A New England Nun

by

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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Gender Roles for Women Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Gender Roles for Women  Theme Icon
Honor, Decorum, and Restraint  Theme Icon
Restriction, Freedom, and Art Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A New England Nun, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles for Women  Theme Icon

Louisa Ellis has an unusual life for a woman of her time: she lives alone. She treasures this solitary life, delighting in nature, needlepoint, cleaning her apartment, and making herself tea in fancy china cups. But when her fiancé, Joe Dagget, returns from working for 14 years in Australia, this life comes under threat: everyone expects that Louisa will give up her home to move in with Joe once she marries him, but she is afraid of losing her solitary pleasures when this happens. The major conflict of the story, then, is Louisa’s struggle to find a way to fit into expected gender roles: she’d like to simply be a woman living alone, but there’s not an acceptable category for her, since she’s neither a widow nor a nun.

The story goes to great pains to associate Louisa with femininity, showing that even though she doesn’t fit neatly into any societal role, she’s still a woman. For instance, her habits and manners are coded as “feminine”—either directly (as when the story describes Louisa’s tools for needlepoint as feminine) or indirectly, by association, with words such as “dainty” (Louisa’s way of eating) or “graceful” (her way of serving herself tea). By contrast, Joe Dagget has a “heavy” and “masculine” way of carrying himself. Louisa is forever concerned that Joe’s masculine presence will interrupt her calm, feminine lifestyle. The story doesn’t cast Joe in a cruel light, but it does suggest that masculinity and femininity are at odds in a patriarchal society, since Joe’s masculinity threatens to overwhelm Louisa’s life at all times. Louisa is quite aware of the expectation that she will subordinate her life and personality to her husband, so her decision to break up with him is tied up with her instinct for self-preservation: she cannot be both a wife and herself, so she chooses to be herself.

Louisa is both a typically feminine character (in that all of her hobbies are gendered female) and an atypical female character, in that she has financial autonomy and ultimately succeeds in maintaining control over her life. Yet, as the story’s title says, Louisa is branded as a nun, presumably because there is no other legible way for a woman to choose to spend her life alone. Louisa even brands herself this way, showing how deeply ingrained these societal roles for women are: Louisa knows she isn’t a nun, but that category seems to fit better than wife, widow, or spinster, particularly since she finds such spiritual delight in her simple life.

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Gender Roles for Women ThemeTracker

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Gender Roles for Women Quotes in A New England Nun

Below you will find the important quotes in A New England Nun related to the theme of Gender Roles for Women .
A New England Nun Quotes

She had been peacefully sewing at her sitting-room window all the afternoon. Now she quilted her needle carefully into her work, which she folded precisely, and laid in a basket with her thimble and thread and scissors. Louisa Ellis could not remember that ever in her life she had mislaid one of these little feminine appurtenances, which had become, from long use and constant association, a very part of her personality.

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Louisa was slow and still in her movements; it took her a long time to prepare her tea; but when ready it was set forth with as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self…Louisa used china every day—something which none of her neighbors did. They whispered about it among themselves. Their daily tables were laid with common crockery, their sets of best china stayed in the parlor closet, and Louisa Ellis was no richer nor better bred than they. Still she would use the china.

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis
Related Symbols: The China Tea Set
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

She had barely folded the pink and white one with methodical haste and laid it in a table-drawer when the door opened and Joe Dagget entered.

He seemed to fill up the whole room. A little yellow canary that had been asleep in his green cage at the south window woke up and fluttered wildly, beating his little yellow wings against the wires. He always did so when Joe Dagget came into the room.

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis, Joe Dagget
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

“Good-evening,” said Louisa. She extended her hand with a kind of solemn cordiality.
“Good-evening, Louisa,” returned the man, in a loud voice.
She placed a chair for him, and they sat facing each other, with the table between them. He sat bolt-upright, toeing out his heavy feet squarely, glancing with a good-humored uneasiness around the room. She sat gently erect, folding her slender hands in her white-linen lap.
“Been a pleasant day,” remarked Dagget.
“Real pleasant,” Louisa assented, softly. “Have you been haying?” she asked, after a little while.
“Yes, I’ve been haying all day, down in the ten-acre lot. Pretty hot work.”
“It must be.”
“Yes, it’s pretty hot work in the sun.”

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis (speaker), Joe Dagget (speaker)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

He came twice a week to see Louisa Ellis, and every time, sitting there in her delicately sweet room, he felt as if surrounded by a hedge of lace. He was afraid to stir lest he should put a clumsy foot or hand through the fairy web, and he had always the consciousness that Louisa was watching fearfully lest he should.

Still the lace and Louisa commanded perforce his perfect respect and patience and loyalty. They were to be married in a month, after a singular courtship which had lasted for a matter of fifteen years.

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis, Joe Dagget, Lily Dyer
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

In that length of time much had happened. Louisa’s mother and brother had died, and she was all alone in the world. But greatest happening of all—a subtle happening which both were too simple to understand—Louisa’s feet had turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm, serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side.

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis, Joe Dagget
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe’s mother, domineering, shrewd old matron that she was even in her old age, and very likely even Joe himself, with his honest masculine rudeness, would laugh and frown down all these pretty but senseless old maiden ways.

Louisa had almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home. She had throbs of genuine triumph at the sight of the window-panes which she had polished until they shone like jewels. She gloated gently over her orderly bureau-drawers, with their exquisitely folded contents redolent with lavender and sweet clover and very purity. Could she be sure of the endurance of even this?

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis, Joe Dagget
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

“If you should jilt her to-morrow, I wouldn’t have you,” spoke up the girl, with sudden vehemence.

“Well, I ain’t going to give you the chance,” said he; “but I don’t believe you would, either.”

“You’d see I wouldn’t. Honor’s honor, an’ right’s right. An’ I’d never think anything of any man that went against ’em for me or any other girl; you’d find that out, Joe Dagget.”

Related Characters: Joe Dagget (speaker), Lily Dyer (speaker), Louisa Ellis
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

She sat at her window and meditated. In the evening Joe came. Louisa Ellis had never known that she had any diplomacy in her, but when she came to look for it that night she found it, although meek of its kind, among her little feminine weapons. Even now she could hardly believe that she had heard aright, and that she would not do Joe a terrible injury should she break her troth-plight. She wanted to sound him without betraying too soon her own inclinations in the matter. She did it successfully, and they finally came to an understanding; but it was a difficult thing, for he was as afraid of betraying himself as she.

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis, Joe Dagget, Lily Dyer
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

She gazed ahead through a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary, every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness. Outside was the fervid summer afternoon; the air was filled with the sounds of the busy harvest of men and birds and bees; there were halloos, metallic clatterings, sweet calls, and long hummings. Louisa sat, prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloistered nun.

Related Characters: Louisa Ellis
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis: