A New England Nun

A New England Nun "A New England Nun" and Feminist Critique

Is "A New England Nun" a feminist text? Scholars disagree, and the text holds ample room for conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, Louisa seems bound by the conventions of stereotypical femininity. In the nineteenth century, women's contributions to society were expected to take place within the domestic sphere, through activities such as cooking, cleaning, and handicraft. Louisa fits right in with these expectations: she loves her sewing, meticulous tidying, and aesthetically appealing table layouts. Yet, on the other hand, Louisa's enjoyment of these domestic activities motivates her to turn down an offer of the most important act a woman of her era could do: marriage. Her domesticity is precious to her, the text implies, because it is hers alone.

One way to reconcile these two points is to read Louisa's meticulousness around the house as that of an artist. Indeed, Freeman herself uses the language of artistry to describe Louisa. This analysis views Louisa's choice to end her engagement as a choice to pursue a higher purpose. In this reading, Louisa fulfills the Romantic ideal of a creative soul, becoming a recluse in order to further refine her craft.

A very different analysis of Louisa posits her as an obsessive character who gives up social connection and life in the real, human world. Some scholars have even cast her decision to refuse Joe's hand in marriage as that of a mentally ill person. And indeed, the last paragraph in "The New England Nun" portrays the choice of solitude as "narrowness," especially in comparison to the "busy" and "fervid" life that goes on outside her doors.

These two interpretations, positive and negative, correspond to the two sides of the question of whether or not "A New England Nun" is a feminist text. Either way, they are critiques leveled at a text centuries after its publication. Thus scholars continue to interpret and re-interpret Freeman's work today, finding new meaning for the contemporary age in an old text.