Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930)

    Contributing Editor: Leah Blatt Glasser

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The best strategy in approaching Mary Wilkins Freeman's work is to provide a full context for both her life and period and to select particularly paradoxical passages for class discussion. It is especially enlightening to discuss the endings of her stories, which often disappoint students or trouble them. Have students consider possible revisions of these endings and then discuss why Freeman might have chosen to conclude as she did.

    Students may wish to consider the title of "The Revolt of 'Mother' " and its implications. What is the nature of Sarah's "revolt"? Why does Freeman put "mother" in quotation marks? Students may be interested to know that Freeman's father, Warren Wilkins, gave up his plan of building the house Eleanor, Freeman's mother, had hoped for. Instead, the family moved in 1877 into the home in which Eleanor was to serve as hired housekeeper. Freeman's mother was thus "deprived of the very things which made a woman proud, her own kitchen, furniture, family china; and she had lost the one place in which it was acceptable for her to be powerful: her home" (Clark 177).

    Another interesting comment is this one, made by Freeman in the Saturday Evening Post, published December 8, 1917 (long after the publication of the story). In the following excerpt, Freeman disparages her story for its lack of realism:

    In the first place all fiction ought to be true and "The Revolt of 'Mother' " is not true. . . . There never was in New England a woman like Mother. If there had been she certainly would have lacked the nerve. She would also have lacked the imagination. New England women of that period coincided with their husbands in thinking that the sources of wealth should be better housed than the consumers.

    "A Church Mouse" provides a good example of Freeman's duality. Ask students to study the tone and quality of Hetty's early expressions of determination with her final plea to the community. Focus also on passages that depict the role of work in Hetty's life. The sunflower quilt, for example, plays an important part in the story as it serves the function of both dividing Hetty from the other churchgoers and celebrating her capacity as an artist. Hetty's battle to establish her right to live alone and to do the work she loves may be compared with aspects of Freeman's life.

    It can also be useful to draw comparisons between Hetty's strategy and other forms of nonviolent direct action, as proposed by writers like Sarah Grimké, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Students will often perceive that, whatever one believes about nonviolence as a "way of life," it can be a useful strategy to help mobilize an otherwise indifferent or even hostile community on behalf of the cause of the weak.

    As the story progresses, students may notice that the action moves from an individual plea to a collective demand. Moreover, Freeman achieves what Hetty does; she rebels, but she does so safely and she is heard--her story is published in Harper's Bazaar, a woman's magazine that would reach a similar audience composed largely of women. As indicated above, Hetty's position in the church behind the sunflower quilt she has made in church suggests a context for Freeman's feelings about the role of work in her life.

    Freeman wrote "Old Woman Magoun" during her unhappy marriage to Dr. Charles Freeman. It is one of the few short stories written during this period in which she managed to maintain her mastery. It is interesting to consider Freeman's experience of marriage in relation to the fears she invests in Old Woman Magoun of losing the young Lily to men like Nelson Barry and Jim Willis. In a letter to a newly-married friend, Harriet Randolph Hyatt Mayor, she had written, "I shall find the old you. It will never be lost. I know how you feel . . . I am to be married myself before long. . . . If you don't see the old me, I shall run until I find her " (Kendrick 205). Unfortunately, Freeman was forced to part with the "old me" until her husband's alcoholism and abusive behavior finally ended in his being committed to the New Jersey State Hospital and her separation from him.

    Students may wish to consider the nature of Old Woman Magoun's extreme actions. A close study of the scene in which she allows Lily to eat the poisoned berries will yield a lively class discussion. When her grandmother nurses Lily into death, she describes a utopian afterlife for Lily, a female haven where no men can intrude. What does this conclusion suggest about growing up female in the nineteenth century?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The major themes of Freeman's work illuminate aspects of her life. Mary Wilkins Freeman's words to describe the feeling of receiving her first acceptance and check for a short story provide an interesting context: "I felt my wings spring from my shoulders, capable of flight, and I flew home" (New York Times, April 1926). Her statement characterizes the dilemma this remarkable turn-of-the-century New England writer faced, the paradox that she expressed in almost all of her work. Feeling "capable of flight" because of the power of her capacity as a writer, Freeman nevertheless could only fly "home." Most striking in her life and work is the haunting echo of two inner voices: a voice that cries out for rebellious flight, another voice that clings to the safety of home. The heroines of Freeman's short stories, even as they rebel, struggle with this conflict. Students may compare the heroines of "A Church Mouse," "The Revolt of 'Mother,' "and "Old Woman Magoun," listening for the ways in which Freeman invests the women with power and yet simultaneously limits their power, bringing their rebellious "flights" to what Freeman considered "home"--the realities of nineteenth-century New England.

