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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010.
Type of Work and Year of Publication
.......“The Revolt of 'Mother,' ” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, is a short story focusing on a woman who takes a stand against an authoritarian husband. Because Freeman's stories are primarily about New Englanders and the way they live, they are considered part of the local-color movement in American
literature. A typical local-color writer focused on a particular region, its customs and traditions, its dialect, and so on. Harper's Bazaar published “The Revolt of 'Mother'” in its issue of September 1890. A year later, the New York firm of Harper and Brothers published the story in A New England Nun and Other Stories, a collection of Freeman's works.
.......The action takes place on a farm in rural New England in the spring and summer of a year in the late nineteenth century.
Sarah Penn: Patient, hard-working farm wife and mother. She respects her husband and apparently loves him. However, because he spends his profits as a farmer on new buildings and new animals to the neglect of the small and poorly furnished home in which the Penn family lives, Sarah decides one day to rebel against his rule in order to provide
the family a new home.
Adoniram Penn: Sarah's husband. He ignores the needs of his family in favor of the needs of his farm. When his wife attempts to persuade him to think more about improving their living conditions and less about improving the farm, he obstinately refuses even to discuss the subject.
Nanny: Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Penn.
Samuel: Son of Mr. and Mrs. Penn.
Mr. Hersey: Minister.
Hiram: Mrs. Penn's brother, who lives in Vermont.
Rufus: Farm helper.
Hired Hand: Farm helper.
George Eastman: Fiancé of Nanny.
Laborers: Three men digging a cellar for a new barn.
Point of View
.......The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view. Most of the time, the narration presents only what the characters do, not what they think. However, the narrator occasionally switches to omniscient third-person point of view to reveal the thoughts or feelings of characters.
Following are examples:
She formed a maxim for herself, although incoherently with her unlettered thoughts. “Unsolicited opportunities are the guide-posts of the Lord to the new roads of life,” she repeated in effect, and she made up her mind to her course of action.
[A]lthough it was aside from his province, he [the minister] wondered more how Adoniram Penn would deal with his wife than how the Lord would.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
.......“What are them men diggin' over there in the field for?”
.......The questioner is a small woman with gray hair. Her name is
Sarah Penn. She is inside a barn, gazing out through open doors, while her husband, Adoniram, harnesses and saddles a bay mare. She calls him “father”; he calls her “mother.” He tells her to go into the house and mind her affairs. She stands fast, insisting that he answer her question.
.......After a few minutes, he tells her that they are digging a cellar for a barn.
.......“You ain't goin' to build a barn over there where we was goin' to have a house,
.......He does not answer. Instead, he hitches the horse to a farm wagon and rides off. Sarah goes into the house, a very small dwelling, where her daughter, Nanny, is looking from a window at the three men digging in the
field near the road line. When she asks why they are digging, her mother repeats what her husband said. The young girl is surprised to hear that her father is going to build still another barn. Her brother, Sammy, is combing his hair in front of a mirror. He is the picture of his father. When his sister asks him whether he knew that their father planned to build another barn, Sammy acknowledges
that he did. In fact, he has known for three months what his father was up to.
.......When his mother questions him, he says his father plans to buy four more cows. The boy then grabs his arithmetic book and skips off to school.
Mother and daughter then wash and dry the dishes. Nanny says what a shame it is that her father is going to build a barn when they need a new house. Her mother replies, “You ain't seen enough of men-folks yet [to realize] that we know only what men-folks think we do, so far as any use of it goes, an' how we'd ought to reckon men-folks in with Providence, an' not complain of what they do any more
than we do of the weather.”
.......She tells her that her fiancé, George Eastman, is no different from other men. Nanny is to marry him in the fall. Sarah then tells her daughter she shouldn't be too critical of her father. He has
provided well enough for them, and the roof doesn't leak. Moreover, he hasn't made Nanny go out to work for a living like other girls.
.......After finishing with the dishes, Sarah sets to making mince pies, a favorite of her
husband. She is is a good housekeeper, with nary a speck of dust to be found anywhere. Nanny begins sewing on embroidery and linen. As Sarah works on the pies, she looks up now and then at the men digging the cellar at the site where Adoniram promised forty years before that a new house would rise.
