Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, “A Church Mouse”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Harper’s Bazaar (28 December 1889): 952-954; collected in A New England Nun and Other Stories (New York: Harper, 1891)
Mary E. Wilkins was born 31 October 1852, in Randolph, Massachusetts, to Warren Wilkins and Eleanor Lothrop Wilkins. Her parents were orthodox Congregationalists, and Mary and her siblings were brought up with intense religious instruction. Her father was a carpenter, but financial circumstances forced him to abandon that trade. The family moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, when Mary was still a young child, and Warren Wilkins opened a dry-goods store there. Mary graduated from high school in Brattleboro in 1870 and then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. The religious indoctrination at the seminary was too intense for her, and she came home a “nervous wreck” at the end of a year and concluded her formal education. She taught for a brief time at a girls’ school. In 1873 she met and fell in love with Hanson Tyler, who was at home on leave from the navy. Tyler did not return the affection, but her fondness for him remained throughout her life. Apart from the emotional disappointment, there must have been a great deal of discomfort when the Wilkins family moved into the home of Reverend Thomas Pickman Tyler, Hanson’s father. The dry-goods store had failed, and Eleanor entered into domestic service there; Mary’s father did lawn work in exchange for a place for the family to live. Such circumstances were made all the more humiliating by the feeling that poverty was considered a moral and spiritual failing. When Eleanor Wilkins died at the age of fifty-three, the Wilkinses were compelled to leave the Tyler household. It was at this time that Mary began to write in earnest in order to supplement the family’s meager income.
Out of necessity, Mary Wilkins turned to the business of writing with a will and a purpose, and during the course of her career she published fifteen volumes of her collected stories, as well as another fifty or more stories that were not collected during her lifetime. She also wrote three books of poetry, three plays, and fourteen novels. Her early works were for children, but soon she began to write fiction for adult readers. Her first collection of adult short stories, A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887), was published by Harper and Brothers. That collection, along with A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891) and the novel Pembroke (1894), form the principal foundation for her reputation. She had become an established writer, but her father did not live to see her success; he died in 1883, and Mary moved back to Randolph, where she lived in the residence of her childhood friend Mary Wales for the next twenty years. Spared household duties so that she could write, Mary Wilkins worked constantly and produced some of her best work during that time. Though financial necessity required her to produce fiction to earn her keep, she was at the same time developing her craft. In 1882 she won a literary prize for “The Shadow Family,” published in a Boston newspaper. Thereafter, her reputation grew, and she published regularly in some of the better magazines of the day, most frequently in Harper’s Bazaar, and her books were issued by established publishing houses.
In 1892 she met Dr. Charles Freeman, and they became engaged in 1897. Mary Wilkins evidently was unsure of the match, for she broke off the engagement at one point and postponed the wedding day at another. Her desire for a home of her own was strong, and eventually they were married in 1902 and moved to Metuchen, New Jersey. In leaving Randolph, Freeman was thus cut off from the source of her best literary material. Though the marriage was apparently good in the beginning, it turned out the reasons for her hesitation were well founded. Already a hard drinker, Dr. Freeman became an alcoholic, and, in addition to her household duties, he pressed his wife to write more and more fiction for the money needed to support his addiction. In 1919 Freeman had him committed to the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane to be treated for his drinking. They were legally separated in 1922, and he died the next year. Now in her seventies, Mary Wilkins Freeman was recognized for her achievement as a writer, winning the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Fiction in 1926. The same year, along with Edith Wharton, Margaret Deland, and Agnes Repellier, she was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first time the Institute had accorded that honor to a woman. Freeman died in 1930.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. As a “local color” writer, Freeman wrote about what she knew best—the farms and villages of New England; very rarely do her narratives take place in urban settings. She confidently rendered the speech, customs, and values of her imagined characters, but she did so with both an ironic detachment and a comic sympathy. To the degree that Freeman brings something more to her picture of New England character than its quaint habits and dialect, but keen psychological insight into its manners and motives and a social purpose as well, some have preferred to label her a “Regionalist” or Realist writer. Students should attempt to answer the question of whether this is a local-color or Regionalist story because their answers may affect how they read the work. For example, is Hetty Fifield essentially a type, a representative of the poor, homeless old woman helpless in the face of circumstances, or is she shrewd, determined, and even calculating in her actions? “A Church Mouse” is likely to be seen as more comic if read as a local-color tale, and Gregg Camfield’s essay is helpful in this regard. Dominant critical opinion of Freeman after she received the Howells medal, for some forty years, cast her as an acute but rather pessimistic chronicler of New England life in decline. She gave unsparing pictures of the restrictive life lived out under the inheritance of an imperfectly understood but still pervasive Puritan inheritance. Her characters often lacked intellectual curiosity or a love of beauty, were uncommunicative and stubborn, and accepted their bitter portion as best they could. Perry Westbrook’s book on Freeman emphasizes the Puritan elements in Freeman’s work and is a good starting point for research into this aspect of the tale. The Puritans, for example, did not celebrate religious holidays, and Hetty’s ringing the church bell on Christmas day is startling to the townspeople for that reason. Beginning in the 1960s feminist critics began to detect more positive features in her tales. The women characters particularly demonstrated a fierce resoluteness and desire for change, autonomy, and freedom. In them Freeman dramatized a more powerful and hopeful sense of future and affirmation. These two views are not necessarily in conflict; one can act valiantly and defiantly even when the rewards are small. One of Freeman’s most widely anthologized stories, “A Church Mouse” illustrates these qualities, and it is leavened with a sense of humor that relieves the stark and diminished possibilities of life it presents. Feminist treatments of Freeman are abundant. Glasser’s biography and Reinhardt’s book, A Web of Relationship, provide a foundation for critical examination of the story as feminist.
