Old Woman Magoun
Old Woman Magoun
MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's short story "Old Woman Magoun" was originally published in Harper's New Monthly magazine in October 1905. This tragic story was next included in a collection of Freeman's short stories published in 1909, called The Winning Lady and Others. Most recently, "Old Woman Magoun" was anthologized in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (1992).
Freeman's short stories often depict the lives and conflicts of New England women. Her work might best be described as that of a realist and a regionalist, since her stories deal honestly with poverty, marriage, and loneliness among the women and families who inhabit New England. Freeman's female characters display strength in dealing with conflict, often in the face of patriarchal oppression. "Old Woman Magoun" fits well into this literary tradition of women who struggle against societal conventions. The story's heroine, Mrs. Magoun, is an older woman who so completely desires to protect her granddaughter, Lily, that she is willing to kill the child to save her. The conflict that this woman faces is typical of Freeman's female characters, who show great strength when forced to find a means of survival in a man's world.
Mary Eleanor Wilkins was born in Randolph, Massachusetts on October 31, 1852. She was the
first of Warren and Eleanor Wilkins's children to survive childhood. Her parents were very protective, and Wilkins had little contact with people outside of her family. When she was seven years old, her younger sister, Anna, was born, which helped to alleviate some of her loneliness. Wilkins's family moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1867. Wilkins's father had supported the family as a house builder and carpenter while in Randolph, but after the move, he decided to go into the retail dry goods business. Wilkins was brought up in a very strict Congregationalist household, with rigorous religious observance. After she graduated from Brattleboro High School in 1870, Wilkins attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary but left after only a year. The severe depression of the 1870s and her father's decision to return to carpentry as a way to support his family resulted in the family suffering a severe financial setback. Wilkins's only surviving sibling, Anna, died in 1876, and her mother died in 1880. After her mother's death, Wilkins began to write as a way to earn money.
In 1882, her father moved to Florida with the expectation that the milder winters would provide more work and ease his health problems, but he died within a year. Because respectable women could not live alone, Wilkins moved to Randolph and into the home of her childhood friend, Mary Wales. This living arrangement provided Wilkins with the freedom to write, which soon led to the creation of many poems and short stories. Wilkins's stories were published in Harper's Bazaar, in Harper's New Monthly magazine, and in Atlantic Monthly. Her first book, a collection of children's poems, Decorative Placques, was published in 1883. Her next two books were collections of short stories for children. This was followed by her first collection of short stories for adults, A Humble Romance and Other Stories, published in 1887.
Wilkins's writing focused on New England and especially on women's lives, and her short stories and books were well received by her readers. Wilkins's first novel, Jane Field, was published in 1893. She continued to write short stories, novels, poems, and plays during the next twenty years. In 1902, Wilkins married Dr. Charles Manning Freeman, after a ten-year courtship and an on-again off-again engagement. The couple moved to Metuchen, New Jersey. After her marriage, the new Mrs. Freeman continued to write, but many critics cite the move from Randolph as the beginning of a decline in her writing style. "Old Woman Magoun" was written after her marriage and the move to New Jersey, and was first published in Harper's magazine in 1905. It was then included in a 1909 collection of Freeman's short stories, The Winning Lady and Others. Though written after Freeman's supposed decline as a writer, this story, with its strong multilayered female protagonist, certainly contradicts the claims of those critics who argue that Freeman's writing changed after her marriage.
Although the Freemans were initially happy, by 1920, Mrs. Freeman was forced to commit her husband to a state hospital due to his alcoholism. They legally separated in 1922, and she returned to Randolph to live. In 1926, Freeman received the first William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Fiction. That same year, she became one of the first four women to be admitted for membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Freeman died of heart failure on March 13, 1930. After her death, the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored her by dedicating their bronze doors to Freeman and other female writers of America. During her career, Freeman published twenty-two volumes of short stories, fourteen novels, three plays, three books of poetry, and eight books for children.
"Old Woman Magoun" begins by describing the men of Barry's Ford, the setting for this short story. The grocery store is where the men of the small village congregate and where they spend their time sitting, talking, drinking whisky, and smoking. Freeman writes that Old Woman Magoun "would elbow herself" into this conversation to insist that the men build a bridge over the river, so that residents of Barry's Ford could walk to the neighboring town of Greenham. Although she does succeed in getting the bridge built, when it is completed, it is crudely done. Magoun is a strong personality and, although she can bully the men into doing something, she cannot make them do a good job. Magoun is so dominating a personality that the men of the town are described as having "cowered visibly" before Magoun's "feminine assertion."
Magoun has raised her granddaughter, Lily, since Magoun's daughter died only a few weeks after the child's birth. Although Lily is nearly fourteen years old, Magoun has succeeded in keeping Lily childlike and so protected and hidden from the outside world that she has never played with other children. She has also never had any contact with her father, Nelson Barry. As the story begins, Magoun is preparing a meal for the men who are finally completing the bridge. She needs salt for the meal but cannot leave to go to the grocery. Sally Jinks, Magoun's friend, suggests that Lily be sent to buy the salt. Although she is reluctant to send her granddaughter, Magoun agrees, and Lily leaves with a warning not to "talk to anybody." As she walks to the store, a man, whom Lily thinks is quite handsome, walks along with her. She likes the attention he gives to her and even lets him hold her hand. However, Lily quickly becomes uncomfortable with the man's close attention and withdraws her hand. After she arrives at the store, her father, Barry, unexpectedly speaks to her and even buys her candy. Lily learns that the man who made her so uncomfortable is Jim Willis, a friend of her father's. When she returns to her grandmother's home, Lily is closely questioned about the candy and about her father's behavior. Magoun is upset at what she hears and quickly sends Lily to bed.
That evening, Barry comes to visit Magoun. He demands that she give him custody of his daughter. He gives Magoun one week to comply and turn the girl over to him. The one man in town who cannot be intimidated by Magoun is Barry. She has no power against either his wealth or his position as Lily's father. His desire to possess his daughter is not at all fatherly. At the store, he had kissed her with open mouth and in such a suggestive fashion that Lily had immediately wiped her mouth. Both Lily's and Magoun's instincts are good. Magoun correctly guesses that Barry has promised Lily to Willis as payment for a gambling debt, but there is also a suggestion that Barry intends to share Lily, as well.
The morning after Barry's visit, Magoun and Lily walk the three miles to the neighboring town of Greenham. As they walk, Lily notices some berries along the way, but her grandmother tells her she cannot eat the berries right now. The berries are deadly nightshade, but Magoun does not warn Lily that the berries are poisonous. When they arrive in Greenham, Magoun speaks to a lawyer, Mason, while Lily eats sour apples and milk and is entertained by the lawyer's wife, who longs for a little girl of her own. When she emerges from the lawyer's office, Magoun tells Mrs. Mason that milk and sour apples will upset Lily's stomach and chides the lawyer's wife for feeding Lily. After they walk away, Mason tells his wife that Magoun wanted them to adopt Lily, and even though his wife wants a child badly, the lawyer is unwilling to adopt Barry's child. As they walk back home, Lily once again admires the berries, and Magoun allows Lily to stop and eat some berries. Magoun does not directly encourage Lily to eat the nightshade berries, and she looks away, as if not noticing. In not watching, she absolves herself of responsibility. By the time that Lily reaches home, she is very sick. When Lily becomes ill, Old Woman Magoun is silent as to the cause, and it is Lily who claims to Jinks that her illness must have resulted from milk and sour apples.
That Magoun loves her granddaughter is obvious from the love that she showers upon the child as she is dying. In the hours that Lily lays dying in her bed, Magoun tries to distract Lily from the pain she is feeling by describing heaven with all its beauty. She also tells Lily that she will be reunited with her mother in a place with beautiful flowers that never fade. As Lily "suffered cruelly" the agony of the poisoned berries, Magoun tells the child of a heaven made glorious with gold, of dolls that are alive, and of the beautiful new home that she will share with her mother. After Lily finally slips into a coma, her father comes to see her and recalls that Lily's mother also died after eating sour apples and milk. Barry is in awe of the magnitude of Magoun's grief as she kneels next to her dying granddaughter's bed. It is clear to Barry and Willis, who accompanied Lily's father, that Lily will soon die. After her death and burial, life continues as before for the inhabitants of Barry's Ford. Magoun lives as she had before, although after Lily's death, Magoun is described by the towns' people as a "trifle touched." She carries Lily's old rag doll with her as she walks on her journeys to Greenham to sell her produce.
Lily is the granddaughter of Old Woman Magoun. She is almost fourteen but acts much younger and still clutches a baby doll. Lily is described as appearing to be about ten years old. She has been sheltered all her life and is rarely allowed outside her grandmother's grasp. She is beautiful and has been raised to be honest and to never lie or disobey her grandmother. Like her grandmother, Lily is industrious and hardworking. She is also wise and easily detects Willis's corrupt desire for her. She instinctively understands that her father is not to be trusted and wipes off his touch after he kisses her. Lily initially tells Willis that she is fourteen, although she is not quite that old, but like young girls often do, she wants to be seen as older. In spite of Magoun's efforts to keep Lily childlike and protected, she is growing up and becoming aware of men. Although Lily is uneasy around Willis, she also thinks him handsome, and as a teenage girl, she is also curious about him. After she returns to her grandmother's house, Lily asks if Willis is downstairs with the other men who have come for dinner and is seemingly disappointed that he is not. At nearly fourteen, Lily is on the cusp of being an adult. In some ways, she is still a child, clutching her doll, but in the next moment she is curious about the attentions of a handsome man.
Nelson Barry is Lily's father. Although Old Woman Magoun claims that Barry and Lily's mother were married, Freeman creates some doubt about whether that claim is fact. It is just as likely that he either seduced the girl or raped her. In either case, it is clear that Barry abandoned a pregnant teenager and took no responsibility for the child he fathered. Barry and his sister are the last descendants of the Barry family. The family is now degenerate and morally corrupt. Their bloodline has become tainted through their degenerate excesses. Barry gambles and drinks and lives in a house that was "once magnificent," but is "now squalid," a symbol of the deterioration of the family. Barry wants his thirteen-year-old daughter, Lily, so that he can give her to his friend, Willis, as a sexual payment for his gambling debts. Freeman describes Barry as a "dangerous degenerate," who is regarded by the townspeople as "an evil deity." He symbolizes the decline of men, who abuse and use women because it is their right to do so.