.......At noon, the family sits down to dinner, Adoniram asks God's blessing, and they eat without much talk. Afterward, Sammy heads back to school before Adoniram has a chance to tell him to help unload wood from the wagon.
.......“I don't see why you let him go for, mother,” he says.
.......When Nanny goes out to buy more thread and embroidery, Sarah asks her husband why
he is building a new barn.
......."I ain't got nothin' to say about it,” he replies.
.......She repeats the question but gets the same answer. When she asks whether he is going to buy more cows, he says nothing. Sarah then stands before him and declares she is going to “talk plain” to him. Then she points out the condition of the room they are in: no rug, deteriorating wallpaper. Yet she has to work in it, and Nanny has to entertain her
friends in it. Neighbors have better but don't have half the means he has. She opens the bedroom door and reveals the small room that she has had to sleep in for forty years. She bore all her children there—the two that are alive and the two that are dead. Sarah opens the pantry door and recites further complaints. She then turns her attention to the children's rooms. Both are unfinished. Nanny's
room, she says, “ain't so good as a horse's stall.”
.......Sarah then reminds her husband of his promise forty years before that he would build them a new house within a year. But all he did was build sheds, cow houses, and one new
.......“I ain't got nothin' to say,” he says.
continues, saying she never complained until now. After Nanny is married, she says, Nanny will have to live somewhere else unless he builds a house. But Nanny is a delicate creature. “She'll be all worn out inside a year.”
.......Adoniram gets up, saying he has to finish unloading the wood and then get the gravel. Sarah asks him whether he will think over what she said.
.......“I ain't got nothin' to say.”
.......Sarah goes to the bedroom for a while. After she comes out, her eyes are red. She rolls out a piece of cloth and begins making shirts for her husband. When Nanny returns with her embroidery, she notices that her mother isn't herself and asks what's
wrong. Sarah says, “Nothin'.” Adoniram, meanwhile, drives out in the two-wheeled cart.
.......Work on the new barn progresses rapidly. It is a fine building, and some people come by on Sundays to look at it.
.......On a morning in the third week of July, it is finished. Just before Adoniram is ready to move the cows in, he receives a letter from Sarah's brother Hiram, who lives in Vermont. Hiram says if Adoniram comes up immediately, he can buy the kind of
horse he has been wanting. Sarah, who is now making pies, goes pale. Her heart begins to beat faster.
.......“I hate to go off jest now, right in the midst of hayin'," he says, "but the ten-acre lot's cut, an' I guess Rufus an'
the others can git along without me three or four days. I can't get a horse round here to suit me, nohow, an' I've got to have another for all that wood-haulin' in the fall. I told Hiram to watch out, an' if he got wind of a good horse to let me know. I guess I'd better go.”
.......Sarah lays out his Sunday suit, cravat, collar, and clean clothes, then made his lunch. In a short while, he is off. It will be Saturday, four days off, before he returns. Sarah resumes making pies. Nanny is sewing. Sarah mutters something about “opportunity,” and the narrator says she has made up her mind on a certain course of
.......By eleven 11 a.m., Sammy and other men pull up at the new barn with a load of hay. But Sarah runs out and tells them to put it in the old barn. A young man whom Adoniram hires periodically replies that her husband told
them to put the hay in the new barn. Sarah prevails, however, and the men pull over to the old barn.
.......While Nanny and Sammy eat dinner, their mother begins bringing out dishes from the pantry and loading them in a clothes
basket. They realize something unusual is going on. Mrs. Penn then tells Nanny to go upstairs and pack her things and Sammy to help her take the bed apart in her bedroom.
.......Over the next few hours, they move the dishes, the bed,
Nanny's things, and just about everything else in the house into the new barn. By five that evening, they finish. The stalls in the barn are just right for bedrooms, and the harness room—with its chimney and shelves—is perfect for a kitchen. There is plenty of space for a parlor, too, and the upper level of the building is just as big as the lower one. And there are
.......By six o'clock, Sarah has a fire going in the stove in the harness room and is ready to serve tea. The young hired hand milks the cows and brings foaming pails into the new barn. Afterward, he spreads word in the
village about what is happening, and people take time out from their daily routines to discuss Sarah Penn's move. They conclude that she must be a madwoman or a “rebellious spirit.”
