A New England Nun

A New England Nun Summary and Analysis of A New England Nun (II)


Dagget comes twice per week to see Louisa, each time feeling out of place in her neat, perfect, feminine home. Still, he is loyal to and respectful of Louisa. They have been engaged fifteen years, fourteen of which Dagget spent making his fortune in Australia, never seeing Louisa. Before he left, Louisa had been in love with him—or at least she had looked forward to the marriage as the path her life was meant to take. But during his absence, although she remained faithful, she considered the marriage to be a far-off event. Louisa's mother and brother also passed away during that time, and Louisa became greatly accustomed to living a solitary life. When Joe came back and their marriage approached, she was distressed at the prospect of changing that solitude and giving up her domestic harmony.

Dagget himself returned to New England ready to marry Louisa. Initially, he found her as attractive as ever, but eventually, he realizes that he does not feel the same affection for her as he did before leaving for Australia. Yet he continues to be loyal, renovating his old house where his mother still lives and where the newlyweds plan to make their home. Louisa, on the other hand, fears the prospect of leaving her home and moving her possessions to an unfamiliar place. As Joe's wife, she would have to start caring for a big house and taking care of his old mother. She would not be able to carry on with some of the domestic tasks that bring her so much pleasure—distilling herbs and flowers into essences, for example, or sewing linen seams for the pleasure of it. Joe's mother and Joe himself would not approve of such frivolities. Louisa values the beauty of her home as if she were an artist, and she worries about the upcoming changes. In particular, she is concerned about her dog, Caesar, who has lived most of his life chained up in a secluded hut after biting a neighbor many years ago. The village still regards him as a terribly ferocious dog, but Joe is convinced that Caesar is harmless; he promises Louisa that he will free him when they marry. Louisa is gravely concerned about this because she believes that Caesar still has the capacity to be violent, even though he has always been gentle with her. Yet none of these fears cause Louisa to second-guess her upcoming marriage. Instead, she focuses on sewing her wedding clothes.

One night during the week before her wedding, Louisa decides to go on a walk. There is a full moon and she sits down on a low stone wall, surrounded by bushes, blackberry vines, and fruit trees, which she regards with a melancholy air. It is a beautiful night. Suddenly, she hears the voices of people who stop near her and sit down out of eyeshot along the stone wall. Louisa is about to get up and leave them be when she hears Joe Dagget's voice; he is speaking with Lily Dyer. Lily is a tall girl, full of life and well respected in the village. Joe and Lily are discussing Lily's impending departure; they soon reveal that they love each other but cannot be together because of Joe's commitment to Louisa. Lily tells Joe that she would not have him if he were to break it off with Louisa, as to do so would not be honorable; still, she will never marry another man. Louisa hears a small commotion and then Joe and Lily leave.

Louisa sits in a daze on the stone wall for a while and then goes home. The next day, she does her housework like any other day, but she does not sew her wedding clothes. When Joe comes in the evening, Louisa summons all the tact she possesses and communicates to Joe that she has become too set in her ways for marriage. She does not mention Lily Dyer. Joe accepts this and says that it is for the better, but he tells her that he would have seen it through. They say goodbye more warmly than ever before. That night, Louisa cries a little, but in the morning, she is content within her domestic haven. Now, everything, from Caesar to the canary to her possessions, would go on just like before. She imagines all the days in front of her, each the same as the one before.


In this second half of "A New England Nun," the narrator reflects on the events of Louisa's past that have resulted in her particular personality. Readers learn the explanation for Louisa's attention to detail and love of order in her home: these traits are the result of many years of solitude. In other words, this domestic labor is entirely for her own sake. At the time of this story's publication, this was a radical proposition, deeply at odds with the era's expectations of women: it was assumed that women engaged in difficult, manual drudgery around the house to care for their children, their husband, and the elderly, out of a sense of duty and responsibility. In contrast to these expectations, Louisa derives independent pleasure from that labor, even going so far as to produce surplus domestic goods in the form of distilled essences and extra linens. In a Puritan New England, this appreciation for the pleasure found in domestic labor would be frowned upon, positioning Louisa as an outsider to the society of which she is expected to be a member.

Despite this stark difference between Louisa and her society's expectations, she is no fierce rebel. In fact, despite having serious misgivings about her upcoming marriage, she accepts it as her fate. There is no overtly feminist stance here: Louisa is willing to get married because it is the responsible and morally correct thing to do. Yet despite this passivity, Freeman clearly paints a picture of Louisa as dedicated to a higher purpose. She loves the beauty of her home for its own sake; the narrator compares her to an artist and, indeed, solitude is a classic fixture of the romantic ideal of the artist. Freeman also gives a nod to a religious conception of a higher purpose, comparing Louisa's life choices at the end of the story to a nun's. Thus Freeman paints a picture of Louisa as a tragic soul: an artist dedicated to a noble cause yet willing to accept her destiny.

Freeman also contrasts Louisa to the other central female character, Lily Dyer. To do this, she draws a parallel between Lily Dyer and the lush New England landscape. Lily is "blooming," for instance; elsewhere, she is "full of strength and bloom." The text's setting is similarly fertile: when Louisa takes a seat along the stone wall, she is surrounded by "luxuriant clumps of bushes" and a "spreading tree." This nature is chaotic: "all woven together and tangled." Louisa, in contrast, is described as "delicate," "solemn," and full of "serenity and placid narrowness." Her home is so clean as to be sterile, the polar opposite of the lush fertility that both nature and Lily symbolize. They are in bloom, while Louisa chooses chastity, order, and serenity. The final lines of the text confirm this: outside lives the interconnected, bright, messy world, and Louisa chooses to live out her days inside and alone.

But what does Freeman think of her protagonist's final choice? Her opinion as reflected in the text is ambiguous. For example, immediately after ending her long and drawn-out engagement, Louisa weeps over the loss. However, the next day, she is reconciled to her choice and, the narrator suggests, even happy. The narrator hints at the importance of autonomy and self-governance for Louisa: without Joe or the prospect of Joe, she is the "queen" of her own home and, by extension, her own life. Each aspect of that life that Louisa cherishes so much can now go on, uninterrupted, for the rest of her life. This undeniably seems to be a victory for Louisa, especially from a woman-centered perspective. She chooses solitude and is rewarded with independence. But at the same time, Freeman ends the story on a slightly melancholy note. The image of Louisa sitting alone while the world goes on without her cannot be read entirely as a victory. The cost of her independence, it seems, is the loss of human connection. Louisa must give up the world to retain control over her own life. Here, perhaps, is the tragedy at the heart of Freeman's nuanced portrayal of Louisa's decision: women of her era must make an impossible choice of either love and connection or autonomy and self-determination.