Sally Jinks is Old Woman Magoun's friend. She is not Magoun's equal intellectually and is capable only of crocheting a course lace, something that "her heavy brain" has mastered. It is Jinks who encourages Magoun to send Lily to the store, and thus she sets in motion the tragedy that follows. Jinks chastises Magoun for keeping Lily so protected and childlike, when most girls Lily's age are already thinking about boys and marriage.
Old Woman Magoun
Old Woman Magoun is the protagonist in this story; she is also a very complex character with many layers of personality to consider. She has devoted herself to raising and sheltering her granddaughter. Throughout Lily's childhood, Magoun's determination to protect Lily has been centered on keeping the child secluded. Lily has not been permitted to play with other children, and although she is nearly fourteen years old, she still plays with a rag doll. Because Lily's mother became pregnant at sixteen and was abandoned even before the birth of her child, Magoun shelters Lily and tries to protect her from the same fate. It is possible that Magoun's determination to protect Lily stems from her inability to safeguard Lily's mother. Magoun tries to make sure that Lily is sheltered from the same forces that led to her mother's death.
Magoun is assertive and strong and easily dominates most of the men in the town. She has learned to be self-reliant and after her daughter's death. Magoun has learned to be distrustful of the local men, whom she thinks are lazy and solely focused on whiskey and tobacco. When she wants a bridge built, she literally commands the men to do so, promising only that she will cook for them when they complete the bridge. Magoun cannot, however, dominate Nelson Barry, when he comes to claim his daughter Lily. While Magoun is personally strong and very brave, she lacks any real power over the men of Barry's Ford. She also knows that she cannot prevent Barry from taking Lily. Barry has a legal right to his child. Magoun is determined to save her granddaughter from Barry's degenerate world, regardless of the cost. When she cannot stop Barry, she chooses to destroy her granddaughter rather than surrender her to Barry's corrupt lifestyle. Magoun's deep love for her granddaughter is clearly established in the deathbed scene, when she tells Lily of the beauty awaiting her when she is reunited with her mother in heaven.
Old Woman Magoun solicits the lawyer's advice in hopes of saving Lily from her father's plan to use her to repay his gambling debt. Magoun would like the lawyer to adopt Lily, but Mason declines Magoun's plea that he raise Lily, since she has her father's vitiated or corrupt blood. Mason thinks that the Barry family's stock is morally and physically spoiled and needs to die out with the current generation.
Mrs. Maria Mason
Mrs. Mason is the lawyer's wife. Her only child, a little girl, died, and she longs for another child. She feeds Lily a snack of milk and a sour apple, which becomes the evidence to support Lily's subsequent illness. Mrs. Mason would like to adopt Lily, but her husband will not permit it.
Jim Willis is Barry's poker partner and the man to whom Barry owes a great deal of money. After Willis meets Lily in a chance encounter, he wants to possess Lily, and so he makes a deal with Barry to take Lily as repayment for the gambling debt. Like the Barry family, to whom they are related by marriage, the Willis family has lost its vitality through degenerate living. Willis, though, is richer and so is able to loan Barry money to gamble. His desire to possess this innocent and childlike young girl suggests that Willis is as corrupt as Barry.
Men's and Women's Spheres
The opening of "Old Woman Magoun," describes a man's world. The grocery store is where the men of the small village congregate. The "whisky and the hands of tobacco" ("hands" are leaves of tobacco that are cut and tied into bunches) invite men to sit and linger, rather than work. The men are comprised of the "knot of idlers," who spend their time sitting around talking. While the women are strong and hard workers, in the tradition of their Puritan ancestors, the men do little work and are content to watch the women labor. Magoun is able to extract a promise from the men to build a much-needed bridge after she promises to cook a magnificent meal as their reward. The promise of this meal and extra whiskey finally convinces the men to do what needs to be done to link Barry's Ford with the neighboring town of Greenham. In a conversation between Magoun and Sally Jinks, Magoun questions why men are incapable of doing any work "without havin' to drink and chew to keep their sperits up." Magoun observes that women work hard without either whiskey or tobacco to fortify them. Jinks' reply is that men are "different." Men live in a world where they can choose when to work and the means with which to accomplish their work. Women just work.
Magoun has raised her granddaughter, Lily, since the child's birth. Lily's mother died when she was only a week old, and since that time, Magoun has worked hard to protect Lily. Lily has remained a child long past childhood because the illusion of childhood serves to protect Lily from the dangers of adulthood that young girls face. In a society where young girls can be bartered for a gambling debt, childhood innocence needs to be maintained for as long as possible. Magoun does not allow Lily to play with other children, and she is dressed in "a scanty short frock of blue cotton." Her blond curls are covered with a bonnet that frames "her innocent face." She looks to be less than ten years old, which Magoun hopes will offer protection. When she can no longer protect Lily by pretending she is a child, Magoun offers her much loved granddaughter to lawyer Mason for adoption, but then that attempt also fails, Magoun chooses to protect Lily in the only way she can—by letting her eat poisonous berries. Sacrificing the child she loves, although the anguish she feels is almost unbearable, is the final maternal act of Magoun, a desperate grandmother, who chooses death as way to protect her granddaughter from the fate her father has planned for her.
Magoun chooses death for her granddaughter rather than allow her to enter her father's degenerate life as payment for a gambling debt. Because Magoun has treated Lily as an innocent child and has left her completely unprepared for life, the girl is ill equipped for the kinds of choices that would be demanded of her if custody was surrendered to her father. Freeman uses Jinks to provide important information that the reader would not otherwise have, which makes Magoun's choice of death as a solution appear much more complex. When Magoun tries to justify protecting Lily from any kind of outside influence, she relies upon the phrase: "She ain't none too strong." Jinks counters this point with the comment that Lily's "got a good color." In other words, the child appears strong and healthy. Magoun has protected Lily from having playmates and from having any contact with her father. Now when risk presents itself, Lily is as experienced in life as an infant, although she would soon be called upon to play the role of woman, if her father has his way. Lily is nearly fourteen years old and is perhaps old enough to make the kind of choice that her grandmother makes for her. In this too, her grandmother fails to prepare Lily for what lies ahead. Instead, Lily will fulfill her grandmother's last choice, to die. The ambiguity of having raised an defenseless child and of choosing to sacrifice her life make Magoun's actions less easily defined as a merciful death to save this child from a terrible fate. The counter argument is to suggest that Magoun murders Lily, as a final act designed to protect a teenage girl from her own father. Had he actually been given the chance to know his daughter as a child, Barry might have been more hesitant to sacrifice her to his friend's desire for the girl. Ultimately, Freeman asks her readers to decide whether Lily's death is the mercy killing of an innocent young girl or the murder of a child, who was never given the opportunity to make any kind of choice about her own life.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research women's lives in New England during the nineteenth century and explain in an essay which historical aspects are evident in this short story.
- Barry's Ford is a small town that derives its name from its most prominent founding family and the nearby river crossing. Indeed, many small towns in the United States have similar stories about how their names were chosen. Choose a few small towns and research the source of their names and present your findings to the class.
- It is always easier to write about familiar objects and places, and Freeman uses the history of New England as a way to create characters and plots in her short stories. She even uses her own family's experiences, since her mother was forced to work to support the family after her father's business failed. Freeman even proved capable of supporting herself when called upon to do so. Choose one of your own memories and use it as the basis for a short story. You might also use the story of one of your ancestors.
- The Puritan work ethic is a trait often ascribed to New England women. Indeed, the Puritans who settled New England were renowned for their work ethic. This is still true of the women in Barry's Ford, although Freeman's story suggests that the men no longer personify this Puritan ideal. Research the term "Puritan work ethic" and determine what is meant by this label. Then investigate the lives of women living in the twenty-first century and decide whether or not the term still applies. For instance, does that label still fit women who work in the home or is it better suited to women who work jobs outside the home? Or can the label only be used to describe women who work on farms or in other agricultural settings? Write an essay in which you discuss your findings.
Naturalism was a literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and reflects the growing influence of science on literature. Naturalism is the application of scientific principles to literature. For instance, in nature, behavior is determined by environmental pressures or internal factors, none of which can be controlled or even clearly understood. There is a clear cause and effect association: either environmental choices influence behavior or biological determinism influences behavior. In either case, there is no human responsibility for the actions of the individual. Thus, Mason's accusation that the Barry family line must die out is based on an understanding that Lily has inherited her father's degenerative traits because ultimately "instincts and nature itself" are stronger than any other influence in her life.
Realism is a nineteenth century literary term that identifies an author's attempt to portray characters, events, and settings in a realistic way. Simply put, realism is attention to detail, with descriptions intended to be honest and frank at all levels. There is an emphasis on character, especially behavior. Thus, in "Old Woman Magoun," the events that occur in Barry's Ford are intended to reflect the lives of men and women living in late nineteenth-century rural New England. These are events, people, and a town that might be familiar to any of Freeman's late nineteenth-century readers. The absolute right that Barry enjoys to dispose of his daughter as he sees fit would be familiar to Freeman's readers, who know that women have no parental rights unless given them by their husbands.
The symbol is an object or image that implies a reality beyond its original meaning. This is different from a metaphor, which summons forth an object in order to describe an idea or a quality. For example, Lily's doll is symbolic of her childhood, which is over now because her father has claimed her. The newly built bridge is another symbol of the ineffectiveness of the men of Barry's Ford, who are incapable of creating a well-built and lasting product from their work.
