Thursday, May 21, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Mary Wilkins Freeman, "A New England Nun"

It is a giant geographical and emotional leap from Chopin's steamy passionate Louisiana to the cold and restrained New England world of Mary Wilkins Freeman's most famous story "A New England Nun." Mary Wilkins Freeman marks an advance over Jewett in terms of moving the story farther away from local color regionalism and closer to the tight thematic structure of Chekhov, James, and Anderson.  Very early, her impressionism was noted:  A reviewer in the London Spectator said about her stories.  "The stories are among the most remarkable feats of what we may call literary impressionism in our language, so powerful do they stamp on the reader's mind the image of the classes and individuals they portray without spending on the picture a single redundant word, a single superfluous word." Howells, however, said in a review of New England Nun and Other Stories in 1891, that he had a fear that she would like to write romantic stories.  Says she should write one and get it out of her system and then return "to the right exercise of a gift which is one of the most precious in fiction," that is an art in the "service of reality."
Indeed, what Freeman did was combine the detail of realism with the thematic patterning pioneered by Chekhov, Joyce, Turgenev, and Anderson. Consequently, as Edward Foster points out, the problem in trying to understand her stories is that we must combine seemingly incompatible generic terms.  "Miss Wilkins wrote local color stories of an inner feeling at once romantic, naturalistic, and symbolic and of a surface texture realistic and impressionistic."  "A New England Nun," her most famous story, a story that Perry Westbrook calls a perfect story, worthy of standing with the best of Chekhov or Mansfield, these conventions are combined in a quintessential way.  Moreover, the story embodies what Frank O'Connor has called the characteristic lonely voice of the short story, a characteristic that Arthur Machen noted in her stories as early as 1902, in a helpful comment that could characterize Sherwood Anderson's stories as well.  "I think the whole impression which one receives from these tales is one of loneliness, of isolation." Machen's point is that great literature is not generated by the drawing room, but by the expression of the "withdrawal of the soul; it is the endeavor of every age to return to the first age, to an age, if you like, of savages, when a man crept away to the rocks or to the forests that he might utter, all alone, the secrets of his own soul.... It is from this mood of lonely reverie and ecstasy that literature proceeds, and I think that the sense of all this is diffused through Miss Wilkins New England stories."
"A New England Nun" is in the tradition of Chekhov and Mansfield, although it was written before either.  The central character is a Jamesian figure shut away from the flow of everyday life.   Her stories combine the realistic and the impressionistic.  Note also the combination of romanticism and realism. Focus in "Nun" is Louisa's sense of what she considers almost "artistic" control over the order and neatness of her solitary home.  She rejects the masculine disorder of her impending marriage.  Compare this story with Mansfield's "Miss Brill"--being on the outside of life.  Story filled with imagery of her nun-like existence.  Edward Foster points out the characteristic short story conventions by noting many questions whose answers would have yielded real understanding are never raised in the story, e.g. what was the relationship between Louisa's mother and father?  what kind of love was she capable of when she and Joe were first engaged?  "It is easy to dismiss these questions," says Foster, "by noting that Miss Wilkins was contriving a short story and not a novel....It seems that 'A New England Nun' is a triumph not only of art but of reticence."  Indeed the same kind of reticence that later characterizes Anderson, Hemingway, and Carver.
The story opens with the atmosphere of the natural world being echoed within Louisa.  "There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence--a very premonition of rest and hush and night."  This is good description of the structure of the story itself.  It is described in the next sentence:  "This soft diurnal commotion was over Louisa Ellis also."   She is described in terms of the "feminine appurtenances" around her, which from "long use and constant association, a very part of her personality."  (This is the metonymic connection of realism; she is the sum of the objects around her).  She is described in terms of adverbs, the way she does things--peacefully, carefully, precisely. She sets out her tea with "as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self."  And indeed, she is; she does things, but she is passive as well. She lives on sugared currants, sweet cakes and little white biscuits; eats salad in "delicate, pecking way" (identified with the bird in the cage in her house, the little yellow canary. She wears three aprons, one for eating, one for sewing, one for company--not for sexual protection, but for ordering and compartmentalizing, wearing appropriate uniform for each activity.
Joe Daggett fills the room (see this in Lawrence's "Horse-Dealer's Daughter").  They have nothing to say to each other. When he leaves, she brushes up his tracks and thus leaves no trace, so that she is left alone.  Joe is afraid he will put a clumsy foot through a "fairy web" and he knows she is always watching lest he should.  During the fourteen year absence, she had entered a path "so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at the grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side."  Narrator says this was a subtle happening that they were both too simple to understand--what is so subtle about it?  Is this the key to the story?
The winds of romance have another name for Joe, and for her the wind had never more than murmured. (She is not romantic; she is realistic, attention to detail.  Is this the ultimate end of realism--the life of Louisa; ironic if so, for the life of Louisa is a life ordered as the romantic artist saw life should be in the art work.  Work this out--wrong to think that order means sterility, just as wrong to think that idealism means lifeless. She worries about leaving her home, her "neat, maidenly possessions" are like the faces of old friends (again the metonymy image)  She makes aromatic essences in her little still and loves to sew a linen seam, not for "use" but for the "simple mild pleasure which she took in it."
"Louisa had almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home."  She worries about the disorder of coarse masculine belongings strewn about in endless litter (note she is not concerned about Joe so much as she as about his things--metonymy) Caesar was a hermit of a dog, chained up for fourteen years for a sin in puppyhood.  "His reputation overshadowed him, so that he lost his own proper outlines and looked darkly vague and enormous."  She pictures him on the rampage through the village, seeing innocent children bleeding in his path. "she had great faith in his ferocity."
She overhears Lily and Joe, Lily has a masterful way that would  have "beseemed a princess." When Louisa and Joe part the next day she is like a queen "who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession." Now Caesar will never "go on a rampage through the unguarded village.  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." (note the image of her and Caesar, not as an image of Joe, but an image of controlled libido) When Lily goes by Louisa feels no qualms, for if she had sold her birthright for a bowl of pottage, she did not know it for the taste of the pottage was so delicious.  "She gazed ahead through a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary, every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness....Louisa sat, prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloisterd nun."  The similarity between this ending, both in terms of imagery and in terms of theme, to Anderson's "Hands" is striking.

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