.......The Rev. Mr. Hersey visits her on Friday.
Anticipating the purpose of his visit, Sarah tells the minister it will do him no good to try to reverse her course. What she has done is right, she says. He talks with her, but she remains firm in her resolve. When he leaves, he wonders what will happen when Adoniram returns.
.......Four cows are delivered. Sarah orders three of them to be put in the old barn and the fourth in the old house, which now serves as a shed.
.......On Saturday evening,
shortly before the expected arrival of Adoniram, several men gather on the road near the new barn, and the hired man sticks around after completing the milking. Meanwhile, Sarah has cooked one of her husband's favorite meals: baked beans, brown bread, and custard pie. She conducts herself with confidence, and the children are pleasantly excited.
.......When Adoniram arrives with the new horse, he first goes to the house. It is locked. He then goes into the shed and comes back out with a dazed look on his face. Finally, he takes the horse over to the new barn and opens the doors. Nanny, frightened,
stands behind her mother in the harness room. Sammy moves in front of both of them and says, “We've come her to live, father.” Adoniram goes into the harness room and says, ““What on airth does this mean, mother?” Sarah replies,
[W]e've come here to live, an' we're goin' to live here. We've got jest as good a right here as new horses an' cows. The house wa'n't fit for us to live in any longer, an' I made up my mind I wa'n't goin' to stay there. I've done my duty by you forty year, an' I'm goin' to do it now; but I'm goin' to live here. You've
got to put in some windows and partitions; an' you'll have to buy some furniture.” .......Sammy takes the new horse to the old barn. While Adoniram eats, he stops now and then to stare at his wife. Afterward, he goes out and sits on a step at the side door of the barn, which Sarah intends to be the front door of the house. After finishing the dishes, Sarah goes out to him and touches
him on a shoulder. He is weeping.
.......“I'll—put up the—partitions, an'—everything you—want, mother,” he says, then adds, “I hadn't no idee you was so set on't as all this comes to.”.
.......After enduring her husband's domineering management of the household and farm for forty years, Sarah Penn rebels. When he returns with his horse, she stuns him with the action she took and with her resolve to stand fast, and he readily accedes to her wishes.
.......In achieving her goal, Sarah's main tactic is an attitude of quiet but firm self-assertion. Confidant that she is in the right—and it is clear that she is—she acts decisively and succeeds.
.......In the late nineteenth century, men ruled the home. A woman was expected to cook, keep house, take care of the children, and heed her husband's wishes. When Sarah rebels against her husband, she defies this tradition, attracting the attention of her neighbors. They think she is “insane” or
possessed of a “lawless and rebellious spirit.”
Repression of Women in a Male-Dominated Society
.......Society in the late nineteenth century expected women to keep house, cook, bear and rear children–but little more. Despite efforts of women’s-rights activists such as Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, women still had not received the right to vote in national
elections by the century’s end. Moreover, employers generally discriminated against women by hiring them for menial jobs only and paying them less than men for the same work. Sarah sums up the plight of women when she says,
“You ain't found out yet we're women-folks, Nanny Penn,” said she. “You ain't seen enough of men-folks yet to. One of these days you'll find it out, an' then you'll know that we know only what men-folks think we do, so far as any use of it goes, an' how we'd ought to reckon men-folks in with Providence, an' not
complain of what they do any more than we do of the weather.” Climax
.......The climax of a literary work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax of “The Revolt of 'Mother,'”
occurs when Sarah decides to move the family into the barn. According to the second definition, it occurs when Adoniram returns from Vermont and discovers that his wife has moved the family into the new barn.
.......At the end of the story, Adoniram sits weeping outside the barn. But he cries ambiguous tears. On the one hand, they could represent long-overdue regret for the way he has treated Sarah and for his postponement of her wish to have a new home. On the other hand, they could be a manifestation
of injured pride. After all, he had allowed his wife to trump him. In an age when men ruled the home, Sarah had become queen for a day.
Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.
Repetition of a consonant sound
The spring air, full of the smell of growing grassand unseen blossoms, came in their faces.
