The Language of Obedience and Protest in “The Revolt of “Mother”

In “The Revolt of “Mother”” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, the main female character takes a stand against her husband’s will by moving to the new barn to live in, because it is more comfortable than the house in which the family has lived for forty years. To do that, she had to change her way of thinking from that of an obedient wife to a self-determined woman. Her shift of consciousness can be tracked down through her language rather than her actions. The significance of language in a literary work is well defined in the following statement: “A stylistic approach…best provides students [with] a sense of stable textual meaning by empowering them to discover the relational meaning of words [and] how the organization of language, utterance and social contexts affect meaning” (Chiwengo). Indeed, the analysis of the construction of language by the author helps to reveal the meaning of a literary work even more completely than the analysis of the plot. This is particularly true for the short story “The Revolt of “Mother”” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. In it, the author’s choice of language devices is much more eloquent of her perception of women’s subordinate position in the late 19th century in the setting of New England and the psychology of their protest than the events described in the story.      

One would argue that the mere fact of exploring the theme of women’s rebellion through the depiction of their relationships with men is no less expressive for the comprehension of the author’s concept than the analysis of other literary devices.  Really, in “The Revolt of “Mother””, the narration revolves around the events of a few days in the life of the family, namely around the wife’s disregard of her husband’s will. The wife contradicts his stubborn reluctance to build a new house for the family, which is quite reasonable, considering that for forty years, the family has lived in a house that has been less convenient than the barns on their dairy farm. Entirely convinced of her rightness, she nonetheless realizes her submissive status. Eventually, she takes advantage of her husband’s absence and moves to a newly built barn with her daughter and son. For those times, the audacity like this would be regarded as an oddity even for fiction. According to Mary E. Wilkinson Freeman’s experience, “New England women of that period coincided with their husbands in thinking that the sources of wealth should be better housed than the consumers” (qtd. in Blatt Glasser).Thus, in justice to the plot of the story, it should be noted that it does play an important role in defining the way in which the author perceived reality and intended to convey her ideas.

However, upon a closer review, the reader may discover that the analysis of the author’s writing style is capable of eliciting the elements that are hidden on the face of it. These hidden elements imply the characters’ subtle shades of thought and emotions, which appear to be more revealing about the author’s likes and dislikes than the events described in the story. In “The Revolt of “Mother”, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman uses language extensively to indicate gender peculiarities that were characteristic of the New England society at the end of the 19th century. From the very beginning of the story, the wife’s calling her husband “Father” and the husband’s calling her wife “Mother” indicate social distinction between the spouses, which shows that the biological roles ascribed to men and women by society are of more importance than their personalities. A woman is a procreator in the first place, and a man is her proprietor. This is evident even from the manner the spouses are referred to. Throughout the text, the wife is mainly referred to as “Mrs. Penn” or “Sarah Penn” rather than simply Sarah, to designate her belonging to the husband, while he is chiefly referred to as Adoniram. Even their daughter’s name Nanny presupposes her future biological function, imposed on her by the society at that time.

Furthermore, the author’s choice of words, used to describe male and female characters, is also indicative of gender opposition. For instance, the adjectives and similes in the phrases “a small woman”, “short and straight-waisted like a child”, “mild and benevolent”, “the smooth curves of gray hair”, “meek lines”, employed while describing Mrs. Penn (Wilkins Freeman 1), and “a pretty girl’s face”, “pink and delicate as a flower”, “sweet slow voice”, “her tender sweet face”, “a gentle distress”, “bold and innocent as a baby’s”, used to describe Nanny (2-3), all suggest that fragility is inherent in womankind and imply alleged mental immaturity of women. Therefore, they are not supposed to be taken seriously. In contrast, the father is portrayed through the use of the adverbs and similes in the phrases “glanced doggedly” (1), “jouncing as sturdily on his seat as a boy” (2), “standing as proudly upright as a Roman charioteer” (8), suggesting that Mr. Penn considered it necessary to show superiority to women and his wife in particular.    

The social inequality of Mr. and Mrs. Penn follows from the manner of their conversations as well. Mr. Penn’s display of control is achieved by his refusal to discuss anything with his wife. It is beneath his dignity, because language, as a part of culture, is a male domain, while nature is female, as Lakoff and Johnson interestingly assert (qtd. in Chiwengo). In this regard, comparing Mrs. Penn with “the rock in his pastureland, bound to the earth with generations of blackberry vines” (Wilkins Freeman 1), attains a peculiar meaning. The rock is the symbol of immobility and permanency. Thus, both the rock and the woman are bound to the earth or nature. The rock is bound with blackberry vines, while the woman – with her biological functions. Therefore, it is the woman’s nature to be permanently bound or submissive. Sarah Penn’s submission is conveyed by the usage of the adverbs “faithfully” and “masterfully” in the description of her as a housekeeper (4). The woman performed this role for forty years, being a real rock in this sense.

Still, the primary theme of the story is the woman’s revolt rather than compliance. It is the philosophy of protest that is hidden behind the use of language in the story, which makes it more than just the example of disobedience in a particular family. The basic argument of this philosophy, for the story is an argument, is stated in the following symbolic manner: “Adoniram was like a fortress whose walls had no active resistance, and went down the instant the right besieging tools were used (14). This means that for Sarah, to successfully stand on her rights, it was necessary to realize that she needed to stop negotiating and start to assert. This was her tactics which proved right. As Mary E. Wilkins Freeman commented on the realism of her own story, “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” (qtd. in Blatt Glasser). However, this tactics of hers seems applicable to real life, since fighting fire with fire is often the case when struggling against dominance takes place.

As soon as Sarah realized that, her dialogues and monologues acquired confidence and became categorical. The passage that describes her conversation with the minister, when the latter came to talk her out of her venture, is the one that I particularly prefer, because it shows very vividly that Sarah adopted the male manner of holding a conversation by using exactly the same tactics as her husband did. It is evident from the use of such emphatic phrases as “There ain’t no use talkin’”, “I’ve thought it all over”, “I believe I’m doing what’s right”, “I’ve made it the subject of prayer”, “There ain’t no call for nobody else to worry about”, “I've got my own mind an' my own feet, an' I'm goin’ to think my own thoughts an' go my own ways, an' nobody but the Lord is goin’ to dictate to me unless I've a mind to have him” (12). This self-assertion is so convincing that the minister wonders how her own husband handles her.

 Therefore, on the basis of the analysis provided above, we can rightfully conclude that the writing style of a literary work is crucial for deeper understanding the author’s intentions. It is important to define the implicit elements of the author’s attitude rather than merely specify the literary device. “The Revolt of “Mother”” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is the vivid example of how the choice of language by the author helps to better comprehend the gender relationships between the characters, and thereby, reveal more about the author’s perception of the theme. 

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