Sunday, September 23, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Louisa by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Title: Louisa
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Where I read it: A New England Nun, and Other Stories

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's stories are set in 19th century rural New England, and her female characters, in one way or another, don't fit the mold of "normal" or "respectable" womanhood; they don't always do what's expected of them by their families and by society at large. They aren't necessarily rebellious in a flagrant way. They're pious and hard-working, much like their neighbors. But from one story to another there's something that sets them apart. They might be marginalized, living on the fringes of their society, in poverty, old age, and/or spinsterhood; they might be too firm and independent, with too little care for what others think, or they might have some unusual interest or hobby. They make unconventional decisions that aren't immoral but nevertheless raise eyebrows.

In this story, Louisa is a young woman who has no money and is pressured by her mother to marry. She used to work as the schoolteacher in her village, a job that earned her enough income to support herself, her mother, and her senile grandfather. But then the position was given to the daughter of the school's superintendent, and what other jobs are available to a rural village woman in Louisa's position? She raises some crops on the scarce land her family owns, and she helps out with the hard labor of planting and harvesting on other farms. It's barely enough to keep her family afloat.

Her mother meantime is leaning on her to get married to a young man who's shown an interest in her. But Louisa refuses to respond to his overtures. It's not that he's terrible in some way, it's just that she doesn't love him, and she wants to avoid a marriage of convenience driven by a lack of options. It's an impractical way to behave, her mother thinks, but Louisa's whole life is made of hard practicalities and this is her one "romantic notion" - marrying for love, if she marries at all. In the meantime she treasures her self-sufficiency.

So what happens to Louisa? The author it turns out decides to give her an important triumph. I won't say what, only that it involves a long difficult walk - a symbol for strength of will and independence. Freeman shows, without melodrama, both Louisa's desperation and her refusal to compromise herself in the face of desperation. It's a powerful story, not least because it could have easily had a different ending, with circumstances requiring Louisa to give in after all.


Other stories in this collection include: A New England Nun.


This post is linked to at the September round-up of the Short Story Initiative at Simple Clockwork.