When Nelson Barry comes to Magoun's house to demand that she give him his daughter, Magoun knows that Lily's father has the right to demand custody of his child. For most of the nineteenth century, women had few legal rights. Men made the laws that governed women's lives. Since women could not vote and most women could not even participate in the American judicial system as lawyers until late in the nineteenth century, women had no real control over their own rights. In essence, women were dependent on men for their legal rights in a society that was designed by men, for the benefit of men. Legal custom supported a belief that, after marriage, men and women were one entity and that women became the property of their husband. A woman could divorce her husband if he deserted her or if he was a habitual drunkard, but she could not count on the court to provide her with custody of their children. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws were being passed that allowed women to own their own property, separate from that of their husbands. In some states, women could even sue their husbands; however, when it came to divorce, most often, divorcing husbands retained ownership of property and legal control over their children. In his Feminist Studies essay, "Who Gets the Child? Custody, Guardianship, and the Rise of a Judicial Patriarchy in Nineteenth-Century America," Michael Grossberg argues that while women could be awarded custody more frequently during the late nineteenth century, they were usually held to such high levels of behavior and womanly perfection, that it was easy for patriarchal judges to award custody to fathers. Maternal care was most often considered important for children under age seven. For older children, fathers had the clear advantage of economic and intellectual abilities that determined their suitability for custody. Fathers were preferred for custody, rather than grandparents, even if a dying mother wished otherwise. The nineteenth century movements for equal rights and for suffrage for women finally brought some changes to women's lives by the early twentieth century, as laws were passed that provided women with increased rights to their children and to their own property after divorce. Rights for grandparents were not included in these laws, and in fact, rights for grandparents did not even become a legal issue until late in the twentieth century. Since Magoun had always acknowledged that Barry was Lily's father, she would have had no legal recourse to keep the child from him, once he had claimed her. In many cases, even Lily's mother, had she lived, would have had no power to resist Barry's legal claim to their child.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- Early 1900s: Great Britain passes a pasteurization law in 1901 as a means to protect children from diseases present in raw milk, and the city of Chicago passes a similar law in 1908. There is no federal requirement to pasteurize milk in the United States until the creation of the Standard Milk Ordinance sixteen years later. Lily's illness and death are supposedly caused by drinking milk and eating sour apples. Although in this short story, readers know this is not true, in reality many children did die from drinking milk, and so Lily's death would not raise suspicion. Lily's mother died after drinking milk and so the connection to tainted milk is further established.
Today: Most people still buy pasteurized milk at their neighborhood supermarket, but a large number of states have legislated the sale of organic raw milk to the public, thus overriding federal laws.
- Early 1900s: Girls in the United States begin to menstruate at about age fourteen. Only a hundred years earlier, the average age of menarche was seventeen. Magoun's efforts to protect Lily and keep her a child must eventually give way to biology. Lily is nearly fourteen and likely at the age when she will begin to menstruate, and so her appeal to Willis is that of a young girl just beginning to become sexually mature.
Today: By the end of the twentieth century, the average age that girls begin to menstruate is thirteen. Better nutrition is often cited as the reason that girls are maturing earlier, as is exposure to pesticides, chemicals and hormones in some foods.
- Early 1900s: Half of the working women in the United States are employed in domestic service or in farming. Working in farming is how Old Woman Magoun supports Lily.
Today: There are far greater opportunities for women to work outside the home than were available 100 years ago; as a result, far fewer women support their families by working in agriculture.
Historically, children have not been regarded as being in need of protecting and cherishing. In general, small children were largely viewed as property and older children as adults. In part this view was a result of high infant and child mortality rates, which prepared parents for the possibility of their child's death. Freeman, herself, knew first hand that many children did not survive childhood, since she was the only one of four siblings to survive to adulthood. In 1911, the infant mortality rate in the United States was 135 deaths per 1000 births. In contrast, nearly a hundred years later, the infant mortality rate is 10 deaths per 1000 births. With the increased survival of children, they became more valued members of the family and community, but this was not yet the case at the end of the nineteenth century, when child death was still very common. Children also had few rights to protection during the late nineteenth century, and children of Lily's age were not even considered children under the standards of the day. In fact, the age of consent, at which girls could legally engage in a sexual relationship or marriage, was age ten in the United States, and in some cases it was even lower. In 1885, no state yet had an age of consent over age twelve. Lily, then, was considered an adult by custom and common law, when her father promised her to Willis as payment for a debt. By the early twentieth century, most Americans thought that childhood ended at about age fourteen, and so when this story was written in 1905, Lily would have been considered an adult and in no need of protection. Even if she was still considered a child and in need of protection, it is unlikely that Lily would have received any help, except from her grandmother. In his Social Science History essay, "Child Murder in New England," Randolph Roth claims that parents were able to beat, starve, neglect, imprison, and even terrorize their children, as long as the parents
maintained a public image of caring. Unless suspicion was aroused in some way, murdered children were buried in the same way as those who died of other causes. In "Old Woman Magoun," Lily tells Jinks that she ate sour apples and milk, which provides a convenient account for the source of her illness. She never mentions the berries that she consumed. While twentieth-century parents would expect an official inquiry into whether they were neglectful of their child's well-being, late nineteenth century parents had no such expectation, and thus, Magoun could safely look away as Lily ate poisoned berries that her grandmother knew were in reach.
One of the first critical essays about Freeman's stories was written by author and critic William Dean Howells. In an 1887 Harper's Monthly magazine article, Howells argues that Freeman's short stories recreate "the air of simple village life" that existed in New England. Her stories, according to Howells, have "unity of spirit, of point of view, of sympathy" that reveal the breadth of the world described. These stories, according to Howells, provide "a just and true respect for the virtues of the life with which it deals." Not only were Freeman's stories popular with critics, during her lifetime they were also enormously popular with readers. According to the introduction that Brent L. Kendrick wrote for a collection of Freeman's letters that was published in 1985 (The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman), Freeman was selected by readers in an 1890 Critic poll as one of the top twenty writers that "readers deem the truest representatives of what is best in cultivated American womanhood." According to Kendrick, in a later 1897 poll by the same magazine, readers voted Freeman's short story "The Revolt of Mother" one of the twelve best American short stories ever written. Freeman's popularity continued to endure for many years. For example, when The Winning Lady and Others was published, the book was reviewed by the weekly journal Nation. The anonymous reviewer labeled Freeman's newest book "the best collection of short stories that Mrs. Freeman has published." In referring to "Old Woman Magoun," which is included in this collection, the reviewer notes that women such as Old Woman Magoun are both uncommon and difficult to portray. However, Freeman has been "from the first most successful in presenting," these kinds of "pathetic or somber aspects" of life.
By the 1900s, however, the popularity of Freeman's stories began to decline. Even before her death, Freeman's style of writing was no longer as popular as it had been at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, Freeman continued to be recognized for her contributions to the short story genre. In 1926, upon the presentation of an award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Chancellor of that organization, Nicholas Murray Butler, explained why Freeman had been chosen to receive this award. In an article reporting on the award presentation, "Explains Arts Awards," published in the New York Times, Butler referred to "the character of her work, the fidelity of the types she chose for description and the range of her knowledge" as the reasons that made Freeman exactly the type of writer that this award was intended to honor. At the awards ceremony, Butler noted how in book after book Freeman created "unfaltering portraits" that provide "an unparalleled record of New England life." At her death, her obituary in the New York Times remembered Freeman for "the touch of kindly humor" in her work and the "variety of experience" in her stories. More recently, Freeman has emerged as an object of scholarship. In a 1987 "Legacy Profile," for the Journal of American Women Writers, Leah Blatt Glasser points out that Freeman's stories reveal "both the individual and collective power of women in the face of insurmountable obstacles." Glasser is only one of several scholars who have rediscovered Freeman. Indeed, after more than a hundred years, her stories still resonate with both readers and scholars.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Freeman's collection of short stories The Revolt of "Mother" and Other Stories, originally published in 1891 and reissued in 1998, is a collection of eight of Freeman's most popular stories.
- The Copy-Cat & Other Stories, originally published in 1914 and reissued in 2004, is a collection of Freeman's short stories for children.
- In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1996), by Leah Blatt Glaser, is a literary biography of Freeman's life and her work.
- Sarah Orne Jewett was one of Freeman's contemporaries. Her novel The Country of the Pointed Firs was originally published in 1896 and reissued in 2007. It is Jewett's best known collection. It contains a novel and short stories about life in New England.
- Kate Chopin was another contemporary of Freeman's. Her stories often focus on women's lives in the southern United States. Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories: At Fault / Bayou Folk / A Night in Acadie / The Awakening / Uncollected Stories (2002) is edited by Sandra M. Gilbert. This volume is a collection of all of Chopin's novels and stories.
- New England Women of Substance: 15 Who Made a Difference (1996), by J. North Conway, examines the lives of fifteen women who made a difference in New England history. Although there are obviously far more than fifteen women who contributed to New England history, the women profiled in this book are universally strong, independent women.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. Karmiol is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay on "Old Woman Magoun," Karmiol examines Freeman's short story as a revision of the children's fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood."
Fairy tales are familiar sources of entertainment for children and adults. A careful reading of Freeman's short story "Old Woman Magoun" reveals that she drew upon the fairy tale tradition as a source for her story. Embedded within the story about Magoun, Lily, and Lily's father is the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood." The fairy tale genre traditionally places women at risk and then rescues them, but rather than work within this formula, Freeman revises this tradition of fairy tale rescue in "Old Woman Magoun." In adapting the familiar fairy tale of endangerment and rescue, Freeman's short story presents an extreme solution to the danger that young girls face as they begin the maturation process toward adulthood.
The story of "Little Red Riding Hood" is a well-known fairy tale in which a young girl is sent by her mother to visit her grandmother. In the best-known version of this fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood is told not to stray from the path and not to speak to strangers. She violates both of these warnings when she speaks to the wolf and then wanders off the path to pick flowers, thus delaying her arrival at her grandmother's house. When she arrives, the wolf is waiting, having already eaten Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother. After the wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood, a woodsman comes upon the scene, slays the wolf, and cuts open his belly, thus freeing Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, who have been swallowed whole. The lesson in the story is that obedience to her mother will protect Little Red Riding Hood from the threat presented by the wolf. In Freeman's story, the mother is replaced by a grandmother, and the young girl is sent, quite literally, into the wolf's den to fetch some salt. Readers are told early in the story that the grocery where Lily is sent to fetch the salt is her father's "favorite haunt." Just as Little Red Riding Hood was cautioned about talking to strangers, Lily is told that she should not "stop to talk to anybody." The warnings issued to Little Red Riding Hood and to Lily represent the maternal effort to protect young girls. In Freeman's story, just as in the fairy tale, the wolf, in the guise of Willis, meets the little girl as she walks along the path.
The idea that men are wolves is not a new one. Men, as is the case with wolves, can be predators, seeking out and destroying what they desire. In James Bucky Carter's essay in Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Carter claims that "structurally and thematically, it is hard not to see ‘Old Woman Magoun’ (1905) as a revision of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ Both tales have at their center young girls who take dangerous journeys into the unknown for their grandmothers." While a trip through the woods to grandmother's house proves dangerous in a fairy tale, so too, is a trip to the grocery store in Freeman's story. Freeman makes clear that sending Lily alone to the grocery is a highly unusual act on Magoun's part. Magoun has devoted considerable energy toward protecting Lily, even sheltering her from other children. Magoun has also protected Lily from her father. Freeman tells readers that Lily rarely saw her father, because her grandmother "took care that she should not do so." Since Magoun knew that Barry's "favorite haunt" was the grocery, she sends Lily on a path to a known danger, where she inevitably will encounter the wolf, who awaits her arrival.