    It is important to explore her depiction of relationships between women, her focus on the role of work in women's lives, the way in which she explores the psychology of rebellion as characters rebel, submit, or face the consequences of their rebellion. Of particular interest in offering a biographical context is the intensity of Freeman's relationship with Mary Wales, with whom she lived for twenty-five years. Her stories reflect a great understanding of female friendships.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Freeman has often been categorized as a local colorist, a New England writer of the post-Civil War period whose primary talent lay in depicting the peculiarities of her region. This view has tended to minimize her work. Certainly she does offer a vivid sense of life in New England. Most significant, however, is the way in which she moves beyond region to offer a focus on the psychology of women's conflicts at the turn of the century. Her use of dialect may be compared with Mark Twain's as she manages to bring us the voices she knew with fine precision.

    Original Audience

    This is an interesting question. Freeman published in magazines for young women (Harper's primarily) and her audience consisted largely of women readers. She was influenced at times by her editors' demands for "gentility" in accordance with their sense of the codes of female behavior at the turn of the century. Consequently, Freeman's endings often couch rebellious content in acceptable, domestic scenes of female submission. The shift in Hetty's behavior in "A Church Mouse" is interesting in this context, as is the reunion of Sarah and her husband in "The Revolt of 'Mother.'"

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    It is fruitful to compare Freeman with male peers such as Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells. Her capacity for psychological portrait compares well with James, and many of her heroines may be compared with the heroines in James's short fiction. She participated in a project with James and Howells, a collaborative novel, entitled The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors (Harper & Brothers, 1908). Her chapter in this novel should be compared with the chapters by James and Howells. Freeman enraged her male conterparts when she transformed the figure of "the old maid" as conceived by Howells in his first chapter into a boldly sensual and liberated single woman in her chapter entitled "The Old Maid Aunt." Twain's use of dialogue and humour may also be explored in relation to Freeman's. Finally, she should be compared with other American women writers at the turn of the century (particularly Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather).

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) Study the role of work in each story in relation to the development of Freeman's heroines.

    (b) Analyze the conclusions of "A Church Mouse" and "The Revolt of 'Mother.'" What seems paradoxical or unexpected? How do these conclusions relate to earlier stages of revolt in each story?

    (c) Note the image of wings in "Old Woman Magoun" and consider possible contexts. What does the final scene suggest?

    (d) Note references to madness in each story. What might Freeman be suggesting in each case?

    2. Students enjoy focusing on the development of Freeman's heroines, their contradictions and strengths. Consider a paper on the attitudes toward women the story suggests and its influence on the heroine's actions. Ask students to study a particular scene or set of images (Sarah Penn's work in her house: "She was an artist"; Hetty's quilt in "A Church Mouse." Does Freeman's work suggest anything about her sense of the artist?) Study the death scene in "Old Woman Magoun." What do you make of the language of the old woman as she eases the child into death?


    The most recent literary biography on Freeman is In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by Leah Blatt Glasser (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), a feminist study that demonstrates the way in which reeman's life and fiction are interwoven and suggests her lifelong struggle between autonomy and rebellion.

    The most recently published selection of Freeman's stories is Mary R. Reichardt's Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

    A useful and brief discussion of Freeman's life and work can be found in Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth Century American Women Writers, Volume 4, Spring 1987 ("Profile: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman" by Leah B. Glasser).

    Useful biographical material can also be gleaned from The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, intelligently edited and introduced by Brent L. Kendrick. Her letters, though cautious and unrevealing on the surface, hint at the intensity of her relationship with her childhood friend Mary Wales. Freeman lived with Wales for over twenty years, and it is likely that much of her focus on friendships between women was drawn from this relationship. The difficulties of her marriage are also apparent in many of her letters written during that trying period of her life. The numerous letters she wrote to her editors reveal Freeman's seriousness about her career.

    The two earlier biographies on Freeman are useful, although somewhat outdated: Foster's Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Westbrook's Mary Wilkins Freeman.

    Interpretive studies of her work can be found in Clark's Afterword to The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories, Marjorie Pryse's Introduction and Afterword to Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Leah Glasser's essays "Discovering Mary E. Wilkins Freeman" in Between Women and "The Stranger in the Mirror" in The Massachusetts Review (Summer 1984).

    For a good sampling of Freeman's short stories through the successive phases of her career, see Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (New York: Norton, 1983).

    Freeman's novels are not as strong as her short stories; the novel most representative of her talent is Pembroke (1894).

    The Shoulders of Atlas (1908), Madelon (1896), and By the Light of the Soul are fascinating examples of Freeman's duality as protagonists are continuously caught between rebellion and submission.

    Students may find it interesting to compare the chapters written by Mary Wilkins Freeman and Henry James, her contemporary, in the collaborative novel entitled The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1908).