The story begins late in the afternoon, with the sound of cows lowing in the distance and a farm wagon and laborers headed home for the day. Everything seems to be settling down for the evening, and the setting has an aura of rest and peacefulness. This same aura permeates the home of Louisa Ellis, who neatly puts away her afternoon sewing. She has always paid attention to these feminine details, which have been part of her life for so long they have become part of her personality.
Louisa ties a green apron around her waist and puts on a straw hat with a green ribbon. She goes out into the garden with a blue bowl and picks some currants for her tea. She then sits on the doorstep and takes the stems of the currants, throwing the stems into the hen-coop and making sure that none of them fall into the grass. Next, Louisa prepares her tea slowly and carefully. The tea is prepared finely as if she were entertaining guests, but it is only for herself. She has a square table that sits exactly in the center of the kitchen. On the table, she has arranged a starched linen cloth, a tumbler full of teaspoons, a pitcher filled with cream, a sugar bowl, and a pink cup and saucer. The narrator notes that Louisa uses china every day, unlike her neighbors, who gossip about it behind her back because she is neither wealthier nor higher-bred than they. For supper, Louisa eats sugared currants, little cakes, one little white biscuit, and lettuce from her garden. She eats daintily and in a "pecking way," but she has a strong appetite and eats well.
After supper, she fills a plate with thin corn-cakes and carries them into the yard to feed them to her large yellow-and-white dog, Caesar. After feeding Caesar, she washes the dishes from tea and polishes the china. By this time, twilight has arrived fully, and the sound of frogs fills the air. Louisa takes off her green gingham apron to reveal a pink-and-white apron underneath, and she sits back down with her sewing. Not too long after, however, Louisa hears the heavy step of Joe Dagget approaching. She rushes to take off her pink-and-white apron to reveal a white linen apron: her company apron. She barely has time to fold it and put it away when Joe Dagget walks in, filling the whole room with his presence. A canary in a green cage at Louisa's window wakes up and flutters its wings wildly, as it always does when Joe Dagget enters the room. Louisa and Joe greet each other with a simple "Good-evening," sitting down across the table from each other. Dagget remarks that it has been a pleasant day, and Louisa agrees. They briefly discuss Dagget's work—laying hay in the hot sun. Louisa asks after his mother, and if Lily Dyer is taking care of her. Dagget blushes slightly and says that she is. They agree that Lily Dyer is a big help to his mother and that she is an attractive girl. As their conversation dies down, Dagget uneasily rearranges the books on Louisa's table. Louisa gets up and rearranges them, explaining that she always keeps them that way. Dagget appears embarrassed. After about another hour, Dagget gets up to leave, knocking over Louisa's sewing on the way. After Dagget leaves, Louisa ties on her other aprons again, rearranges her sewing basket, and sweeps up the dust that Dagget has tracked in.
Much of the scholarly analysis of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's work casts her as part of the local color genre, a literary movement with origins in the eighteenth century that depicts regionalism with a focus on authenticity and detailed specificity. The opening scene of "A New England Nun" is an apt example: Freeman's narrator paints a vivid picture of New England pastoral life in the summer twilight. Upon closer reflection, however, the opening paragraph's descriptions give only the broad strokes of the scenery's images. For example, Freeman writes that "there was a difference" in the shadows due to the light, and that "somewhere in the distance" the typical sounds of cows and bells could be heard. The generality of these terms matches the descriptions of her subjects, from the "blue-shirted laborers" to the "swarms of flies" and even the people. In this sense, Freeman's descriptions of setting and sensory images seem to serve the purpose simply of evoking a mood, rather than pinpointing a moment with detail and specificity as a local colorist might.
What mood and tone, then, does the first paragraph establish? The narrator tells us directly: "the gentle stir" evokes a sense of "rest and hush and night," a quieting-down for the night that seems to be a daily routine. This sense of normalcy is further augmented by the following paragraph, in which the protagonist, Louisa Ellis, is introduced. Louisa sits with her sewing and, as twilight falls, puts the sewing away with great attention to the routine and ritual of it. Indeed, the narrator comments that Louisa "could not remember that ever in her life" she had failed to put away her sewing according to that ritual; over time, those practices had, "from long use and constant association, [become] a very part of her personality." In this way, the opening scene seems to function mainly as the introduction to these themes of habit and ritual in order to more fully introduce the story's protagonist, rather than to describe the New England setting for its own sake in the local color tradition.
The particularity of Freeman's protagonist becomes even more apparent as her evening activities continue. Louisa slowly and gracefully prepares her tea; she gets out her best china even though she is the only one partaking; she feeds her dog and washes the china; removes layers of aprons that each signifies a different chore or activity; then, finally, she recommences her sewing. The narrator refrains from discussing Louisa's past, thoughts, and feelings. We learn about Louisa in this first part of the text simply by observing her actions, which reveal her to be clearly fastidious and dedicated to routine and ritual.
But what opinion does the narrator hold about Louisa's detail-oriented, almost obsessive approach to household chores? Clues can be found in the parallels that the narrator establishes between Louisa and her two pets, Caesar the dog and the canary. These parallels first surface at tea-time: Louisa and Caesar both eat very similar small cakes for their supper. In addition, the narrator later reveals that long ago, Caesar bit a neighbor and earned a reputation for viciousness. As a result, he has lived the past fifteen years chained up in a small hut, just as Louisa has spent the same amount of time cloistered in her home. The canary is similarly confined: it lives in a green cage, mirroring Louisa's green apron and further reinforcing the parallels between the chained-up Caesar, the caged canary, and the housebound Louisa. Already in this first half of the text, it is clear that Joe Dagget upsets Louisa's sense of order and threatens to break down the boundaries that keep her alone in the home.