In The Hard Facts of the Grimms's Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar argues that "Little Red Riding Hood" is essentially a struggle between strength and weakness, and thus "any predatory power can be substituted for the wolf, with any innocent standing in for the heroine." In this scenario, Barry and or Willis become the wolf, and Lily is the innocent and very vulnerable heroine. Freeman's choice to cast Barry in the role of wolf is in keeping with the fairy tale tradition. Fathers who desire their daughters and who fail to protect them are rare in fairy tales, but Tartar claims that there are some fathers in these tales who love their daughters excessively, and who "violate basic codes of morality and decency," in their extreme love for their child. Barry's unnatural desire for his own daughter and his willingness to give her to his friend illustrate this father's willingness to violate those basic codes of morality and decency that Tartar describes. She also explains that in some versions of "Little Red Riding Hood," "the father has been identified as both wolf and hunter in disguise," and so the father becomes his daughter's rescuer. However, in Freeman's version of this fairy tale, Lily's father is not cast in the role of rescuing woodsman. Since the part of the woodsman who rescues Little Red Riding Hood is not available in Freeman's story, the author is forced to cast Magoun in the role of both grandmother and male rescuer, who must save the child from her own father.
In his essay, Carter seeks to situate fairy tales within the culturally and historically transforming period of the late nineteenth century. This was a period in which women were rebelling against the values of the patriarchal world. Women were not only marching for suffrage, they were exploring other freedoms and questioning traditional marriage roles. These were women, according to Carter, who "were either accepting or railing against ‘the cult of domesticity.’" If "Old Woman Magoun" is read as protest literature, in which women are consumed by predatory men, as happened to Lily's mother, then Freeman's revision of "Little Red Riding Hood," becomes a way to question gender roles and the oppression of women through male desire. In Crossing the Double-Cross: The Practice of Feminist Criticism, Elizabeth S. Meese suggests that Freeman refuses "to write an easy solution" to the problems presented by gender inequality. Rather than let Mason and his wife adopt Lily, which would provide an easy solution, Magoun must create her own way to save Lily from her father, the predatory wolf. One solution for Freeman is to use Magoun as a way to challenge traditional roles by making her the heroic prince of fairy tale tradition. Carter writes that "Freeman many times turns to women characters to play traditionally male roles, but that within those roles, women still have to work against a male-dominated social order." For women to be in control, they must do so by other than the traditional means available to men. When her efforts to save Lily cannot succeed within accepted legal means, Magoun is faced with the only choice remaining—to kill the object of Barry's desire. Carter suggests that the means by which women confront that "male-dominated social order" are oftentimes subversive. In Magoun's case, the choice is also tragic. She knows that Barry will "have the girl," just as he promises. His power in the world of Barry's Ford leaves no means for Magoun to fight him, except in the most radical fashion possible.
Since men are the strongest beings in the patriarchal world of nineteenth-century New England, the only way for Magoun to be as powerful as a man is to become a man—at least representatively as a reflection of male strength. Magoun must become all that men represent, which will help her find the strength to accomplish what is necessary. It will take all of the strength she can muster to go through with the terrible duty that awaits her. In fairy tales, just as in Freeman's real world, it is men who are rescuers of women. Carter points out that in "Old Woman Magoun" Freeman provides "not only a revision of multiple fairy-tale elements but also revisions of gender roles." Men fall into three categories in Freeman's revisionist fairy tales, suggests Carter, "they are princes, beasts, or royal pains." The only potential prince in "Old Woman Magoun" is the lawyer, Mason, who declines to rescue Lily, since he would prefer that the Barry line, which he condemns as contaminated, die out. That means that only Magoun can play the role of rescuer. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar propose in No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words that Magoun assumes the male prince-like demeanor even in her appearance. She is "large, aggressive, and self-assertive," and tells her male listeners that "Ef I were a man" she would be a better man than those who live in Barry's Ford.
Gilbert and Gubar view the lawyer who refuses to help rescue Lily as just another male who "speaks for a legalistic male society preoccupied with the rules of lineage." Because Mason refuses to assume the required role of prince, Lily's grandmother must rescue the child. But because she is only a pseudo-prince, she lacks the necessary authority to do so. Given her lack of power in a strongly patriarchal society, Magoun must choose the only means available to her—to murder her grandchild to protect her. According to Gilbert and Gubar, "Lily's father and his gambling companion represent a predatory male sexuality that would transform the virginal Lily into a commodity," which might well end her life, as it did her mother's. When viewed within this context—that Lily's death is inevitable—Magoun's choice to kill the child is more easily understood. The death of Lily, claim Gilbert and Gubar, suggests that "without some radical but perhaps barely imaginable social transformation, women who wish to resist" have limited choices. They can choose either to die or to endure an emotional death as sexual property.
As suggested above, the fairy tale genre is one of risk and rescue. Freeman's revision of this genre does not provide for such conventional and easy answers. In her essay in New England Quarterly, Kate Gardner argues that Freeman subverts conventional expectations of genre in her short stories in unexpected ways. For instance, Gardner notes that Freeman's women are "typically poor, old, [and] single." These are women with no access to the usual means of power—"law, money or physical force." Old Woman Magoun is this sort of woman. She supports herself and Lily by selling produce in the neighboring town. When she needs the law to protect her, she is confronted by several problems. Barry has parental rights and the power of his hereditary name and position. He also has access to money, which Magoun lacks. The law also fails her when the lawyer Mason ignores her request for help. In the end, Magoun is faced with only one option to protect the granddaughter she loves. Lily's death is the inevitable result of her pursuit by the wolf father. In her revision of "Little Red Riding Hood," Freeman defeats the fairy tale beast, but not without destroying the girl and her heroic grandmother prince. The last image in the story is of Magoun carrying Lily's old rag doll. It is an image that reminds readers that not all fairy tales end happily ever after.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on "Old Woman Magoun," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
Doris J. Turkes
In the following excerpt, Turkes explains sociological theories on later life stages (which were developed after Freeman had died) and notes that these theories apply in hindsight to Freeman's characters.
The revival of interest in the work of Mary Wilkins Freeman is generating some new and interesting criticism, but much exploration of her work remains shadowed by earlier critical dicta. Considering her a major American voice, her contemporary readers and both British and United States critics appreciated her humor—a favorite phrase used to describe her work noted her combination of "humor and pathos"—and saw as well her women protagonists, old and young, as well-drawn, individual characters. Awareness both of Freeman's humor and the importance and variety of her elderly women characters seems to be lost today.
In the early years of this century, critics and scholars like Fred Lewis Pattee and his contemporaries were working to make the study of American literature not only respectable but masculine; in this process, critical judgment declared that Freeman's place and her subject were no longer relevant, since she pictured a dead society, and her works should be read as snapshots of a dismal past, if read at all. While we may suspect that the basis of this opinion was the prevalence of women as protagonists, the effect of the judgment of Pattee, Van Wyck Brooks, Edward Foster, and Percy Westbrook, all major critics of her work, has left a legacy difficult to shake off: that she is a curiosity of the past, that her characters live in a dark, dismal world, and that therefore her work is without universality.
Freeman's old women are major casualties of this attitude. What little scholarly mention there is, even today, of stories with old women as protagonists (always with the exception of "The Revolt of ‘Mother’") tends to treat them as figures in a plot rather than characters in a story, and that absence of critical and scholarly attention to Freeman's older protagonists is itself a statement. Perhaps the combination of the legacy of darkness with today's attitudes toward the elderly is responsible; women, and certainly those who compound the crime of gender by adding age, are hardly individual human beings, but merely a bland social category, and can be legitimately ignored. As a kind of generic or stereotypic figure, old women are assumed to be pitiful, alone, poor, often outcast, unhappy, and certainly trivial, as if by aging they have somehow failed. And as failures, they are uninteresting.
Yet the frequency with which older women appear as protagonists in Freeman's narratives indicates that she—and her audience—did not find them uninteresting. A review in the London Bookman, after publication of Freeman's second collection of short stories, A New England Nun, praised an "endless gallery of these curious portraits of aged maids and matrons, drawn with all the detail and clearness of Holbein's old women" (102-03). Freeman's old New England women are seldom passive; most of them remain actively engaged with life, often with a strength and even a ferocity that surprises readers as much as it does their village neighbors. In her study of literary portrayals of aging, Barbara Frey Waxman notes that in some recent fiction, older women characters "defy the outmoded social expectation of passive senescence by taking charge of their lives, making changes, and traveling—inward, backward, forward—into fuller, more intense lives and richer, more philosophical deaths. By leading ‘young’ lives in middle and old age, these fictional heroines undermine the conventional binary opposition between youth and age" (183). Though she is talking about contemporary fiction, Waxman's analysis appropriately applies to many of Freeman's elderly women protagonists.
Close examination shows that it is not safe to generalize about Freeman's old women. In the small, lively interactive worlds that Freeman presents, with their echoes of worlds everywhere, old women do not become marginal. Many are poor, as their villages are poor; many are lonely. But poverty is relative, and loneliness is a human condition not limited to the old. To miss their variety of character and situation, or to write them off as uninteresting failures because they are old, is to miss a significant portion of the author's exploration of human lives.
Sometimes it is useful to step outside one discipline and borrow the insights of another. A sociologist, complete with her measuring tools, sees and judges Freeman's old women by less subjective standards. Using models of lifespan development and gerontological models of successful aging, the sociologist would concur with the view that Freeman's older female characters are not all alike—that is, unloved, unfulfilled old women—but rather diverse characters whose adaptations to the challenges of the later years of life range from successful to complete failure.
Life-span theorists and gerontologists have detailed a complex of physical, psychological, and social changes and challenges which people confront in the later portion of life: adjustment to physical limitations accompanying aging, fulfillment of psychological needs for independence and autonomy, and creation and preservation of a socially valued place in their own communities. How adequately one accepts the changes and accommodates these challenges determine whether one reaches the end of life in despair or with a sense of accomplished purpose and well-being.
One way of differentiating between "winners" and "losers" in the aging process is to establish some criteria against which life outcomes of people, real or fictional, can be judged. Models of successful aging advanced by those who study the aging process provide a rich source of criteria from which to choose; these may be applied appropriately to well-drawn literary characters, like Freeman's, as well as to real people.
