The question of freedom in the character Louisa Ellis in Mary E. Wilkins’ “A New England Nun” is one of ambiguity and argument. On one side, she manages to find her own small freedom in life within this society that restricts women to standards created by the ideal of “True Womanhood”. On the other hand, that “freedom” she finds still seems to contain her within the constraints of those standards. Even though she finds her personal freedom within certain confinements of “True Womanhood”, she has managed to pick and chose which aspects of it she wishes to follow and which she wishes to avoid. Louisa Ellis has found a way around the submissiveness required of a woman in “True Womanhood” which shows her subversion of the patriarchal standard of the era, thus allowing her her personal freedom.
In order to assess what makes Louisa free or confined by “True Womanhood”, one must look at what “True Womanhood” is. In Barbara Welter’s essay, “The True Cult of Womanhood: 1820-1860” she comments that these “attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues–piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 152). How do these attributes confine her and how does she use them to attain her personal freedom? One of the ways it can be seen that Louisa Ellis remains within the confinements of “True Womanhood” is through her insistence in remaining pure. A woman kept her body pure by refraining from sexual activities and intercourse, and not until she was married was she to bestow this “greatest treasure upon her husband” (Welter 154). In being a “True Woman” purity of body is essential and “Without it, she was, in fact, no woman at all, but a member of some lower order. A ‘fallen woman’ was a ‘fallen angel,’ unworthy of the celestial company of her sex” (Welter 154).
For fourteen years Louisa “had been patiently and unquestioningly waiting” for Joe’s return from seeking a fortune, and remained faithful to him all the while (Wilkins 7). Prior to his departure they promised to be married once he returned, a promise which she faithfully clung too. He was gone for over a decade and yet she never strayed once from her path of purity, being promised only to him once they were married. Women of “True Womanhood” are told “to maintain their virtue, although men, being by nature more sensual than they, would try to assault it” (Welter 155). Louisa follows this advice, and in maintaining her virtue, takes grand efforts to never lead herself to any temptations. Even her care of her dog Caesar reflects her own purity in life. In regards to her dog’s diet, she “never fired his dangerous temper with heating and sanguinary diet of flesh and bones”, similar to how she never fires her own temptations with lustful thoughts and desires (Wilkins 12). They are both kept from any temptations which might ignite a thirst for passion and heat, the dog’s passion being the taste for blood, and Louisa’s passion being the flowing of human blood within sexuality. Keeping from temptations keeps her pure.
At the same time, keeping from these temptations limits her experiences. She never knows what it is like to be passionate and in love, she never allows her self to form a relationship with any other man, physical or not physical. In limiting her experiences she is limiting her freedom, keeping within the defined constraints of “True Womanhood”. That is not to say she needed to be impure and sexual, but in her efforts to remain so pure she limits her awareness of the outside world, trapped within society’s expectations. Louisa can also be seen as trapped as she adheres to the standards of “True Womanhood” through her continued practices of domesticity. Louisa Ellis follow this idea that “the predominating image for women of the early and middle nineteenth century was the Domestic Saint” (Cutter 384). This “Domestic Saint” was to give a “faithful and cheerful performance of social and family duties”, duties which consisted mainly of house keeping as well as activities like cooking and sewing (Welter 162). Louisa may not be married to a man but she is married to her house in all of the domestic duties she performs for it. She keeps all of her belongings in a place, and any disruption or displacement creates a “mild uneasiness” in her. She methodically threads a material, only to unthread it to begin the process again. When Joe leaves after visiting her Louisa immediately “got a dust-pan and brush, and swept Joe Dagget’s track carefully” (Wilkins 5). Any changes in the house require Louisa’s immediate attention, no matter how minor. Nothing in her home can be imperfect, from the floors to the dressers. Louisa has a repetitive routine that she follows in her house from “sitting at her window during long sweet afternoons, drawing her needle gently through the dainty fabric” to keeping her possessions “polished until they shone like jewels” (Wilkins 9). Louisa’s routines are similar to the idea that Welter quotes about how “the repetitiveness of routine tasks inculcated patience and perseverance, and proper management of the home was a surprisingly complex art” (Welter 165). Domesticity is a “complex art” and Louisa has “the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home” (Wilkins 9). Such patience, perseverance, and proper management of the home are all part of the domesticity of “True Womanhood”.
