“A New England Nun” depicts people struggling with a conflict between happiness and virtue. Louisa Ellis, the story’s protagonist, is engaged to be married to Joe Dagget—but neither one of them really wants to be married to each other. They’ve been living apart for 14 years while Joe worked in Australia, and during that time, Louisa became accustomed to living alone and Joe fell in love with another woman. Nonetheless, Joe and Louisa initially remain loyal to their engagement, not because they want to be married, but because they feel that keeping their word is the honorable thing to do. This creates an odd tension: they can honor a promise that will make them both miserable or break a promise and be happy, but they insist on choosing virtue over happiness, so they stay together.
Virtue and happiness are also in tension in Joe’s relationship with the woman he loves, Lily Dyer. While Joe and Lily have explicitly discussed their feelings for each other, they are both steadfast in their insistence that they cannot be together because they cannot disrupt Joe’s engagement to Louisa. Joe says that, morally speaking, he could never abandon the woman who waited for him for 15 years, and Lily says she could never love Joe if he broke his promise to Louisa. Because of this, they choose to forsake their love and happiness in order to behave virtuously.
Importantly, none of the characters are portrayed as silly or wrongheaded for putting virtue first, even as they’re pushing onward towards misery. Louisa is moral for putting Joe’s need for a wife before her own desire for independence, Joe is moral for putting loyalty to Louisa before his own desire for love, and Lily is moral for respecting Joe and Louisa’s commitment, even if it means forsaking her own happiness. Everyone is behaving honorably, which results in a surprise happy ending: Louisa overhears Lily and Joe talking about their situation, and she realizes that the kindest thing she can do for Joe and Lily is break up with Joe. This means that each character gets what they want in the end, but they do so without anyone behaving dishonorably or prioritizing their own needs over the needs of others. So in this way, the story suggests that virtuous behavior leads to happiness, even if it comes by a circuitous route.
Honor, Decorum, and Restraint ThemeTracker
Honor, Decorum, and Restraint Quotes in A New England Nun
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.