The idea that people pass through stages of development has a certain experiential appeal. Although life-span models—developmental stage models—have been criticized for their androcentric focus, for their inflexibility and emphasis on sequential development, and have proven difficult to validate empirically, they furnish indices of successful coping and provide a useful means of looking at the changes which occur during a lifetime.
One of the more influential developmental stage models, and one that has attracted interest beyond psychology and psychoanalysis, is that of Erik Erikson. His well-known model provides a general framework for describing and interpreting some of the major adjustments that occur over the life span. The model posits that progression through the life span involves confronting and moving through a series of developmental crises. With movement through each crisis, an additional psychosocial stage of ego development is achieved, and a new orientation toward life is gained. The psychosocial stages, of which Erikson delineates eight, are incremental, and advancement to a later stage is contingent upon having "resolved," with either a positive or negative ego development outcome, an earlier stage.
Of Erikson's eight psychosocial life crises, the first six are confronted before middle age and are not significant to this discussion. It is Erikson's adult developmental stages of middle and old age that are of primary interest in this appraisal of the successful adaptations to aging of Freeman's elderly women protagonists.
During middle adulthood the developmental goal identified by Erikson is to show generativity—to define a life purpose beyond satisfaction of personal needs and comforts. The welfare of non-family, the quality of life of others, contributing to or concern about future generations must supersede personal orientation. Failure to establish a sense of generativity leads to self-absorption or stagnation, preoccupation with selfish or material interests. Erikson notes that parenthood per se does not guarantee generativity, but rather, the parenting must be of the calibre that it can be interpreted as making a contribution to humankind, not as a narcissistic or self-serving activity.
In old age, according to Erikson, the prominent developmental issue is "accrued ego integration," taking stock of one's life, connecting with one's past. Because major life efforts are nearing completion, there is time for reflection. The older individual who has a sense of accomplishment, of a life well lived (not necessarily in material terms), who does not see life as a series of missed opportunities or poor choices made, is one who demonstrates a life cycle of integrity. Conversely, if there is a sense of too little time left to start over and make things right, then despair manifests itself. Integrity rather than despair leads to wisdom, the knowledge of what is true and just.
Erikson's stage model of life-span development is so widely known that, even though it is plagued by androcentricity and validity problems, no appraisal of successful aging would be complete without its application. For this study, a suitable complement to Erikson's psychological stage model is the five-component index of life satisfaction which Robert Havighurst, Bernice Neugarten, and Sheldon Tobin (319-24) identified in older persons who were satisfied with their present and past lives and therefore could be considered to have successfully adapted to aging. The five life satisfaction components include (1) zest: showing passion, spirit, vitality for life, being enthusiastic rather than apathetic; (2) resolution and fortitude: tenaciously and actively engaging in life, taking life's ups and downs and dealing with them, assuming personal responsibility for one's own life, becoming autonomous, avoiding victimization, and repudiating "just existing" and rejecting passive acceptance of what life has given; (3) completion: finding congruence between desired and achieved life goals, feeling that one has accomplished something worthwhile in life as opposed to becoming filled with what Erikson refers to as despair; (4) self-esteem: valuing oneself, refusing to be displaced, seeing oneself as part of an interdependent network of community rather than as an individualistic unit, having a sense of social worth; (5) outlook: having hope, showing optimism versus pessimism.
Together the Eriksonian and the life satisfaction criteria involve societal as well as individual or personal appraisals of success or failure in life. According to Erikson's developmental model, successful psychosocial ego development occurs within the framework of the larger society. The individual does not precipitate the crises which lead to movement along the developmental continuum, but rather, the crises are imposed by society on the individual. Because of this, personal evaluations are insufficient and must be accompanied by societal judgments in determining developmental outcomes. This distinction will be significant in the differentiation of successes versus failures in Freeman's older women characters. For example, in the seventh life-span stage, society imposes a question about the generative contributions of adults in middle-age. Achievement of a very personal goal which brings satisfaction, such as accumulation of material possessions or getting back something which has been lost, is insufficient to avoid ego stagnation and self-absorption. For a character to be judged as having achieved generativity, she must have exhibited some degree of concern for others beyond self and immediate family; she must be able to answer in the affirmative the question, "is the world a better place because of me?" She has to have had a life purpose which was not intrapersonal, but rather interpersonal. If there has been no social contribution and only personal satisfaction, the character cannot be judged to have achieved generativity. For an individual to move successfully through the adult stages of development, Erikson's modal demands that an altruistic contribution of some sort be made. Similarly, for the eighth stage, society imposes the task of life review. The Freeman character, to be judged a success, must find, at the end of life, peacefulness and equanimity because she has lived a life that by societal standards is defined as worthwhile.
In comparison, some of the life satisfaction criteria involve personal rather than societal evaluation. A sense of completion, a feeling of having accomplished what she wanted, does not require that a character's action be social in nature; her feeling of completeness may come because she achieved some purely personal, perhaps selfish, goal. Similarly, for a character to rate high on outlook does not require that society sees her as having hope; a personal definition can suffice here. Other criteria, however, require a social, not a personal, appraisal. To determine if one lives with zest involves social comparison with how others live; exhibiting resolution and fortitude and accepting responsibility for one's own life imply a societal expectation that may run counter to an individual's preference for a level of responsibility. And finally, to achieve self-esteem requires that one takes into account society's appraisal of one's self; self-esteem cannot be achieved without society's approval of the appropriateness of one's life and life style.
The combination of Erikson's positive attributes of adult stages of development and the life satisfaction criteria provides a set of standards which involve both societal and personal assessment; this combination is widely known, well regarded, and entirely appropriate for use in distinguishing between Freeman's older women characters who have aged successfully, the winners, and those who have not, the losers. In summary, the criteria which will be applied in this paper to project successful aging are: 1) generativity, 2) ego integrity, 3) zest, 4) resolution/fortitude, 5) completion, 6) self-esteem, and 7) outlook.
Applying these measures to Freeman's fictional older women uncovers a wide range of success and failure. Those who manage to resolve favorably the problems of aging and maintain independence and autonomy at the same time they hold on to "place" in their communities are generally women with a zest for life, women of resolution and fortitude, women who feel they have accomplished what they want to, women who think of themselves as persons of worth, women whose lives are not self-centered. Because they have managed to resolve the developmental conflicts in their own favor, they are women who would be defined as evidencing integrity and wisdom rather than despair—they are judged as having lived and aged successfully. Conversely, the failures, women who do not resolve the conflict in their own favor and who cannot achieve a successful compromise with society, are more likely to end their years in despair, knowing that for them life did not turn out right.
… Freeman's characters are crafted as distinctly unique persons. Many of them are single or alone, a reality that reflects life in the post-Civil War New England villages in which they all live. But the similarities among her characters end with age and location. Depending on what criteria are applied, Freeman presents differing life styles, differing levels of success in achieving life satisfaction, and differing degrees of ego integrity in her characters. All old women are not alike, nor are they all alone, poor, outcast, and unhappy; as usual, Freeman delights in exploring variations in personality and situation.
What is significant about the application of these standards to Freeman's character types is that the standards themselves, here applied to elderly women created in the past, would not have been recognized at the time Freeman was writing. The satisfaction standards and Erikson's criteria are decidedly late-century creations; furthermore, they are androcentric standards generated at a time before there were questions about the differences between male and female social and psychological development over the life span. Many, perhaps most, of Freeman's elderly women protagonists fare surprisingly well when scrutinized with life-span models and aging models which are neither tailored to their time nor their gender.
Source: Doris J. Turkes, "Must Age Equal Failure? Sociology Looks at Mary Wilkins Freeman's Old Women," in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, September 1999, pp. 197-214.
Perry D. Westbrook
In the following essay, Westbrook gives a critical analysis of Freeman's work.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman ranks among the foremost interpreters of New England village and rural life. Though she may correctly be described as a local colorist, she is much more, for in her short stories and novels she deals perceptively with the 250-year-old Puritan heritage of her region so convincingly, with such objectivity, that she takes an honored place in the development of realism in American literature, a place that the "high priest of realism," William Dean Howells, readily assigned her. Her local color—her presentation of the social and physical aspects of the New England countryside—is unexceptionable; but she either avoids or greatly modifies some of the conventions of local-color writing. Thus she does not dwell on "quaintness," whether of character or folkways, merely for the sake of quaintness. Nor does she record regional dialect with the relentless phonetic accuracy that has rendered much nineteenth-century local-color writing repugnant to present-day readers. In her dialogue she attempts, usually successfully, to catch the rhythms of regional speech and to give the flavor, rather than an exact transcription, of pronunciation. Most important, unlike most local colorists, in her best writing she is preoccupied with the psychology, especially as it is derived from cultural roots, underlying her characters' attitudes and actions. For example, she was fascinated by what may be called the anatomy of the New England will—that legacy from early Puritanism—which she found in a hypertrophied, or warped, condition in the remote villages and on the isolated farms of the area. At the beginning of her career, she earned recognition for her insights into the impulses and motives that ruled the lives of the fiercely independent, stubborn, often pathetic, and at times hateful rural characters that people her stories.
Yet her insights were not solely in the realm of psychology. She was also keenly aware of the social and economic conditions with which her country folk had to contend. Seriously depopulated of its men by the Civil War and by migration to the West and to the industrial cities, the countryside of which she wrote was one of rundown or abandoned farms. Her villages, where the churches, the schools, and the town-meeting governments had lost their original vigor or seemed hardly to function, were communities where women, disenfranchised politically and barred from the ministry, far outnumbered the men and where the men who remained were more often than not moral and intellectual weaklings. Thus Freeman wrote of a woman's world, and since her women, many of them strong characters but others weak and neurotic, somehow cope, she has attracted the attention of feminist literary critics—a development which, after a period of neglect, has contributed to her rehabilitation as an important American author. But mostly the renewal of her reputation is ascribable to the fact that in her skill at evoking atmosphere and mood and in her psychological perceptions she anticipates such authors as Katherine Anne Porter and Katherine Mansfield. And as a depicter of rural New Englanders she must be considered in the company of Sarah Orne Jewett, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost.
