In “A New England Nun”, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman depicts the life of the classic New England spinster. The image of a spinster is of an old maid; a woman never married waiting for a man. The woman waiting to be married is restricted in her life. She does chores and receives education to make her more desirable as a wife.
This leads to the allegories used in this short story. The protagonist life paralleled both of her pets’ lives, her dog Caesar’s and that of her little yellow canary. Both comparisons are of restriction and fear of freedom. The animals and the woman of this story are irreversible tamed by their captivity, and no longer crave freedom. Ideas of sin guilt and atonement are also present between the woman and the dog. These images typify nineteenth century beliefs of women and their place in society. This story of Louisa Ellis is an allegory for woman, and uses the levels of allegory ironically. The stories of the dog and the bird layer the theme to help represent Louisa’s life, who in turn represents the Eighteenth century woman of society. Louisa’s animals and their relationship to her suitor are further links between her and her pets. The suitor brings out different traits than the norm in both the animals and the woman of this story. The man’s influence is seen as disruptive. Man is seen as a threat to the serenity and security of a spinster’s life.
Imagery put forth by this story, and by stereotypes of the day is of the new England spinster. Women who were not married yet, lived a life of chores and piousness. They learned their domestic chores and other things that would make them presentable as a wife. They did gardening work, read literature, mended clothing and the sort. These women were dependent on men to come and take them, to change their lives. Those who were not chosen were called old maids or spinsters. They typically were wealthy enough not work, so they lived a singular existence at their homes. Their homes became prisons. Leaving the home was possible but there was nothing out of their home environment, so they were left with no other choice but to lead their domestic life. The routine of their domestic chores became a part of their essence leading to the almost manic neatness of Louisa’s home.
Louisa was upset by Joe Dagget when he disturbs her autograph book and her gift book. She has a specific placement of the books. Joe transposes the order when he finished looking at them. This annoys her greatly, so she returns the books to their original order as if was compulsive. The order of her house like the structure of her life gave Louisa a sense of security. She becomes nervous if not angry when Joe later knocks over her work basket. The order of her house is so compulsively exact that she feels the need to remove his tracks from the rug.
Joe Dagget and Louisa Ellis were engaged for over fourteen years. He went to Australia to make his fortune, while Louisa waited patiently for Joe’s return. While Joe was away her mother and brother both died leaving her alone. She became used to solitude and even grew fond of it. When Joe returned he disturbed her life, just as he disturbed her work basket.
Louisa’s dog Caesar was chained up in the yard. He lived a lonely existence with only his dog house and a couple feet of chain in his world. Caesar was a prisoner of his home as Louisa was a prisoner to her’s. The dog became accustomed to solitude and would not know any other way of existence. Joe came back after fourteen years to take Louisa away from her prison, but also would have freed the dog. Joe said ” . . . and it’s down- right cruel to keep him tied up there. Someday I’m going to take him out.” Louisa objects to this fearing the animal nature of the dog that had laid dormantly for fourteen years.
Around the same time as Louisa and Joe became engaged, Caesar bit one of the Ellis’s neighbors. He bit the man leaving teeth impressions in the neighbors hand. This man demanded that either the dog be destroyed or to remain tied up. Louisa’s brother built the dog house for Caesar, and that is where he has remained since. Caesar in reality was good natured but committed one transgression. He paid for his actions for the rest of his life. The dog after the incident never barked loudly, almost out of guilt.
Louisa also had a transgression fourteen years before the time of this narrative. She had a lover. According to the narrative Joe Dagget was Louisa’s first lover. In a way she became tied to her home as Caesar is chained to his dog house for her sin. She waited fourteen years, possibly out of a guilty sense of obligation to her first lover. Both She and Caesar lived a quiet and serene life that would be turned upside down with the impending marriage. Both would have their ways of life radically changed.
Lousia feared her passion; she feared the setting loose of her passion. Louisa worried that once floodgates were opened, they could not be closed. She transposed this fear upon the dog’s wildness. Louisa feared that if the dog was to be set loose, that he would go on a rampage and attack the whole town. “She pictured to herself Caesar on the rampage though the quiet town and unguarded village. She saw innocent children bleeding in his path.” The dog was old and was not capable of such an act. Joe Dagget recognized this, leading to his desire to free the dog. Louisa on the other hand may have still been able to have passion that led to irrational fears of letting loose, the dog or herself. Out of fear that the dog would go mad, Louisa would not let the dog taste of flesh, only corn meal. She feared that the taste of flesh would bring out the animal in the dog. Over the fourteen years she kept herself celibate to keep her own passion recessed.
Louisa could also be compared to her little yellow canary. The songbird in a cage, is a commonly used literary device. It described the position of women who had sufficient economic status not to work. They like the birds were objects of beauty that were shown. Both were performers who were forced to live in cages, Louisa performed for Joe and society and the bird performed for Louisa. One difference between the two is, that Louisa’s cage had a garden. The bird had to sing and the woman had to act with grace.
The canary reacted to Joe’s entering the house in a way that is akin to Louisa’s emotions. He seemed to fill the whole room. A little yellow canary that had been asleep in its green cage at the south window woke up and fluttered wildly, beating its little yellow wings against the wires. He always did so when Joe Dagget came into the room. This passage shows though the bird, the feelings of anxiety she had over the impending marriage. She has a claustrophobic feeling of Joe invading her space as shown by the comment on how he fills the entire room.
The canary lays in dormant peace until disturbed by the entrance by Joe. Louisa in the fourteen years of waiting came into her own. She was accustomed to her space and Joe took up too much of this precious space. He would throw chaos into her rigidly ordered world. She was the queen of her home and did not want to share control with Joe’s mother. When married they would have moved into Joe’s house with his mother. Louisa would give up her solitude and her control, both of which she feared. The restrictions of her life kept her passions in, and she did not want to change this. Much as she would not let the bird free from its cage to fly free. The bird if freed, never could be returned to the cage. Louisa thought, if she were let out of her proverbial cage she would never again be able to enjoy it’s security.
When Louisa overheard Joe and Lily Dyer, she had an excuse to break off the marriage. Though she wanted to marry, she subconsciously wanted a way out of the wedding. She did not want to unchain the dog or move from the peace and security of her spinster life. The solitude of her life brought her contentment. She did not want her cage rattled. The canary did not want the man’s disturbance, showing Louisa’s feelings “Now the little canary might turn itself into a peaceful yellow ball night after night, and have no need to wake and flutter with wild terror against its bars.”
The years, fourteen to be exact, tamed Louisa. She liked her life; she came to enjoy serenity. Louisa like any tamed animal grows accustomed to their situation. The dog Caesar would probably not know what to do with himself if he were set loose. Louisa similarly would not know how to adjust to married life, after such a long period of isolation. Joe would be a disruption to her organized life. Louisa gave up her birthright, a birthright to a promise of marriage. This did not matter for she had found another. “Serenity and placid narrowness had become her birthright.”
To complete the allegory, once an animal is tamed there is no going back. Louisa Ellis was tamed; she was set in her ways. Her emotions and feelings were visualized though Caesar the dog and the little yellow canary. The bird fluttered when she felt disturbed, it also showed her anxiety toward Joe. The dog exemplified her domestication. Caesar’s lack of a bark and lethargy represents her need for serenity. The dog does not fight his chain but accepts it. Louisa accepted her chain, her life of waiting. She had accepted it to such an extent that she felt safe with it. When the wait was over, but she did not want to lose the security of the life she had.