A New England Nun

by

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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Restriction, Freedom, and Art 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.
Restriction, Freedom, and Art Theme Icon

Louisa Ellis, the story’s protagonist, relishes her solitude, which she’s gotten by happenstance after her brother and mother died and her fiancé, Joe Dagget, moved to Australia to seek his fortune. When Joe returns, now prepared to marry Louisa, she is disturbed by the idea of changing her everyday habits and coexisting with a husband and his family. Louisa becomes increasingly worried about the changes that marrying will bring to her life, such as giving up her home, her possessions, and her peaceful way of living. By the end of the story, Louisa breaks off the engagement with Joe, which allows her to revel in her solitude and independence. From this angle, because Louisa is filled with a sense of peace after ending the engagement, the story clearly aligns marriage with restriction and remaining unmarried with cherished freedom.

However, “A New England Nun” also plays with the Romantic idea that someone in a restricted environment can actually find artistic freedom in constraints, because it helps them look inward and/or be more in touch with nature. Surely, this is true of Louisa, for whom the confines of her home and garden contain infinite artistic satisfaction. She is fully happy to spend the day needleworking, tending to her garden, making herself a well-prepared cup of tea, and even just keeping the house in order—practices she takes an artistic pride in. Most pointedly, Louisa finds great pleasure in the distillation of fragrances, an activity that is without immediate or obvious worth and, should she move into Joe’s homestead, she would certainly have to give up, since Joe and his mother consider it “foolish” and “senseless.” In this way, the pleasure that Louisa takes in distilling (which is akin to her artistic practice) is gravely threatened by the possibility of leaving the confines of her home.

The story makes this idea of contented isolation clear with the parallel between Louisa and her dog, Caesar, who lives a life that an onlooker might suggest is restrictive, but for Louisa is the ideal: he has his own hut in the backyard, is fed regularly, and by all accounts is a content hermit—a situation that Louisa sees as the most fruitful of existences. Louisa feels intense fear about Caesar being let out of his hut if she were to marry Joe, which mirrors the dread she feels about having to move out of her own home. In this story, marriage corresponds to unwanted restriction, but self-imposed seclusion (the type that a nun chooses) can generate artistic satisfaction. Thus, the story shows the constraint of marriage as a clear obstacle to freedom, yet suggests that certain constraints or restrictions can be artistically freeing.

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Restriction, Freedom, and Art ThemeTracker

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Restriction, Freedom, and Art Quotes in A New England Nun

Below you will find the important quotes in A New England Nun related to the theme of Restriction, Freedom, and Art.
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:

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:

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: