Word Count: 1716In “A New England Nun”, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman depicts the
life of the classic New England spinster. The image of a spinster
is of an old maid; a woman never married waiting for a man. The
woman waiting to be married is restricted in her life. She does
chores and receives education to make her more desirable as a
This leads to the allegories used in this short story. The
protagonist life paralleled both of her pets’ lives, her dog
Caesar’s and that of her little yellow canary. Both comparisons
are of restriction and fear of freedom. The animals and the woman
of this story are irreversible tamed by their captivity, and no
longer crave freedom. Ideas of sin guilt and atonement are also
present between the woman and the dog. These images typify
nineteenth century beliefs of women and their place in society.
This story of Louisa Ellis is an allegory for woman, and uses the
levels of allegory ironically. The stories of the dog and the
bird layer the theme to help represent Louisa’s life, who in turn
represents the Eighteenth century woman of society. Louisa’s
animals and their relationship to her suitor are further links
between her and her pets. The suitor brings out different traits
than the norm in both the animals and the woman of this story.
The man’s influence is seen as disruptive. Man is seen as a
threat to the serenity and security of a spinster’s life.
Imagery put forth by this story, and by stereotypes of the
day is of the new England spinster. Women who were not married
yet, lived a life of chores and piousness. They learned their
domestic chores and other things that would make them presentable
as a wife. They did gardening work, read literature, mended
clothing and the sort. These women were dependent on men to come
and take them, to change their lives. Those who were not chosen
were called old maids or spinsters. They typically were wealthy
enough not work, so they lived a singular existence at their
homes. Their homes became prisons. Leaving the home was possible
but there was nothing out of their home environment, so they were
left with no other choice but to lead their domestic life. The
routine of their domestic chores became a part of their essence
leading to the almost manic neatness of Louisa’s home.
Louisa was upset by Joe Dagget when he disturbs her
autograph book and her gift book. She has a specific placement of
the books. Joe transposes the order when he finished looking at
them. This annoys her greatly, so she returns the books to their
original order as if was compulsive. The order of her house like
the structure of her life gave Louisa a sense of security. She
becomes nervous if not angry when Joe later knocks over her work
basket. The order of her house is so compulsively exact that she
feels the need to remove his tracks from the rug.
Joe Dagget and Louisa Ellis were engaged for over fourteen
years. He went to Australia to make his fortune, while Louisa
waited patiently for Joe’s return. While Joe was away her mother
and brother both died leaving her alone. She became used to
solitude and even grew fond of it. When Joe returned he disturbed
her life, just as he disturbed her work basket.
Louisa’s dog Caesar was chained up in the yard. He lived a
lonely existence with only his dog house and a couple feet of
chain in his world. Caesar was a prisoner of his home as Louisa
was a prisoner to her’s. The dog became accustomed to solitude
and would not know any other way of existence. Joe came back
after fourteen years to take Louisa away from her prison, but
also would have freed the dog. Joe said ” . . . and it’s down-
right cruel to keep him tied up there. Someday I’m going to take
him out.” Louisa objects to this fearing the animal nature of the
dog that had laid dormantly for fourteen years.
Around the same time as Louisa and Joe became engaged,
Caesar bit one of the Ellis’s neighbors. He bit the man leaving
teeth impressions in the neighbors hand. This man demanded that
either the dog be destroyed or to remain tied up. Louisa’s
brother built the dog house for Caesar, and that is where he has
remained since. Caesar in reality was good natured but committed
one transgression. He paid for his actions for the rest of his
life. The dog after the incident never barked loudly, almost out
Louisa also had a transgression fourteen years before the
time of this narrative. She had a lover. According to the
narrative Joe Dagget was Louisa’s first lover. In a way she
became tied to her home as Caesar is chained to his dog house for
her sin. She waited fourteen years, possibly out of a guilty
sense of obligation to her first lover. Both She and Caesar lived
a quiet and serene life that would be turned upside down with the
impending marriage. Both would have their ways of life radically
Lousia feared her passion; she feared the setting loose of
her passion. Louisa worried that once floodgates were opened,
they could not be closed. She transposed this fear upon the dog’s
wildness. Louisa feared that if the dog was to be set loose, that
he would go on a rampage and attack the whole town. “She
pictured to herself Caesar on the rampage though the quiet town
and unguarded village. She saw innocent children bleeding in his
path.” The dog was old and was not capable of such an act. Joe
Dagget recognized this, leading to his desire to free the dog.
