A New England Nun

The other day I read a short story by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, a local color writer, entitled “A New England Nun.” It’s a charming little story. I don’t think most of the newer high school American Literature textbooks anthologize it anymore. At least, I don’t believe Prentice-Hall or Holt do (and those two are, in my opinion, the best textbook series for literature that I’ve seen). I can’t recall if I read it when I took American Realism and Naturalism in college — we read a lot of women regionalists then, including Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Noailles Murfree, Kate Chopin, et. al. If we read Freeman, we probably read “The Revolt of Mother.” Truthfully, we read so much that quarter that I barely remember some of it. Anyway, get to the point, Mrs. Huff. Okay, little Louisa Ellis is one of the most blatant examples of a literary character exhibiting signs of OCD that I’ve ever seen. I am not sure when it was written, but Freeman died in 1930. Freud described OCDers, but I am not sure when OCD was recognized by the medical establishment.

Google renders no hits matching this story to OCD, so here’s one for you, Google:

Louisa Ellis demonstrates the following compulsions that could be attributed to OCD:

  • Louisa wears three aprons: an outside gardening apron in green, a pink apron for sewing, and a cambric-patterned apron for company.
  • Louisa routinely rips out her sewing in order to do it again. The author says it is just pleasurable to her. I advance that it is pleasurable to her because she has OCD, and it makes her feel better to rip out the work and resew it so it will be “perfect.”
  • Louisa used specific dishes to prepare her food.
  • Most telling: a description of Louisa’s insistence on having items in a certain place

    Presently Dagget began fingering the books on the table. There was a square red autograph album, and a Young Lady’s Gift-Book which had belonged to Louisa’s mother. He took them up one after the other and opened them; then laid them down again, the album on the Gift-Book.

    Louisa kept eying them with mild uneasiness. Finally she rose and changed the position of the books, putting the album underneath. That was the way they had been arranged in the first place.

    Dagget gave an awkward little laugh. “Now what difference did it make which book was on top?” said he.

    Louisa looked at him with a deprecating smile. “I always keep them that way,” murmured she.

  • And yet another example, a cleaning compulsion

    Then she set the lamp on the floor, and began sharply examining the carpet. She even rubbed her fingers over it, and looked at them.

    “He’s tracked in a good deal of dust,” she murmured. “I thought he must have.”

    Louisa got a dust-pan and brush, and swept Joe Dagget’s track carefully.

  • Her brother’s dog Caesar bit a man once as a puppy and remained tied up for the rest of his life — Louisa was terrified he’d go on a rampage. Some OCDers imagine terrible things happening and perform compulsions to keep them from occurring. Louisa also feeds the dog only mild food like corn mush cakes, because she believes he will become wild if he eats meat.

It’s actually amazing. I think OCDers (and those that want to learn about OCD) might appreciate that story. Go check it out.

4 thoughts on “A New England Nun

  1. That's interesting. I think the rearranging of the books clinches it for me. Granted, I don't have OCD, so that's just my outsider guess. 🙂 It's always interesting to me when I can see in older fiction things that would have been treated differently or treated at all if the same thing happened today.

  2. Hello, you commented on my blog and were polite, and when that happens I feel obliged to take up the discussion that is inherent to this sort of endeavor, and so…
    I agree with you that Louisa has OCD and that the story presents a sort of case study in that disorder. Furthermore, I am happy when my students make a connection between the world of 19th century fiction and their own lives and if psychoanalyzing Louisa offers them this possability then so be it. My problem with this brand of criticism lies in the fact that once this diagnosis has been given, it tends to end the discussion. Louisa has OCD so, why discuss anything else about her? The problem is that the story has the potential to tell us all, OCD'ers and non-OCD'ers, something about our own lives and how we manage our routines, and moreover, what a routine does for us. Louisa, for instance, is very happy to end her nuptials because she now has the ability to continue doing what she does without interruption, but what of the last sentence in the story? She sees her days stretching out before her, each one the same, until she is put into her grave. That's pretty grim!
    When my students say, "well, she has OCD," my answer is always related to her loyalty–which is simply another of her characteristics and just as worthy of our consideration as her OCD.
    In the end, I think that the story says something about the tragedy of just being human, but that tragedy is missed when the human characteristic is compartmantalized into a disorder. It's scope is limited, both in terms of what we can say about the story and what the story says about us as human beings.
    Anyway, that's my take on the situation.

  3. I found it amazing that being diagnosed with OCD, I can completely relate to Louisa in Mary Wilkins Freeman's work. It was part of my reading for American Lit. @ MSU and I am currently writing an analytical paper on A New England Nun.

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