A New England Nun – Realism, Symbolism & Point of View | Jotted Lines (2024)


This story about a woman who finds, after waiting for her betrothed for fourteen years, that she no longer wants to get married, is set in a small village in nineteenth-century New England. Critics have often remarked that the setting is particular but also oddly universal as are the themes Freeman chooses to treat. This village is populated with people we might meet nearly anywhere in rural America.

Point of View

“A New England Nun” is told in the third person, omniscient narration. That is, the narrator is not one of the characters of the story yet appears to know everything or nearly everything about the characters, including, at times, their thoughts. For example, the narrator tells us that, after leaving Louisa’s house, Joe Dagget “felt much as an innocent and perfectly well-intentioned bear might after his exit from a china shop.”


In general terms, a symbol is a literary devise used to represent, signal or evoke something else. For example, a fading red rose might be used to symbolize the fading of a romance. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom she has been compared, Freeman was adept at using symbolism in her short stories; but her touch is lighter than Hawthorne’s.

There are many symbols in ”A New England Nun.” For example, the chained dog Caesar and the canary that Louisa keeps in a cage both represent her own hermit-like way of life, surrounded by a “hedge of lace.” The alarm the canary shows whenever Joe Dagget comes to visit is further emblematic of Louisa’s own fear of her impending marriage.

There is a great deal of symbolism associated with nature and plant life in this story. The evening Louisa goes for a walk and overhears Joe and Lily talking it is harvest time—symbolizing the rich fertility and vitality that Lily and Joe represent. Louisa, however, feels oppressed by the sexually suggestive “luxuriant” late summer growth, “all woven together and tangled;” and she is sad as she contemplates her impending marriage even though there is a “mysterious sweetness” in the air. The tumultuous growth of the wild plants reminds us of and contrasts with Louisa’s own garden, which is tidy, orderly and carefully controlled.

Louisa sits amid all this wild growth and gazes through a “little clear space” at the moon. The moon is a symbol of chastity; Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, was a chaste goddess. Louisa will later choose to continue her solitary and virginal, but peaceful life rather than tolerate the disorder and turmoil she believes married life would bring. Lily, on the other hand, embraces that life; and she is described as “blooming,” associating her with the fertile wild growth of summer.


Freeman’s work is known for its realism—a kind of writing that attempts to represent ordinary life as it really is, rather than representing heroic, fantastic, or melodramatic events. Realism, as a literary movement, began in America following the Civil War. The disruption of the war, followed by the Reconstruction of the South and widespread urbanization and industrialization greatly changed the way America looked at itself and, in turn, altered literary models. The romantic approach of the earlier generation of writers, represented by Hawthorne, Melville and Poe, gave way to a new realism. Prominent writers of the Realist movement were Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells. Freeman can be further classified as a local color writer along with Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin, who wrote about life in California, Maine, and Louisiana respectively.

Writing Style

Mary Wilkins Freeman has frequently been praised by critics for her economical, direct writing style. She uses short, concise sentences and wastes little time on detailed descriptions. Her characters are sketched with a few strong, simple strokes of the pen. For example, the reader never really learns what Louisa Ellis looks like, but it does not matter to the story. We know what we need to know to keep us interested and to keep the story moving. Freeman is also known for her dry, often ironic sense of humor. One critic has called it “pungent.” It is the kind of subtle humor that makes us smile rather than laugh aloud. Freeman’s portrait of Caesar, the sleepy and quite harmless old yellow dog that everyone thinks is terribly ferocious, is a good example of her humorous touch. Freeman tells us “St. George’s dragon could hardly have surpassed in evil repute Louisa Ellis’s old yellow dog.” It doesn’t matter that Caesar has not harmed anyone in fourteen years. The mere fact that he is chained makes people believe he is dangerous. “Caesar at large might have seemed a very ordinary dog” she writes, ”chained, his reputation overshadowed him, so that he lost his own proper outlines and looked darkly vague and ominous.”

Source Credits:

Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.