Freeman wrote about conditions, places, and people that she had known at firsthand all her life. She was born Mary Ella Wilkins in Randolph, Massachusetts, in 1852. (Her middle name was later changed to Eleanor.) Both her father, Warren E. Wilkins, who was a carpenter, and her mother, Eleanor Lothrop Wilkins, were descended from seventeenth-century settlers in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Randolph, though only fourteen miles from Boston, was an agricultural community with a considerable amount of shoe manufacturing, much of it carried on in individual homes. Orthodox Congregationalism held sway in the town, and the Wilkins family strictly observed the Sabbath with its Sunday school, morning and afternoon services, and evening prayer meeting. Later in life Mary Wilkins took a somewhat relaxed view of the Calvinism in which she had been brought up, but she remained a member of the Congregational Church. When she was fifteen years old, she moved with her family to Brattleboro, a town of some cultural pretensions in southern Vermont, where her father went into the retail dry-goods business. Graduating from Brattleboro High School in 1870, she entered the strictly religiously oriented Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary but dropped out because of ill health after a year. Returning home, she took courses at Glenwood Seminary in West Brattleboro during 1871-1872. A series of misfortunes then beset the Wilkins family. Between the years 1873 and 1880 Warren Wilkins's business failed, forcing him to return to carpentry; Mary's only sister, Anna, died in 1876 at the age of seventeen; and Mary's mother died in 1880 at the age of fifty-three. In 1882 Warren Wilkins, in poor health, moved to Florida, where he continued his trade as a builder until his death a year later. Soon after, Mary returned to Randolph, continuing to live there until her marriage to Dr. Charles Manning Freeman on 1 January 1902 and her consequent removal to his home in Metuchen, New Jersey, where she died of a heart attack in 1930. During her seventeen years in Brattleboro she had gained an intimate knowledge of rural New England life, especially as it was lived in the nearby hill towns.
Before her return to Randolph, Freeman had tried her hand at writing and had placed juvenile poetry and fiction in such reputable magazines for children as Wide Awake and St. Nicholas. She had also won a prize for an adult story, "The Shadow Family," published in the 1 January 1882 Boston Sunday Budget, had placed several others in Harper's Bazar, and as a final triumph had had her story "A Humble Romance" (collected in A Humble Romance and Other Stories, 1887) accepted by the prestigious Harper's New Monthly Magazine, where it appeared in the June 1884 issue. Mary Booth, the editor of Harper's Bazar, was especially fond of Freeman's fiction, and, though Booth died in 1889, the magazine continued to publish Freeman's work for many years. A stickler for grammar, Mary Booth forbade Freeman to end sentences in prepositions.
Thus launched, Freeman continued to turn out a steady flow of stories and poems for both children and adults. Her first collection of adult short fiction, A Humble Romance and Other Stories, was published in 1887 by Harper and Brothers. This volume is one of her most distinguished and is thoroughly representative of her best work both stylistically and thematically. In the preface to an 1890 Edinburgh edition Freeman carefully defined her purpose and the scope of her subject matter. She was writing, she stated, about "the descendants of the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, in whom can still be seen traces of will and conscience, so strong as to be almost exaggerations and deformities, which characterized their ancestors." Her hope was "to present in literature … this old and disappearing type of New England character." In this purpose she was highly successful. William Dean Howells, though he found a few of the stories in A Humble Romance too sentimental for his taste, praised the stories in the aggregate for "their directness and simplicity" and their distinctively American flavor and compared her work favorably with that of Sarah Orne Jewett, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James for its avoidance of the superficiality of much of the fiction of the day. To Howells, Freeman was an outstanding practitioner of the realism that he was sponsoring in the criticism he was writing for his "Editor's Study" column in Harper's New Monthly and exemplifying in his own fiction. Hamlin Garland was even more impressed. He considered Freeman's work to be in close accord with his theory of literary "veritism" (essentially realism). Visiting her in Randolph in 1886 or 1887, he thought "her home might have been used as a typical illustration for her [characters' homes]"—a confirmation that she was a countrywoman whose writing reflected her own life and experience. Eventually Freeman's work also received acclaim as social commentary; for example, Rollin Lynde Hartt, in an article for the April and May 1899 issues of the Atlantic Monthly, cited her accuracy in describing life in areas of New England which were suffering from severe economic and spiritual decline.
Indeed, conditions in the New England countryside and in the villages were deplorable. Although Freeman did not write about the most severe social and economic deterioration as it existed in the more remote regions, the villages and farms in her fiction—modeled as they were on localities she had known in the upper Connecticut River Valley and in eastern Massachusetts—were in a state of chronic and deepening depression. Farming the rocky soil was unprofitable in the face of western competition made possible by the railroads. Small-scale village industries—once prolific in number and variety—were succumbing to the city manufacturers, who were also aided by the railroads in their marketing. Whole families of rural people, in some cases whole communities, had migrated in search of a livelihood, leaving the abandoned countryside slowly to revert to forest and the villages to languish in semi desertion and a grinding poverty that kept the poorhouses, those most dismal and inhumane of New England institutions, fully inhabited. As already stated, of those who did not emigrate, the majority were women. Many of the men who had gone in search of better things undoubtedly intended to return, and some did, to rejoin their families or to marry a hometown girl. But many never returned, and the women, in disproportionate numbers, were left to guard what was left of the old culture and to make do as best they could—which often was quite well. Of course, some farmers and shopkeepers remained, but the farmers were victims of the stultifying and dehumanizing labor required to wrest even the barest subsistence from the sterile land, and the shopkeepers in their efforts to wring a profit from their impoverished customers earned the reputation—often deserved—of being heartless skinflints ever on the alert to cheat widows and orphans of their last pennies.
Such was the environment of many of Freeman's stories. In evoking the sounds and sights and the atmosphere of one of these back-country villages or upland farms she was supreme. A dusty, dreamy village street lined with picket fences and houses from which the white paint had cracked and flaked away; a grassy country road with a thunderstorm rumbling on the horizon; a single woman's kitchen on a frosty autumn evening; the bleak common room of a poorhouse set among stubble cornfields across which slants a November rain—these and other such scenes form the backdrop of her tales. The reader is struck by the number of stories in which the first or second paragraph skillfully and economically creates a setting and establishes a mood: "The house was an infinitesimal affair, containing only two rooms besides the tiny lean-to which served as a wood-shed. It stood far enough back from the road for a pretentious mansion, and there was one curious feature about it—not a door nor window was there in front, only a blank unbroken wall"—thus begins "An Honest Soul" (Harper's New Monthly, July 1884; collected in A Humble Romance), the story of Martha Patch, an unmarried, impoverished seamstress. Another tale, "A Conflict Ended" (Harper's New Monthly, February 1886; collected in A Humble Romance), the theme of which is a man's pathologically developed volition, begins: "In Acton there were two churches, a Congregational and a Baptist. They stood on opposite sides of the road, and the Baptist edifice was a little farther down than the other. One Sunday morning both bells were ringing. The Baptist bell was much larger, and followed quickly on the soft peal of the Congregational with a heavy bronze clang, which vibrated a good deal."
But Freeman is most interested in the people who inhabit her vividly, sometimes starkly, etched settings. In a preface to Pembroke (1894), a fine novel of village life, she wrote that her book "was originally intended as a study of the human will in several New England characters, in different phases of disease and abnormal development and to prove … the truth of a theory that its cure depended entirely upon the capacity of the individual for a love which could rise above all considerations of self…." These remarks apply as well to her short fiction. She explains that by "abnormal" she does not mean "unusual." She insists that in the remote areas of New England eccentricity of character in the form of a stiff-necked stubbornness, or a refusal to yield on even the most trivial matters, or a pathologically developed conscience is the norm. She traces these characteristics back to the Calvinism of the original colonists, in whom an indomitable will was indispensable for survival in a strange and hostile land. In the nineteenth century the old strengths, warped and exaggerated, often become obstacles to personal happiness and community harmony. Yet in meek, seemingly weak-willed persons these same strengths would sometimes suddenly awake from dormancy with startling intensity and release their possessors from their own incapacities or from the domination of others.
A Humble Romance and Other Stories, then, like most of Freeman's best writing, is to a great extent a study of residual Puritanism as it existed in the rural New England of her day or a generation earlier. The gallery of character portraits that she presents in this first volume of her serious fiction is varied and fascinating, and each one typifies a different but more-or-less prevalent form of eccentricity or aberration. Martha Patch, in "An Honest Soul," is the victim of a morbidly over refined conscience. Living precariously near starvation in her tiny cottage, she exists by sewing for her neighbors. Commissioned by two customers to make patchwork quilts from bags of rags that they leave with her, she finds, on finishing the quilts, that she has sewn into one a scrap belonging to the other customer. A person of normal conscience would let the matter go. A person of a rather finicky conscience would inform her customers of the error on the assumption that they would be unconcerned. A person with a post-Puritan conscience pathologically developed would do what Martha Patch does—tear the two quilts apart and resew them, not once but twice, since she makes a similar mistake the second time. Meanwhile Martha has made no money and hence has not eaten for days. She faints from malnutrition and is found lying on the floor by a neighbor, who revives her. The title of the story is in part, at least, ironic, for in conclusion Freeman poses the question whether "there were any real merit in such finely strained honesty, or whether it were really a case of morbid conscientiousness." The question, of course, is rhetorical. Martha's scruples—which she has learned from her father, and he from his father, and so on back through the generations—have been "so intensified by age and childlessness that they have become a little off the bias of reason."
The reference to "age and childlessness" adds another dimension to the story. After the death of her parents, Martha had lived entirely alone. Her solitary state was common in New England villages of the time. Without implying that marriage is a cure-all for the problems of either men or women, once can assume, as Freeman did, that Martha would have worried less about two misplaced scraps of cloth had she had a family to occupy her thoughts. In addition to her loneliness, Martha is wretchedly poor, as her family has been. So poverty-stricken was her father, in fact, that in building the little house Martha occupies, he could not afford to put a window on the end facing the street, and thus its inhabitants have had no outside view except from the back—a fitting symbol of the narrow horizons of these villagers' lives. At the end of the story neighbors take pity on Martha and pay to have a window cut in the front of the cottage. Presumably her life and outlook broaden accordingly. At least she can look onto the street and, watching her fellow villagers, enjoy some sense of rapport with them. "An Honest Soul" touches on a number of Freeman's major themes—the overdeveloped will; the post-Puritan conscience, which in this story motivates the will; the economic distress endemic in the New England countryside; and the loneliness that was the lot of many villagers, especially women. In the breadth of its thematic concerns the story deserves close attention.
