happy for herself, she also feels happy for Joe and Lily. Louisa can now live out her days in her own home, with her own things, as unbothered as a nun without having to actually go to a nunnery. For Louisa, this is the perfect, ultimate freedom.
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