- 2. “A Church Mouse” begins with the elderly, impoverished, and now homeless Hetty Fifield applying for the job of church sexton. As the titles indicates, she is as poor as a church mouse; it will turn out that she is the mouse that roared. The deacon, Caleb Gale, is stubbornly resistant to the idea, for no woman has ever been a sexton, and makes a series of lame excuses why she cannot occupy the position. Hetty has nowhere to stay that night and proposes to sleep in the church. Caleb objects until Hetty proposes that she could sleep in his house; he relents. Hetty becomes the sexton, moves into the meeting house, dutifully cleans it, and just as dutifully rings the bell at the appointed times. Clearly, Hetty Fifield poses a problem for this community: no one wants to take her because they know that she does not bend to voice of authority, nor is there a poorhouse in the village, and with some perplexity alongside the voice of their “Puritan consciences” the villagers accept the situation, for a while. Hetty moves her small store of belongings into the church, cordons off a space beside the chimney with her bright, sunflower quilt, and takes up residence. Hetty Fifield is a feisty New England woman, but she may also be shrewd and she senses she is the “propounder of a problem,” but she knows too that so long as the exact nature of that problem remains unguessed by the village, she has the advantage.
- 3. But what sort of problem does she pose? Is it a moral or religious one, or is it social and political in nature? More important, perhaps, does the solution to the problem have long-lasting and transformative effects on the village? For three months things go well enough until she overplays her hand and cooks turnips and cabbage for Saturday dinner, and the odor lingers in the church on Sunday morning. Caleb Gale decides that Hetty must leave the church, and on her part she feels like a “little animal driven from its cover, for whom there is nothing left but warfare and death.” Hetty slyly bolts herself inside the church, and makes her “sacred castle impregnable except to violence.” Befuddled, Mr. Gale hands the situation over to the authority of his wife, and thus there is a quiet transfer of power from the patriarchs to the matriarchs of the village. It is from the gallery window that Hetty pleads her case, mostly to the women of the village, in a direct, homespun dialect, and it is Mrs. Gale who makes a judgment. Hetty can move into the little room beside the pulpit, where the minister hangs his hat; that will be her new home.
- 4. Is it possible that Freeman is making an oblique and wry comment on the widespread anti-Catholic hysteria in the country at this time? On Christmas Eve, Hetty is filled with joy for her “little measure full of gifts.” She awakes the next morning with the promise from Mrs. Gale of some turkey and plum pudding. So grateful is she that, without knowing why, she rings the church bells to awaken the town. Hetty, who had earlier been suspected of “popery” for putting a wax cross on the pulpit, has now violated an unspoken taboo, for never before had the church bell been rung on Christmas; it gladdens the villagers nonetheless. This simple little tale subtly dramatizes the
change of gender roles, the loosening up of orthodox religious sensibility, and implicitly asks the question that is plaguing the nation at large—what are we to do with our poor, homeless, and elderly? At the same time, it creates in Hetty Fifield something of a village hero (fearless, determined, and in her own fashion eloquent) out the most unlikely materials. Students of this story might want to investigate how villages dealt with the problems Hetty presents to them, whether the comedy of the situation detracts from or enhances the feminist qualities in the story, and perhaps whether this piece of local color had broader reference to the social problems of the nation at large during this time period.
Edward Foster, Mary Wilkins Freeman (New York: Hendricks House, 1956).
Somewhat dated but straightforward account of Freeman’s life. Foster is more interested in the writer’s craft and the influences upon her than in providing a psychological portrait of the woman.
Leah Blatt Glasser, In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).
A solid, scholarly charting of Freeman’s development as a writer, and essentially feminist in its approach. Benefits from Kendrick’s editions of Freeman’s letters in describing the writer’s development and her acquaintance with and sympathy for the struggles of single and elderly women as well as with difficult marital and economic circumstances. Discusses Freeman’s novels as well as her short fiction.
Brent L. Kendrick, ed., The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985).
The letters are annotated and provide useful insights into the life of Freeman.
Gregg Camfield, “‘I never saw anything at once so pathetic and funny’: Humor in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” American Transcendental Quarterly, 13 (September 1999): 215-231.
Argues that the humor in Freeman’s work is often overlooked and that the combination of humor and pathos do not contradict but enhance one another.
Kate Gardner, “The Subversion of Genre in the Short Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” New England Quarterly, 65 (September 1992): 447-468.
Identifies the ways Freeman introduces variations on conventional characterization and plots lines and thereby wins sympathy for her otherwise odd heroines.
Shirley Marchalonis, ed., Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991).
A collection of sixteen essays on Freeman, ranging from older pieces by such scholars as F. O. Matthiessen to more recent ones by critics such as Josephine Donovan and Mary R. Reichardt.
Mary R. Reichardt, Mary Wilkins Freeman: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1997).
Includes Freeman’s statements on her craft, letters, an autobiographical essay, a bibliography of primary works and criticism, and an analysis of a substantial number of her short stories.
Reichardt, A Web of Relationship: Women in the Short Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992).
A comprehensive study of Freeman’s short fiction, showing that the author’s portrayal of strong-willed women is not limited to a few stories but is an overarching theme concerned with women struggling toward selfhood.
Perry D. Westbrook, Mary Wilkins Freeman, revised edition (Boston: Twayne, 1988).
A capable critical biography. Emphasizes the lingering Puritan elements in the New England culture that Freeman depicts and compares her favorably to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Argues that Freeman is more than a local colorist; she is often a psychological Realist.