He came gaping, dropping little blots of foam from the brimming pails. . . .
There were brown-bread and baked beans and a custard pie. . . .
She had on a clean calico. . . .
Word that imitates a sound
The old man slapped the saddle upon the mare's back. Oxymoron
Presently Adoniram clattered out of the yard in his two-wheeled dump cart. . . .
Combining contradictory words to reveal a truth or present an apt description
He looked at his wife, and his manner was defiantly apologetic. Simile
Her tender, sweet face was full of a gentle distress.
Sarah Penn's face as she rolled her pies had that expression of meek vigor. . . .
Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
She looked as immovable to him as one of the rocks in his pasture-land, bound to the earth with generations of blackberry vines. Narrative Technique
A pretty girl's face, pink and delicate as a flower
.......Freeman's narration is objective and straightforward. Unlike many other writers of her era, she wisely avoids undue sentimentality. She displays her restraint in this regard in the following passage:
.......“Father, won't you think it over, an' have a house built there instead of a barn?” Here, rather than presenting a crying scene, Freeman merely mentions that Sarah's eyes were red, then continues with the story.
.......“I ain't got nothin' to
.......Adoniram shuffled out. Mrs. Penn went into her bedroom. When she came out, her eyes were red. She had a roll of unbleached cotton cloth. She spread it out on the kitchen table, and began cutting out some shirts for her
Glossary of Names, Allusions, and Vocabulary
Adoniram: Biblical name meaning "my Lord has exalted" or "lord of might." In the Old Testament (1 Kings, 2 Samuel, 2 Chronicles), Adoniram (also referred to as Adoram and Hadoram) is identified as the
supervisor of forced labor for King David, King Solomon, and King Rehoboam over a period of more than forty years. In Freeman's story, Adoniram is lord of his household for forty years preceding his wife's revolt.
bay mare: Reddish-brown mare. A mare is a female horse that is at least five years old.
calico: Cotton cloth printed with a bright pattern.
cambric: Thin linen or cotton.
Catholic ascetic: Member of a religious order or
the church laity who practices rigorous sacrifice and self-denial to bring himself or herself closer to God.
cravat: Fabric band worn around the neck and tied in front; neckerchief, scarf, tie.
Heights of Abraham: Plains in southern Québec, Canada. On September 13, 1759, British forces under Major-General James Wolfe (1727-1759) defeated French forces under Marquis de Montcalm (1712-1759) in an important battle in the Seven Years War. Wolfe and Montcalm both died in the fighting.
Jerseys: Small, pale brown dairy cattle that give creamy milk.
kitchen glass: Kitchen mirror.
maxim: Adage, proverb, wise saying.
ninepence: Nine pennies.
Plymouth Rock: Boulder on the shore of southeastern Massachusetts. The pilgrims were said to have landed there in 1620.
Sarah: In the Bible, the wife and step-sister of Abraham (Genesis
12:15; 20:12). In 1 Peter 3:6, St. Peter praises her for submitting to the will of her husband. Her name is derived from the Hebrew word for princess. In Freeman's story, Sarah submitted to the will of her husband for forty years. However, this "princess" one day became a decision-making queen—at least for a day.
stanchion: Upright beam or post used for support.
victuals (pronounced vittles): Food.
Webster: Daniel Webster (1782-1852), American lawyer, congressman, senator, and secretary of state. He was a renowned orator. In "The Revolt of 'Mother,' " the narrator compares Sarah's skill as a speaker to that of Webster.
Wolfe: See Heights of Abraham.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Did the author blunder when she expected readers to believe that Sarah would wait forty years before taking decisive action?
2...Sammy knew three months before his mother that his
father was going to build a new barn. Why didn't Adoniram tell Sarah about his plans?
3...Using information from the story and from reliable research sources, write a psychological profile of Sarah.
4...Using information from the story and from reliable research sources, write a psychological profile of Adoniram.
5. Write an informative essay about the
limitations imposed on women by tradition, custom, and law in nineteenth-century America.
6. If Sarah had consulted her brother, Hiram, about her plan to move into the new barn, would he have supported her or sided with Adoniram?
7. Write an essay comparing and contrasting Sarah with Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.