In this sense, Louisa Ellis’ domestic ways keep her trapped by being the controlling factor of her life. She loses control of her own actions as she becomes a slave to maintaining these standards of a domestic woman. Her dedication to domesticity makes her incapable of having any changes or disruptions in her house for any disruptions unsettle her. She is trapped within the confinements of her home, trapped within the domestic duties she must constantly perform. Once again she is unable to experience a world outside of this home that she so loyally caters to. Even though Louisa falls victim to some standards of “True Womanhood”, she gains freedom in her ability to pick and chose which aspects of the expectations of womanhood she wishes to follow. According to Welter, submissiveness, one of the four traits of “True Womanhood”, is “perhaps the most feminine virtue expected of women” (Welter 158). In being submissive, a woman is passive, dependent upon a man, and in need of a protector and provider (Welter 159). Louisa Ellis shatters parts of this submissiveness when she breaks off her marriage to Joe, subverting her from the confining tradition of feminine expectations. She breaks off her marriage to Joe because she is no longer in love with him and wishes to remain in her home and because she sees he is now in love with Lily. She loses some of her passivity in deciding to take action to break off the marriage and in doing so she forfeits her protector and provider, claiming her independence from any man.
Women of “True Womanhood” are supposed to be dependent upon a man to provide shelter and security and protect her from the dangers of the world. Without her marriage to him she is choosing to live a solitary life in her home with just her yellow canary and Caesar. She is freeing herself from the stereotypical “True Womanhood”. In regards to family, Cutter quotes that “no matter what splendid talents a woman might have she couldn’t use them better than by being a wife and mother” (Cutter 384). Being a supportive wife and mother was the expectation that all women of “True Womanhood” were supposed to grow into. When Louisa ends her engagement with Joe and chooses a life of solitude and is breaking from the tradition of becoming a wife and mother which breaks her from the tradition of becoming a “True Woman”.
In “True Womanhood” a woman is also expected to be a female of selflessness. Such selflessness that was a “women’s work had a ‘constant orientation toward the needs of others, especially men’” and a female “selflessly caters to each family member’s needs…in complete subservience” (Cutter 385). These women are told to get married, make a family, and cater to that family’s every need. Her children and her husband are her number one priority; her own importance is nothing compared to their importance. In choosing a life of solitude over marriage and a family Louisa is refusing to become the obedient and selfless wife and mother. She chooses to be alone because that is what she wants. She chooses to cater to none but herself which is just the opposite of the selflessness of “True Womanhood”. In her ability to stray from the total submissiveness required of a “True Woman”, Louisa Ellis has found a way to live with her own sense of freedom from the patriarchal and societal expectations surrounding her. Janice Daniels discusses Louisa’s subversion in her article “Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman” and how “Instead of remaining passively static in restrictive places imposed by outside forces… [Louisa] actively determines and maintains places of [her] own choosing” (Daniels 70). Louisa chooses to follow her own path, one that will lead to her own happiness and that is reflective of her character. She chooses to act outside the societal norm and how she wants to live her life. She refuses to submit to the expectations of patriarchal society she lives in. She finds a way to live within it but on her own terms by upholding the purity and domesticity expected of her, but refusing to be completely submissive to anyone. The ideas and images of domesticity and purity that seem to confine her in the story actually “define for Louisa a place in which she finds her own fulfillment” (Daniels 71). After ending her engagement with Joe, Louisa “gazed ahead through a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary, every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness” (Wilkins 17). Her days are going to be filled with the same repetitive actions that she so desires and enjoys. Louisa only wants to keep control of her life and to live it in a way that will make her happy, and in choosing a life where she doesn’t marry she frees herself from the changes that will do the opposite. When “True Womanhood” threatens to destroy her happiness, Louisa Ellis manages to use her own “little feminine weapons” to achieve the simple freedom she so desires (Wilkins 15).
Cutter, Martha J. “Beyond Stereotypes: Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Radical Critique of Nineteenth-Century Cults of Femininity.” Women’s Studies 21 (1992): 383-295. Print.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18.2 (1966): 151-174. Print.
Wilkins, Mary E. “A New England Nun.” A New England Nun and Other Stories. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1891. 1-17. Print.