A Story of Female Agency: The Revolt of “Mother”

Mary Ellen Wilkin Freeman’s short story The Revolt of “Mother” is a story of female agency.  It is a story that sheds a sympathetic light on a woman’s struggles.  Unlike most stories written before the Women’s Suffrage movement about woman’s agency, Freeman rewards her protagonist, Mother Sarah Penn, for taking action against her oppressor.  Sarah operates within her cultural framework, she is established as a good, small, subservient, wife and mother before she ever takes action.  Once Sarah does take action she only does so because it’s reasonable to ask for and take what she and her family deserve.  Her husband, Adoniram is the antagonist-oppressor.  Sarah is justified in her rebellion because Adoniram does not properly provide for their family.  Through precise dialogue, tension, foreshadowing, argumentative rhetoric, and kinetic landscape,  Freeman sways her reader to feel sympathy for female agency and individualism.  The Revolt of “Mother” calls upon woman to help themselves and their families within their current social system.

Freedman is working within the system to expose it’s unfairness to women.  She creates sympathy for Sarah by painting a virtuous strong woman who normally works well within her submissive role.  She only makes a three speeches to really let men and the reader know just how she truly feels.  The first speech is to her husband in the setting of Sarah’s domain: the kitchen.  She has to almost drag him in to talk to her and when he is there he just sits and listens and either does not respond or says “I ain’t got nothin’ to say.” Sarah expresses her desire for the new house that was promised her forty years ago.  She is making the appeal on the part of her daughter, “I ain’t complained; I’ve got along forty year, an’ I s’pose I should forty more, if it wa’n’t for that- if we don’t have another house, Nanny she can’t live with us after she’s married” (233). Not only does she want a better life for Nanny but she does not believe that Nanny is strong enough to take care of a home on her own.  Sarah wants Nanny to live with them because Sarah has always took the heft of everything off her, an’ she ain’t fit to keep house an’ do anything herself.  She’ll be all worn out inside a year.” She tries to get empathy out of her husband and fails but succeeds in terms of Freeman’s greater appeal to the reader.

Sarah’s relationship to her daughter is two sided.  Sarah warns Nanny about men with her words, You ain’t found out yet we’re women-folks, (…) One of these days you’ll find it out, an’ then you’ll know that we know only what men-folk think we do, so far as any use of it goes an’ how we’d ought to reckon men-folks in with Providence” (231).  With her actions, moving the whole house out to the new barn, Sarah shows Nanny how a woman can get what she needs no matter what a man thinks.  She show’s Nanny that a woman can have agency and that a women can better their situations.  In a way Freeman is showing all woman through this example that women can have agency, one could even call this fine piece of literature feminist propaganda.

After Sarah argues her case to Adoniram she goes into her room and cries.  Presenting her husband with her raw feeling for the first time in forty years has taken an emotional tole on her and yet when she comes out of her room she just starts working again making shirts for Adoniram.  Here again Sarah is characterized as a hard worker,  she goes fluidly from one task to the next not making a mess.  Freeman does a great job of describing emotion- she shows through physical description what a character is feeling like Sarah’s red-rimmed eyes and later in the same scene Nanny, how tender red flamed all over her face and neck.

The idea of moving the family out to the new barn comes to Sarah the same day she laid out her argument to her husband.  The idea came through the agent of Nanny, “We might have the wedding in the new barn.” (234)  The next moment Nanny notices the curious expression on her mother’s face and asks her why she look(s) so.  Sarah simply responses with “Nothin’” but at this point the ball is rolling, Sarah has begun to spin the plan for the move.

Once the new barn is built and ready, Sarah’s plan goes into action.  Her brother Hiram sends word that he has a horse that Adoniram should come look at and buy.  The reader is given a hint to how Sarah feels about her husband’s departure in the line, she was very pale, and her heart beat loudly.  Even in the midst of her distress and plans of mutiny Sarah performs as a perfect wife: she helps her husband pack and get ready for his journey, she even, buttoned on his collar and fastened his black cravat (necktie).

When Father is about to leave on his journey he speaks to mother apologetically about the new cows that will be coming to the new barn, Adoniram knows he’s done wrong by his wife and so does the reader.  He then turns around with a kind of nervous solemnity one last time before leaving and reminds Sarah that he will be home in only a few days.  Father’s hesitation builds tension and foreshadows the climax of the story.  Freeman holds the reader in suspense by not disclosing Sarah’s thoughts, rather she describes her physicality, Her eyes had a strange, doubtful expression in them; her peaceful forehead was contracted.  At this point the reader knows that something is about to happen.  Within a few paragraphs Sarah’s demeanor calms and becomes strong and righteous, She formed a maxim for herself.   Because of the limited third person point of view the only way for Sarah to admit to the reader that she had anything to do with Adoniram’s going out of town for a few days is to speak it to her daughter, S’posin I had wrote to Hiram.  Even still it is left ambiguous, she gives responsibility for Adoniram’s absents to God, it looks like a providence.