There is variety in the eccentricities of Freeman's New Englanders. While Martha Patch's will is coupled with a grotesquely overdeveloped conscience, will alone, without the proddings of conscience, is the theme of other stories in A Humble Romance. In "On the Walpole Road" (Harper's Bazar, 9 February 1884), for example, a couple, having decided to marry, go through with the ceremony even though both know that the woman has fallen in love with another man since the engagement, as she openly states to the minister officiating at the wedding. Both the man and the woman are so determined to do what they have set out to do that the prospect of a loveless marriage is no deterrent. The story is told by one woman to another as the two ride in a buggy along a country road. Freeman here, as in other stories, has adopted one of the oldest forms of narration, that of gossip. The suitability of this device to her subject is obvious. The account of this married couple is clearly a topic for gossip, whether in a kitchen or during a buggy ride on a summer afternoon.
Another story in this collection, "Gentian" (Harper's Bazar, 23 January 1886), records a different manifestation of overdeveloped volition. A woman married to a domineering man, who has become seriously ill and who hates doctors and medicines, doses his food, unbeknownst to him, with gentian. The clandestine medication works, but the wife, afflicted with a conscience comparable to Martha Patch's, decides to tell her spouse what she has done. Thenceforth, the husband, determined to know exactly what he is eating, purchases and cooks his own food, refusing any that she has prepared. "I'm just a-goin' to make sure I hev some tea, an' somethin' to eat without any gentian in it," he snarls. No longer permitted to perform the wifely function of cooking for her husband, the woman suggests that it might be better if she went to live with her sister. In one of Freeman's masterstrokes of dialogue, the man laconically says, "It might be just as well." Later the couple is reunited—a somewhat sentimental ending suited to the Victorian tastes of the predominantly feminine readership of Harper's Bazar.
In stories such as "Gentian" and "An Honest Soul" the hypertrophied will exerts a negative influence. It is volition become "cussedness," "setness," "meanness." Yet other stories in the same collection demonstrate that such wills may be directed to constructive ends, as in Freeman's "A Taste of Honey" (Harper's Bazar, 6 September 1884), in which a young girl, Louisa, through years of grinding labor pays off the mortgage on her and her widowed mother's farm. Her determination costs her a chance to marry; her lover, tired of waiting, marries another girl on the day Louisa makes the last payment on the mortgage. But at least she accomplishes something of value, and she has perhaps learned that marriage is not the only worthwhile goal a woman may choose to pursue.
At times in these stories the action of a strongly developed will leads to an unexpected and even violent revolt. In "A Tardy Thanksgiving" (Harper's Bazar, 15 December 1883) the Widow Muzzy refuses to observe Thanksgiving, that most hallowed of New England holidays, because she has lost her husband and has nothing for which to thank God. In the religious context of her village and her upbringing, her decision constitutes the most serious of all rebellions—a revolt against God by a refusal to accept his ordering of things. Despite pleas by her niece, she insists on spending the day doing "pig work," that is, cutting up and curing the meat of her recently butchered hog. She is deterred from her purpose only when she scalds her foot with boiling water—an event that she takes as a divinely directed punishment for her revolt. Another story of rebellion is "A Moral Exigency" (Harper's Bazar, 26 July 1884), in which a rather plain but passionate woman, a minister's daughter, defies her father's wish that she marry a widower with four children. Instead she steals another girl's lover, but relinquishes him when that girl is about to die. In this story, as in "A Tardy Thanksgiving," the rebellious woman is eventually brought back into line; but the fact that either woman had even dared to defy authority that was unquestioned in that time and place—in the one case the divine Father and in the other an earthly father—required extraordinary force of character and willpower.
Yet the seemingly unswervable post-Puritan will can be softened in various ways. In "A Tardy Thanksgiving" the protagonist's determination is broken by what she considers an intervention by God. In "A Conquest of Humility" (Harper's Bazar, 29 January 1887) a change of the will's direction is brought about by an act of confession and an abnegation of self. This is a strong story—though not one generally singled out for discussion among feminist critics—for it draws on the old Puritan practice of public confession to break an iron will. At the hour of her wedding, a girl named Delia and the assembled guests are informed by the groom's father that his son, who has become infatuated with another woman, will not appear. Delia's handling of her rage and humiliation is to repress both by an almost superhuman effort. She resumes her former life as if nothing has happened. This indifference, of course, is a front that she presents to the townspeople; but it is also her way of showing her contempt for her former fiancé. Later he is jilted in turn and learns a lesson deeply rooted in Calvinist practice and theology: that of humility, repentance, and public admission of guilt. Before a gathering of the same people who had been present at the cancellation of the wedding, he confesses his wrong, asks Delia to forgive him, and offers to marry her. Her refusal is immediate and triumphant. The man, knowing the strength of the girl's will, prepares to leave. Delia, who has recognized the sincerity of the confession, notices a look of contempt on the face of one of the guests. Foreseeing the ordeal or ridicule facing her repentant lover, she exclaims to the sneering guest, "You needn't look at him that way. I am going to marry him." There has indeed been a conquest of humility. A story like this might easily have been engulfed in sentimentality, but Freeman's handling of the situation is far from sentimental. The sequence of repentance, humility, confession, and its results are psychologically convincing and, in the light of New England theology, reflect a traditional process of breaking an emotional and moral deadlock. Freeman's setting of the story against a village background where gossip, ridicule, and contempt for those who fail or deviate from the accepted moral norm adds a dimension of realism that successfully neutralizes any traces of sentimentality inherent in such a plot.
Village opinion is a governing force in many of Freeman's stories. Yet in New England villages eccentricity or extreme independence in one's manner of living would not necessarily invite censure or ridicule. Indeed, an oddity, so long as no moral or religious rule is broken, might be a subject of tolerant interest or good-natured amusement in a community. Most villages had their "characters" to whom their neighbors often pointed with the same kind of pride as to an outstanding geographical or architectural feature. In later stories (such as some of those in Six Trees, 1903) Freeman sometimes writes of harmless, even likable eccentrics; but in cases where normal people commit unacceptable or injurious acts—like the breaking of a betrothal on one's wedding day—public opinion is merciless against the offender.
Most sensitive, perhaps, to village opinion were the poor. According to Calvinism prosperity in one's earthly life might be taken as a sign, though not a proof, of one's favorable standing with God. The righteous, the elect, would more likely than not be blessed with material possessions. The poor—though again the evidence would be considered far from conclusive—would be suspected to be among those whom God had destined for damnation. Thus the poor would be at great pains to conceal their condition, especially if they had once known better times. For example, in "Old Lady Pingree" (Harper's Bazar, 2 May 1885) an eighty-year-old gentlewoman who is permitted to continue living in her foreclosed mansion and to take in impoverished boarders accepts charity but not openly. Donations from her neighbors must be left behind a door, and her pride makes her balk at the thought of being buried at the town's expense. She also insists on helping those of her boarders who are as poor as she, paying the funeral costs for one with money saved for her own burial. By such actions she is able to keep her self-respect, and ultimately, by several lucky chances, she comes into possession of funds sufficient to save her from a pauper's burial. In another story, "A Mistaken Charity" (Harper's Bazar, 26 May 1883), two elderly women of lowlier social status than Old Lady Pingree survive only by the charity of the townspeople. In deadly fear of the poorhouse, commitment to which was the ultimate disgrace in New England one hundred years ago, the two accept, but find fault with, the handouts by which they survive, thus, they think, proving that they are not paupers.
Though the overdeveloped will and its aberrations are the subjects of the majority of the stories in A Humble Romance, several selections deal with a total immobilization of the will. In one of these, "A Symphony in Lavender" (Harper's Bazar, 25 August 1883), the protagonist has drifted into a completely passive way of life. A woman allows a dream to prevent her from marrying a man who courts her and whom she loves. Having chosen not to marry him, she is agonizingly uncertain for the remainder of her life as to whether she has made the right decision. Poor Martha Patch, resewing her quilts, experiences no such uncertainty. Others among Freeman's characters, such as the husband in "Gentian," may realize the wrongness of their course and change it, but once having made a choice they do not question its rightness.
A Humble Romance and Other Stories deserves close and detailed attention because it contains material that was to characterize the best of Freeman's later work. Her second volume of short fiction, A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), also focuses on village and rural settings and characters and elaborates on themes found in her earlier collection. It contains, moreover, several of her best-known and most skillfully narrated tales, among them "A Village Singer" (Harper's Bazar, 6 July 1889), "Louisa" (Harper's Bazar, 13 September 1890), "Sister Liddy" (Harper's Bazar, 2 March 1889), "A Village Lear" (Harper's Bazar, 10 November 1888), "The Revolt of Mother" (Harper's New Monthly, September 1890), and the title piece, "A New England Nun" (Harper's Bazar, 7 May 1887). The volume also includes stories far below these in quality—in fact, below the average of those in A Humble Romance. Freeman, a fast and prolific writer, was already giving indications of an inability to hold to a consistently high level of literary excellence.
Two of the selections in A New England Nun, the title story and "Sister Liddy," deal with the theme of passivity. In "A New England Nun" Louisa Ellis has been engaged for fifteen years to a man who has gone to Australia to seek his fortune. During his absence Louisa has fallen contentedly into a way of life that centers about—and is symbolized by—her caged canary and her dog, Caesar, which, because as a puppy he playfully nipped someone, has been chained all his life. (Freeman had known of a dog confined in this way, and, as a lover of animals, she pitied it.) Moreover, Louisa has shunned any participation in the life of her sleepy little village. When her fiancé returns, flushed with success, it becomes apparent to both that they are no longer suited to one another. In fact, they are no longer in love. Louisa, like certain of Henry James's characters, has, over the years, let herself become unfit for marriage or any other active role in life. Yet, conscientious New Englanders that they are, the two proceed to plan their wedding. A betrothal is not lightly to be broken. At length Louisa learns that her fiancé has fallen in love with a younger and more-vivacious woman, but the betrothed still persist in their plans of marriage—another loveless union like that described in "On the Walpole Road." Louisa, however, does finally make a decision of sorts, though it is prompted mostly by her reluctance to abandon the peaceful, inert existence to which she has become so pleasantly accustomed. She releases her fiancé and "all alone by herself that night, wept a little, she hardly knew why; but the next morning, on waking, she felt like a queen, who after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it fully insured in her possession…. If Louisa Ellis had sold her birthright she did not know it, the taste of the potage was so delicious, and had been her sole satisfaction for so long. Serenity and placid narrowness had become to her as the birthright itself." Unlike the young woman in "A Taste of Honey," who forgoes marriage for the sake of saving the family farm, Louisa retreats into self-indulgence as an escape from involvement in the responsibilities and hazards of a shared life.