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A New England Nun – Realism, Symbolism & Point of View | Jotted Lines (2024)


What are the key points of the New England Nun? ›

A New England Nun Themes
  • Gender Roles for Women. Louisa Ellis has an unusual life for a woman of her time: she lives alone. ...
  • Honor, Decorum, and Restraint. “A New England Nun” depicts people struggling with a conflict between happiness and virtue. ...
  • Restriction, Freedom, and Art.
Apr 26, 2022

What does the dog symbolize in A New England Nun? ›

Louisa's dog Caesar symbolizes Louisa's belief that a hermetic life is a peaceful one. When he was a puppy, Caesar—then Louisa's brother's dog—bit a neighbor's hand (and the neighbor still has the scars).

What is the theme of A New England Nun? ›

Duty and responsibility are important themes in “A New England Nun” and they were important issues for the New England society Freeman portrays. People were expected to be self-sacrificing and to put responsibility, especially to family or community, ahead of personal happiness.

What is the tone of A New England Nun? ›

Explanation and Analysis: The tone of “A New England Nun” is a conflicted one.

Why does Louisa ultimately decide not to marry Joe? ›

Louisa wants to remain autonomous and make her own decisions, but she understands that she won't be able to do this if she marries Joe. Louisa feels security and satisfaction in the confines of her home, and she believes Caesar is at his best alone in his hut, too.

What does Caesar represent in A New England Nun? ›

Caesar. The chained dog, Caesar, symbolizes the passion that Louisa is afraid to show. As the only other masculine character, he aligns with and becomes an extension of Joe. She inherited Caesar from her brother, and for 14 years Louisa has kept the big yellow dog in a tiny doghouse on a chain.

What does the dog symbolize in? ›

Throughout history, dogs have been depicted in art, literature, and folklore, representing qualities such as loyalty, bravery, and unconditional love. In religious contexts, dogs often symbolize loyalty, faithfulness, and protection.

What do Louisa's aprons represent? ›

Freeman gives the reader details that symbolize Louisa's repressed nature. Beneath Louisa's placid exterior is an internal struggle. Elements, such as her sewing, the caged canary, and her aprons, represent the desires that she is struggling to keep hidden.

What does the lady with the little dog symbolize? ›

The white dog symbolism is important to this short story. It symbolizes Anna's innocence and purity in "The Lady With the Dog." She comes to Yalta and often walks with the dog, before she meets Gurov and begins the affair with him.

What is the moral of the nun? ›

The moral of the story "The Nun's Priest's Tale" is not to fall for flattery. Pride and vanity can be one's undoing as shown with both the rooster and the fox.

What is the theme of the nun? ›

The Nun is the story of a young woman who is sent to a series of convents she tries to escape. The story explores the themes of isolation and confinement, sin, and being true to yourself. Isolation and confinement are major themes in the story.

Who is the protagonist in the New England nun? ›

Louisa Ellis, the protagonist, lives in a quiet home in the New England countryside. Louisa is known for her cool sense and sweet, even temperament. Her world is her home, and everything from her aprons to her china has a use and purpose in her every day rhythm.

What changes for Louisa while Joe is away? ›

While Joe was gone, Louisa's mother and brother passed away. She inherited her mother's house and brother's dog and grew to enjoy her quiet single life. Now Louisa feels reluctant to trade this life for the one offered by Joe.

Which of the following features of A New England Nun best exemplifies local color writing? ›

Therefore, the emphasis on the physical landscape and topography of Massachusetts in "A New England Nun" best exemplifies the local color writing style.

Who is Lily Dyer in A New England Nun? ›

Lily Dyer is Joe Dagget's mother's caretaker. Lily is strong and proud, and well-liked around town. She and Joe have fallen for each other since Joe has returned from Australia, although neither is willing to break up Joe and Louisa's engagement.

How does A New England Nun show regionalism? ›

“A New England Nun” is often referred to as a story that incorporates “local color,” or Regionalism, as it situates the reader squarely within a rural New England town and details the nature in the area.

What does the title of the New England Nun mean? ›

Louisa is not a literal nun, of course, because she has made no vows to a religious order. Freeman uses the word in a symbolic sense to indicate Louisa's commitment to solitude and desire to live without a man's presence. The title "A New England Nun" carries this symbolism. Louisa has chosen a life of chastity.

How does A New England Nun end? ›

Having broken things off, Louisa cries a little, not quite knowing why, but wakes the next morning to a great feeling of relief. Now Joe finds himself free to marry Lily, and Louisa can be herself, a nun who has gone about creating her own hermitage.


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