The American feminist movement in the 1960s was a struggle for women s rights and freedom. It attempted to shatter the various traditional ideals that sustained the oppression of women and kept them in a subordinate position. Although the historical movement did not take shape until after the mid 20th century, the foundation for this struggle was evident long before. One place in which it is exhibited is in Mary Wilkins Freeman s 1891 progressive and controversial narrative A New England Nun. Through the main character, Louisa Ellis, Freeman challenges customarily accepted stereotypes of womanhood. Although she portrays Louisa as a traditional late 19th century domesticated woman, she also shows how Louisa is able to assert an autonomous identity and achieve personal satisfaction. Evidence of Louisa asserting an individualistic identity is seen in her decision to remain single and responsible for only herself. Moreover, support of the main character s attainment of self-fulfillment is displayed in her interaction with her home, pet dog Caesar, and productive activities.
Louisa s autonomy is evident in her decision to remain single. Although engaged to her fianc , Joe Dagget, for fifteen years, she has spent fourteen of those years in total solitude while he was away making his fortune in Australia. As expected of her by mainstream society, Louisa waits patiently for Joe s return. While Joe is away, her mother and brother both dies, leaving her alone. As a result of these tragic loses, Louisa grows acclimate to solitude and even grows fond of it. Though she knows that Joe s return from his economic endeavor will result in marriage, for the second half of his fourteen years absence, Louisa had enjoyed peace and tranquillity: Her life, especially for the last seven years, had been full of pleasant peace, she had never felt discontented nor impatient over her lover s absence (p.1624). Consequently, by living independently for such a prolong period of time, Louisa develops a sense of autonomy and independence components she now values and cherishes.
While living in her self-confined world, Louisa becomes accustom to taking care and being responsible only for herself. But Louisa soon realizes that her impending marriage will completely change this peaceful scenario. By marrying Joe, Louisa is no longer simply responsible for herself, but also for Joe, his mother, and everyone else who visits their house: Sterner tasks than these graceful but half-needless ones would probably devolve upon her. There would be a large house to care for; there would be company to entertain; there would be Joe s rigours and feeble old mother to wait upon…(p. 1625). This is an extremely alarming realization for Louisa. For the last seven years, she has been only liable for herself, but by formalizing her union with Joe, Louisa will be forced to sacrifice the things she values so dearly, and most importantly, the characteristics that makes her a single autonomous woman.
Thus, when Louisa overhears Joe and Lily Dyer, Joe s other lover, talking, she has an excuse to break off the marriage with Joe. Though a part of her wants to get married, she is also looking for a way out of it. In the end, the sacrifices she is forced to concede are too precious to relinquish. The solitude of her life brought her contentment and individuality, qualities she does not want anyone or anything to disturb, even if it means giving up her birthright.
Louisa s period of isolation not only enables her to attain an autonomous identity, but also self-satisfaction. One place in which she finds such gratification is in her material objects, particularly her home and her pet animal Caesar. Unlike other people, Louisa does not merely view her house as a place of shelter, but a sanctuary. It is a place of worship for her, just like a convent is to a nun. This holy sanctuary helps her escape from the chaotic outside world; it is a place in which she finds comfort, stability, and serenity elements that she cannot control outside her convent. By doing so she has created her own private cloister. One situation that highlights this point is Louisa s encounter with Joe following his return for Australia. Louisa gets upset at Joe for disturbing her autograph and her gift books. She has a specific placement of the books. Joe transposes the order when he finished looking at them. This annoys her greatly, so much that she has to return the books to their original order as if a compulsive disorder: Louisa kept eyeing them [the books] with mild uneasiness. Finally she rose and changed the position of the books, putting the album underneath. That was the way they had been arranged in the first place (p. 1623). The order of her house, like the structure of her life, gives Louisa a sense of security and inner peace. She becomes nervous, if not enraged, when Joe later knocks over her workbasket. Thus, Joe s return from his pursuit of wealth disturbs her life and neatly secluded world, just as he disturbed her workbasket.
Louisa s dog, Caesar, is another source of material possessions in which she draws gratification from. She takes comfort in Caesar, for he and his condition mirror that of hers. Caesar lives a lonely existence with only his house and a couple feet of chain in his world. Caesar, like Louisa, is forced into seclusion. Caesar s impose isolation came about as a result of a minor transgression he committed fourteen years ago in which he bit a neighbor s hand, while Louisa isolation transpired because of the unfortunate loses of her mother and brother and her suitor being away. In any case, both of their isolations resulted in similar outcomes: Caesar being shut out from experiencing common canine joys and Louisa from the experiencing the joys of living in the outside world. Consequently, both the dog and Louisa becomes accustom to their solitude. Furthermore, Caesar, like Louisa, are irreversible tamed by their captivity, and no longer crave freedom, in fact, they are quite content and satisfy with their extended captivity . Upon Joe s return after fourteen years, he offers to take Louisa away from her seclusion (by marrying her), and to free Caesar (unchaining him). Joe states and it s down right cruel to keep him tied up there. Someday I m going to take him out (p. 1628). Louisa however rejects both of Joe s gestures. Her rejection of his proposals is the result of her fears: the fear of losing her autonomy and the fear of losing something that provides comfort and familiarity.
Louisa s productive activities, which includes sewing, cleaning her house, and making tea in the summer, are arguable her most important source of self-fulfillment. They are a vital and crucial source from which she draws pleasure and gratification. Although the source of her self-satisfaction are considered daily domestic activities that all women during the 19th century participate in, to Louisa they are much more than that. Her daily activities (along with her house) make up who she is. Though these activities are singularly separate elements, together they constitute a whole Louisa. Gratification in performing her productive activities is revealed in her account of the activities that she will have to sacrifice if she marry Joe:
Louisa dearly loved to sew a linen seam, not always for use, but for the simple, mild pleasure which she took in it. She would have been loath to confess how more than once she had ripped a seam for the mere delight of sewing it together again (p. 1625)
This description clearly illustrates the importance of common domestic duties to Louisa as a source of pleasure. However, Louisa realizes that this source will become threatened both by her new stepmother and Joe s masculinity.
Unlike other women who perform domestic tasks merely in the name of womanhood, Louisa not only willingly, but enjoys and looks forward to carrying out her daily routines. In this sense, her daily routine becomes her religion. This is comparable to a nun carrying out her religious rituals. Thus, both women s self-satisfaction derives from performing their productive activities with dedication and diligence in the name of their religion and God.
Mary Wilkins Freeman s narrative presents a powerful account of the experiences of women living in the nineteenth century. Her short story provides a descriptive portrayal of the pervasive theme of psychic oppression and rebellion of women from mainstream society s traditional ideals of womanhood and autonomy. Through Louisa, Freeman shows that women can successfully perform the dualistic task of maintaining certain customary beliefs and expectations as well as form an individualistic identity. Although the importance of her progressive ideas were not fully accepted and realized at the time, it will latter go on to help inspire future feminist leaders, such as Betty Friedan, and the feminist movement in the 1960s.