Louisa on the other hand may have still been able to have passion
that led to irrational fears of letting loose, the dog or
herself. Out of fear that the dog would go mad, Louisa would not
let the dog taste of flesh, only corn meal. She feared that the
taste of flesh would bring out the animal in the dog. Over the
fourteen years she kept herself celibate to keep her own passion
Louisa could also be compared to her little yellow canary.
The songbird in a cage, is a commonly used literary device. It
described the position of women who had sufficient economic
status not to work. They like the birds were objects of beauty
that were shown. Both were performers who were forced to live in
cages, Louisa performed for Joe and society and the bird
performed for Louisa. One difference between the two is, that
Louisa’s cage had a garden. The bird had to sing and the woman
had to act with grace.
The canary reacted to Joe’s entering the house in a way that
is akin to Louisa’s emotions.
He seemed to fill the whole room. A little yellow
canary that had been asleep in its green cage at the
south window woke up and fluttered wildly, beating its
little yellow wings against the wires. He always did so
when Joe Dagget came into the room.
This passage shows though the bird, the feelings of anxiety she
had over the impending marriage. She has a claustrophobic feeling
of Joe invading her space as shown by the comment on how he fills
the entire room.
The canary lays in dormant peace until disturbed by the
entrance by Joe. Louisa in the fourteen years of waiting came
into her own. She was accustomed to her space and Joe took up too
much of this precious space. He would throw chaos into her
rigidly ordered world. She was the queen of her home and did not
want to share control with Joe’s mother. When married they would
have moved into Joe’s house with his mother.
Louisa would give up her solitude and her control, both of
which she feared. The restrictions of her life kept her passions
in, and she did not want to change this. Much as she would not
let the bird free from its cage to fly free. The bird if freed,
never could be returned to the cage. Louisa thought, if she were
let out of her proverbial cage she would never again be able to
enjoy it’s security.
When Louisa overheard Joe and Lily Dyer, she had an excuse
to break off the marriage. Though she wanted to marry, she
subconsciously wanted a way out of the wedding. She did not want
to unchain the dog or move from the peace and security of her
spinster life. The solitude of her life brought her contentment.
She did not want her cage rattled. The canary did not want the
man’s disturbance, showing Louisa’s feelings “Now the little
canary might turn itself into a peaceful yellow ball night after
night, and have no need to wake and flutter with wild terror
against its bars.”
The years, fourteen to be exact, tamed Louisa. She liked her
life; she came to enjoy serenity. Louisa like any tamed animal
grows accustomed to their situation. The dog Caesar would
probably not know what to do with himself if he were set loose.
Louisa similarly would not know how to adjust to married life,
after such a long period of isolation. Joe would be a disruption
to her organized life. Louisa gave up her birthright, a
birthright to a promise of marriage. This did not matter for she
had found another. “Serenity and placid narrowness had become her
To complete the allegory, once an animal is tamed there is
no going back. Louisa Ellis was tamed; she was set in her ways.
Her emotions and feelings were visualized though Caesar the dog
and the little yellow canary. The bird fluttered when she felt
disturbed, it also showed her anxiety toward Joe. The dog
exemplified her domestication. Caesar’s lack of a bark and
lethargy represents her need for serenity. The dog does not fight
his chain but accepts it. Louisa accepted her chain, her life of
waiting. She had accepted it to such an extent that she felt safe
with it. When the wait was over, but she did not want to lose the
security of the life she had.