"Sister Liddy," a plotless sketch evoking the grim atmosphere of a New England poorhouse, records the dreary existence of a group of paupers and psychopaths. (The poorhouses often served as asylums for the mentally ill as well.) These unfortunates are utterly in the clutch of circumstance; if they have ever possessed any willpower, they have long since lost it. Presented to the reader are a tall, demented old woman who predicts the end of the world; a stupid, fat old woman who amuses herself with vicious gossip and the needling of a pretty old woman whose only comfort is in her memories of her past beauty; Polly Moss, homely and pathetic, who regales the others with stories about a lovely and glamorous sister named Liddy (on her deathbed Polly admits that Liddy never existed); an insane old woman named Sally whose pastime is tearing apart her bed; and a sickly and depressed young woman, whose lover has abandoned her. Not in the starkest tales of the naturalistic writers has so desolate a group been assembled.
In two other stories in this collection, "A Village Singer" and "The Revolt of Mother," women who for years had lived in passive submission revolt with a suddenness and a violence utterly unexpected by their friends or family. In "A Village Singer" Candace Whitcomb erupts with fury when she is supplanted by a younger woman as soprano in her church choir. Candace manages to break up a Sabbath service, and she defies her minister when he attempts to mollify her. Her rage is likened to a forest fire whose glow may be seen from her window. Though she softens somewhat on her deathbed, Candace's revolt has been total and fiercer than that described in "A Tardy Thanksgiving" or "A Moral Exigency" in Freeman's previous volume.
"A Village Singer" is one of Freeman's most dramatic stories. More popular, but less convincing psychologically, is the frequently anthologized story "The Revolt of Mother," in which a farm wife, in defiance of her husband, moves with her children from their shabby dwelling into the much more commodious new barn that the farmer has constructed for his animals. Her act reduces the man to tears, and he bestirs himself to provide the better living arrangements that for years he has promised his wife. This story has often been taken as feminist in its implications. For example, Theodore Roosevelt interpreted it as such in a speech he made before a group of women while he was governor of New York. Yet Freeman herself considered the story flawed by a lack of realism. No New England farm woman, she declared, would place her and her children's comfort before the welfare of the animals that were the family's livelihood.
The fact is that Freeman did not take a strong stand on woman's rights, though the chief appeal of her stories was to women. Harper's Bazar, which published smooch of her early fiction (though "The Revolt of Mother" appeared in Harper's Monthly), was a woman's magazine addressing a great variety of subjects from New York fashions to employment opportunities for women. Mary Booth, its able editor, had been quick in appreciating the suitability of Freeman's fiction for the magazine, and indeed she provided an outlet for other New England writing women, including Rose Terry Cooke and Harriet Prescott Spofford. Always, however, Booth insisted on literary merit. For some months during the mid 1880s Freeman's stories appeared side by side with installments of Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders.
Among the stories in A New England Nun are several in which revolt is combined with a masochistic self-punishment, not an expiation of guilt at having rebelled but an added dimension of defiance and an assertion of independence. In "A Poetess" (Harper's New Monthly, July 1890) an elderly single woman has won recognition in her village as a writer of sentimental verse. When she hears that her pastor, who has himself actually published some poetry, regards her compositions as trash, she burns all her poems and apostrophizes God, "I'd like to know if you think it's fair. Had I ought to have been born with the wantin' to write poetry if I couldn't write it—had I? Had I ought to have been let to write all my life, an' not know before there wa'n't any use in it?" Henceforth she writes no more, goes into a decline, and before her death makes her minister promise to have the ashes of her poems buried with her and requests that he, a published poet, write a poem about her. In another story, "A Solitary" (Harper's Bazar, 8 November 1890), the main character, Nicholas Gunn, has suffered a series of misfortunes, including the death of his wife. His recourse is to avoid all human associations, to refuse to heat his house in winter, to eat only food that he dislikes, and to keep reminding himself of his sorrows. By spiting himself, he reasons, he will not suffer any more disappointments. Nicholas, unlike the poetess, who dies embittered, eventually forsakes his misanthropic and masochistic way of life when he takes in an ill neighbor and cares for him, thus finding a focus other than himself and his grievances.
As does A Humble Romance, A New England Nun contains stories in which a determined but healthy will is directed toward worthwhile accomplishments. One such is "Louisa," the story of a country girl who, refusing marriage to a wealthy but surly suitor, struggles successfully to support herself and her mother on a single acre of tillable land. A story in a lighter vein, "A Church Mouse" (Harper's Bazar, 28 December 1889), tells of a woman who, becoming sexton of her church, sets up housekeeping in the meeting house. Despite the efforts of the congregation and head selectman to evict her, she remains harmlessly and usefully in the church.
Critics are generally agreed that most of Freeman's best short fiction is included in A Humble Romance and A New England Nun. For example, F. O. Matthiessen wrote in 1931 that in these two collections Freeman "told all she knew about life." In them, Matthiessen thought, she revealed a profound insight into the tragic aspects of life, "though she never achieved a complete expression of it in any of her stories…. The struggle of the heart to live by its own strength alone is her constant theme, and the sudden revolt of a spirit that will endure no more from circumstance provides her most stirring dramas."
During the decade after 1891 Freeman wrote seven novels, several of which possess much literary merit. The best is Pembroke (1894), which resembles her collections of short stories in its analyses of various mutations of the Puritan will as it persisted in nineteenth-century New England. As a gallery of rural characters and a record of life in a New England village, this novel is unsurpassed, if not unequaled. Jane Field (1892) is also an effective novel of New England village life, centering on a struggle between a strong-minded woman's will and her conscience. Madelon (1896), a somewhat romantic novel built around an attempted murder of passion, illustrates Freeman's theory that in every New England town some dark secret lies hidden. Jerome, A Poor Man (1897), more realistic in its social background than Madelon, describes the plight of a country town when its chief industry, that of shoemaking, succumbs to competition by urban manufacturers. The Portion of Labor (1901) deals with the strife and hardship occasioned by a textile strike in a large factory town. Like her short stories, these novels, as well as other lesser ones written during the same decade, draw heavily on Freeman's own experiences and observations in eastern Massachusetts and the area around Brattleboro.
During this period Freeman also published five books for children (four volumes of fiction and one of verse); a play, Giles Corey, Yeoman, (1893), set in Salem at the time of the witch trials; and enough adult short fiction to fill four other volumes—Silence and Other Stories (1898), The People of Our Neighborhood (1898), The Love of Parson Lord and Other Stories (1900), and Understudies (1901).None of these collections equals her first two in sustained literary merit. Yet in them are several stories that rank with all but the best of her earlier ones. In Silence, in which with one exception the tales deal with the historic past, "A New England Prophet" (Harper's New Monthly, September 1894) imaginatively evokes the atmosphere and emotions aroused by the apocalyptic prophecies of the Millerites in the 1840s. In "The Cat" (Harper's New Monthly, May 1900) in Understudies —a collection of stories on various animals and plants in relation to, or symbolic of, human types—Freeman convincingly presents her favorite animal in what amounts to a partnership for survival with a man during a long winter of confinement in a remote cabin. Yet in most of her short fiction in the decade following 1891 there is unmistakable evidence of either a loss of talent or an exhaustion of subject matter. Freeman, it is clear, was straining for new topics and effects.
Nor did her writings improve after 1901, though her prolificacy, if anything, increased. (In the course of her life she wrote about two hundred short stories.) In 1902, at the age of forty-nine, she married Dr. Charles Manning Freeman, a nonpracticing physician engaged at that time in a coal business in Metuchen, New Jersey, where she had met him during visits to the Metuchen home of Henry Alden, editor of Harper's New Monthly. Thus Freeman's contact with the New England scene, about which she had done her best writing, was attenuated. The six volumes of short fiction and the seven novels that she wrote on a wide variety of themes after her marriage reveal a continuing deterioration of her abilities. Part of her problem may have been her husband's insistence that she produce in an unreasonable quantity, for he was impressed by the money that her writings brought in. Indeed, it is reported that he supplied her with two typewriters so that she might work on two pieces simultaneously. Another cause for Freeman's decline in talent may have been the breakdown of the marriage itself. Dr. Freeman, an alcoholic, spent time in the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane, and eventually Mary Freeman obtained a legal separation.
So far had Freeman's writing ability slipped that many of her late stories were never collected, nor did they deserve to be. Six Trees parallels Understudies in that it uses six different arboreal species as symbols of human types. In the same year she tried her hand, with only mild success, at writing about the occult in The Wind in The Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903). The Givers (1904) is for the most part a gathering of sentimental Christmas stories. The Fair Lavinia and Others (1907) is devoted to feeble, if not mawkish, accounts of the insignificant doings of village gentlefolk who are startlingly in contrast to the farm men and women and artisans of her earlier tales. One is amazed that those stories had originally been published in Harper's New Monthly. The Winning Lady and Others (1909), though generally undistinguished, contains one striking story, "Old Woman Magoun" (Harper's Monthly, October 1905), an account of rural degeneracy, in which an old woman stands by while her granddaughter, born out of wedlock to the old woman's daughter, eats a lethal dose of poison berries. The old woman would rather have the child die than have her possessed by her depraved father. In this grim tale is a glimmering of the author who wrote "Sister Liddy" and "A Village Singer." The Copy-Cat & Other Stories (1914) includes several selections—notably two stories of revolt, "Dear Annie" (Harper's Monthly, October and November 1910) and "The Balking of Christopher" (Harper's Monthly, September 1912)—which mark a partial revival of their author's powers. Edgewater People (1918), the last of Freeman's volumes of short fiction, contains no noteworthy stories.
During the final decade of Freeman's life, none of her writings appeared in book form, though she still occasionally had stories published in magazines. Yet on the strength of her earlier work she deserved to be awarded the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Fiction in 1926 and to be elected, in the same year, to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. During her life and after, other critics have concurred with Howells and Matthiessen in singling out for praise her realism, her insight into the New England mind, the economy of her prose, and the direct simplicity of her plot structure. Fred Lewis Pattee emphasizes Freeman's awareness of the cultural roots of her characters' motives and way of life as well as her depiction of the social and economic straits of the New England of her day. Van Wyck Brooks agrees with Pattee, and in comparing Freeman with Sarah Orne Jewett finds that Freeman possesses a deeper psychological insight into her characters' attitudes and actions. Carlos Baker also considers Freeman superior to Jewett as an analyst of rural New England character, a view adopted and elaborated on by Austen Warren.
Source: Perry D. Westbrook, "Mary E. Wilkins Freeman," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 78, American Short-Story Writers, 1880-1910, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 159-73.
"American Academy Honors Two Women," in the New York Times, April 24, 1926, p. 7.
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