Marriage is a central theme in much of Freeman's work. During her time, marriage prospects were a primary concern for women. Indeed, Louisa recognizes the importance of marriage and accepts it as her fate. At the same time, she realizes that it will mean giving up her autonomy, and she dreads it for that reason. Yet marriage is still considered her destiny and "birthright." The only way she can avoid it, the text suggests, is by choosing the life of a nun: giving up the possibility of joining society and choosing solitude in her domestic realm forever.
After Louisa's family passed away, she embraced her solitude. The text uses the language of sensual pleasure to describe how Louisa feels about her life alone: she feels "throbs" of pleasure and "gloat[s] gently" at the orderly way she maintains her home. She has "indelicate... visions" of the introduction of masculinity into her solitary, beautiful life. This evocative and sensual language is strange when used to describe solitude, and even stranger given the narrator's comparison of Louisa to a nun, whose very premise is chastity.
Throughout the text, the natural world of the New England town where the story is set is described as lush, fertile, and beautiful. On the one hand, these descriptions serve to firmly situate the text in a regional and specific landscape, in accordance with the local color genre. On the other hand, these descriptions serve a more specific function in the text. Lily Dyer is described in similar terms to the beautiful natural world, and thus these descriptions of nature serve to contrast Louisa and her pure, sterile environment to the fertile and blooming Lily.
Duty and Responsibility
The New England world that Freeman inhabited and wrote about was deeply influenced by a Puritan ethic that prioritized duty and responsibility almost above all else. In "A New England Nun," characters pursue their duty at great cost to their personal happiness: Joe, for example, is in love with another woman, and yet he proceeds with plans to marry Louisa because that is his responsibility. Similarly, Louisa knows that marriage to Joe would disrupt that which brings her the most personal happiness: control over her own home. Yet, she does nothing to stop the approach of her wedding day—until she learns of Joe's love for Lily. In other words, her own feelings about the marriage do not override her sense of responsibility, but learning that the marriage would bring others sorrow introduces a new duty: to prevent that sorrow from actualizing. Thus in this text, the concepts of duty and responsibility play central roles in motivating the characters' actions.
Domestic labor is a central theme in the story, just as it was a central fact of life for women of Freeman's time. Louisa loves and cherishes her domestic tasks, from polishing her china to picking currants for an elaborate tea to sewing linens. Part of her appreciation of these seemingly inconsequential tasks seems to be the fact that this work is done primarily to serve herself. In contrast, Louisa fears domestic labor within the context of marriage because such labor would necessarily benefit others. Thus, for Louisa, domestic labor is a proxy for independence. In the context of autonomy, she derives great pleasure from it; but in the context of marriage, it becomes a burden.
Femininity vs. Masculinity
In this text, Louisa's traits are clearly described as feminine and are threatened by the masculine traits of Joe Dagget. Her cleanliness, her artistry in the home. and her appreciation of domestic harmony are all labeled as feminine traits. Joe, on the other hand, is dirty and messy. Louisa's fear of marriage thus is represented in the fear of masculine penetration into her feminine sense of harmony.
A New England Nun Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A New England Nun is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.