Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Work and Year of Publication
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.
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.
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.
Young Hired Hand:
George Eastman: Fiancé
Laborers: Three men
digging a cellar for a new barn.
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
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
it was aside from his province, he [the minister] wondered more how Adoniram
Penn would deal with his wife than how the Lord would.
Michael J. Cummings...©
are them men diggin' over there in the field for?”
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.
a few minutes, he tells her that they are digging a cellar for a barn.
ain't goin' to build a barn over there where we was goin' to have a house,
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
don't see why you let him go for, mother,” he says.
Nanny goes out to buy more thread and embroidery, Sarah asks her husband
why he is building a new barn.
ain't got nothin' to say about it,” he replies.
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.”
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 barn.
ain't got nothin' to say,” he says.
wife 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.”
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.
ain't got nothin' to say.”
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.
on the new barn progresses rapidly. It is a fine building, and some people
come by on Sundays to look at it.
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.
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.”
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 action.
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.
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.
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
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 windows.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.”.
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.
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.
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.”
of Women in a Male-Dominated 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,
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
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.
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.
are examples of figures of speech in the story.
Repetition of a consonant
air, full of the smell
came in their faces.
He came gaping,
dropping little blots
of foam from the brimming
. . .
There were brown-bread
and a custard pie. . . .
She had on a clean
. . .
Word that imitates a sound
The old man slapped
the saddle upon the mare's back.
Presently Adoniram clattered
out of the yard in his two-wheeled dump cart. . . .
words to reveal a truth or present an apt description
He looked at his
wife, and his manner was defiantly apologetic.
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.
A pretty girl's face, pink
and delicate as a flower
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:
won't you think it over, an' have a house built there instead of a barn?”
rather than presenting a crying scene, Freeman merely mentions that Sarah's
eyes were red, then continues with the story.
ain't got nothin' to say.”
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 husband.
of Names, Allusions, and Vocabulary
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
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.
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
maxim: Adage, proverb,
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.
beam or post used for support.
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
Study Questions and Essay
the author blunder when she expected readers to believe that Sarah would
wait forty years before taking decisive action?
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?
information from the story and from reliable research sources, write a
psychological profile of Sarah.
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