The story is then propelled foreword again by Sarah’s.  Her first action is to stop a load of hay from being deposited in the new barn.  Sarah directs the men, including her son, to put the hay in the old barn.  When she says “…there’s room enough in the old one, ain’t there?” The hired man response with a key bit of information: “Room enough” (…) “Didn’t need the new barn, nohow, far as room’s concerned.” This bit of information aids to Sarah’s righteousness, Father did not even need the new barn but he built knowing that the family needed a new house.  The next action Sarah takes is to enlist her children’s help.  Before they start moving anything or the real plan is laid out, the tension towards the climax increases.  Sarah’s children are made nervous by her actions: Sarah packs the dishes and then tells Nanny to pack her things and tells Sammy to help her take apart the bed in the bedroom.  When her children ask “Oh, mother, what for?” she responds with “You’ll see.” At this builds the tension is at it’s maximum.

Freeman compares Sarah’s action of moving their home into the barn to the French General James Wolfe’s surprise storming of the Plains of Abraham above Quebec.  In so doing she gives Sarah’s cause dignity.  At this point in the story the reader is more or less fully sympathetic with Sarah’s actions: she and her children have been wronged and now Sarah is righting the massive wrong with a courageous effort.              Apparently, it only takes from lunch until five o’clock in the afternoon the little house in which the Penns had lived for forty years had emptied itself into the new barn. Either the three Penn’s are ridiculously fast, strong, movers or the Penn’s have been living ridiculously sparely.  I believe the latter to be true.

Directly after Sarah takes action the community interjects for the first time.  The reader is made privy to their reaction, Men assembled in the store and talked it over, women with shawls over their heads scuttled into each other’s houses before their work was done (…) Some held her to be insane; some, of the a lawless and rebellious spirit.  As a result of the community’s gossip, Pastor Herstey comes by the Penn’s new home. Before he can say anything about what Sarah’s done she sets him and the reader straight, “…I believe I’m doin’ what’s right.  I’ve made it the subject of prayer, an’ it’s betwixt me an’ the Lord an’ Adoniram.  There ain’t no call for nobody else to worry about it.” With those simple words she dismisses the community.  Sarah goes even further in defense of her actions for the benefit of the pastor but also for the benefit of the reader, “I think it’s right jest as much as I think it was right for our forefathers to come over here from the old country ‘cause they didn’t have what belonged to ‘em.” Freeman has made a female character on par with any man who has ever done anything ‘great.’

Freeman lays out her strongest piece of blatant Feminist idealism in one of Sarah’s statement to the pastor: “I’ve got my own mind an’ my own feet, an I’m goin’ to think my own thoughts an’ go my own way, an’ nobody but the Lord is goin’ to dictate to me unless I’ve a mind to have him.” It’s almost as if Freeman is calling for all women to stand up for their individual humanity or at least she creates a role model for women so inclined.

The story continues on now at it’s maximum state of tension with Adoniram expected home any moment.  The children are nervous but there was to them more pleasant excitement than anything else. An inborn confidence in their mother over their father asserted itself (238).  The children’s confidence lends it’s self to further aid Sarah’s cause in that they know what she’s done is right.  When Adoniram gets to the house he’s confused and winds up with his new horse in front of the new barn, he asks “What on airth you all down here for? (…) What’s the matter over to the house?” (238).  Sammy steps in and tells his father that “We’ve come here to live.” To which Father asks her wife what it means.  Mother in her simple intelligent way articulates to her husband that she is not insane, but the family is going to live in the new barn because they have a right to, she also tells father a list of things he’s going to need to make it more comfortable for the family.  All father can say is “Why, Mather!”  Sarah is a very smart woman, she has his favorite meal cooked and ready.  She leads him like a child to wash up and get ready for supper.

Through kinetic landscape Freeman imparts the feelings of Adoniram and Sarah: There was a clear green glow in the sky (239). After all of Sarah’s domestic duties are done she goes outside to find Adoniram.  She finds him weeping, he says “I’ll—put up the- partitions, an’—everything you—want, mother.” Sarah is triumphant, her daughter will have a proper home and wedding and she will have a proper kitchen.  The family can go forward in their gendered roles.

Again, Freeman likens their struggle to that of something greater, Adoniram was like a fortress whose wall had no active resistance, and went down the instant the right besieging tools were used.  At the stories’ close Adoniram says something strange, “Why, mother, I hadn’t no idea you was so set on’t as all this comes to.” I believe what Freeman was really saying was, men underestimate woman and can be broken with the right tactics.



About detangledprosereview

I am a human rights advocate with a knack for inter-contextually. I am a storyteller, a ceramists, a pan-art lover, a feminist, and a humanist.
This entry was posted in Criticism, Feminism, Literature and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s