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Jacquelyn Smith

Professor Linda Earls

American Literature - ENG 208

19 April 2019

Sarah Penn’s Education of Her Daughter

Education for most women in 1890 was rarely available and considered by many to be

seldom required. The education that Sarah Penn provides to her daughter Nanny is not about

literature or mathematics. Instead, she introduces her to the intricacies of navigating marriage

with an obstinate man. By teaching her daughter Nanny how to work within the limited

parameters for women set by marriage and society in the time of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s

story, “The Revolt of ‘Mother’,” Sarah prepares Nanny for life and marriage.

Adoniram Penn appears to be an immovable object at the beginning of the story. Sarah’s

dream of a new home seems unlikely to come to fruition. The story begins with Sarah reminding

her husband of his promise to build her a new home. She lays out her feelings and beseeches him

to hear her but does so discreetly and without an audience, the behavior of a properly submissive

wife. When he is unmoved by her appeal, she makes up her mind that she will have her new

home, with or without Adoniram’s consent. She formulates a plan to achieve her goal of moving

her family into the new barn and anticipates obstacles, like the objections of their local minister.

She recruits co-conspirators to help her complete the necessary tasks. Sarah makes the new home

as delightful as she is able and prepares her husband’s favorite meal to ease the sting of her

rebellion. And when she emerges victorious, she does not gloat or confront her husband with her

triumph, allowing their peaceful life to resume. Her brilliant navigation of this complicated
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problem provides her daughter Nanny not only with a respectable place to receive her wedding

guests but with a game plan to manage the most difficult conflicts in her upcoming marriage.

Sarah recognizes early on that it would be inappropriate to demand her new home from

Adoniram. Instead, she uses his own words to remind him of his promise to her. Sarah reminds

him, “…when we was married, forty year ago, you promised me faithful that we should have a

new house built in that lot over in the field before the year was out” (Freeman, 5). Her efforts are

not successful when Adoniram refuses to even entertain the subject with her. Despite this, Sarah

attempts to support him when her daughter raises her concerns about the wedding and promises

to make the best of what they have. Sarah tells an abashed Nanny, “I guess you won’t have no

call to be ashamed of your belongin’s” (Freeman, 6). While Sarah may not agree with her

husband, she defends him even within her own family, demonstrating for Nanny wifely loyalty.

When a providential letter calls Adoniram out of town just as the barn is finished, Sarah

realizes she’s been granted a once in a lifetime opportunity. In ‘I Never Saw Anything at Once so

Pathetic and Funny’ critic Gregg Camfield states, “from story to story, Freeman examines the

cost of choosing to maintain the struggle or surrender to it” (Camfield, 220). Sarah has been

surrendering on the issue of her new home for forty years. She finally sheds her compliance once

her husband leaves and makes the bold decision to occupy the new barn without his permission,

showing Nanny that some battles are worth fighting in a marriage.

Sarah knows her community and children well enough to know that she’s likely to meet

opposition if she proceeds too recklessly. At no point does she illuminate anyone on her full

plan. Instead, she metes out directions on a need-to-know basis and allows the people to come to

their own conclusions. She allows their hired hand to believe she’s operating under her

husband’s authority when she tells him to place the hay in the old barn. The hired hand even
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reinforces her mission by telling her, “Didn’t need the new barn, nohow, far as room’s

concerned” (Freeman, 7). The hired hand spreads the tale of the uprising on the Penn family farm

through the town.

When the Penn family’s minister arrives to speak to her, Sarah doesn’t allow him to enter

the barn and see what she’s done. The minister attempts to reason with her, but she informs him

that she has addressed her actions with God. Sarah’s directness and fieriness take the minister

aback and he’s unable to come up with a rational argument against her. In his essay entitled ‘In

the Humble Fashion of a Scripture Woman: The Bible as Besieging Tool in Freeman’s ‘The

Revolt of “Mother”’, critic Brian White tells us, “Sarah Penn does what is right even when her

husband is plainly doing wrong; she engages in powerful actions that speak without being

frightened by her husband's displeasure, her community's censure, or her minister's rebuke” (87).

Her anticipation of the farmhand, the minister, and the townsfolk’s gossip demonstrates for

Nanny how interconnected their community is. Sarah shows her that if she’s planning to do

something brave, she had better be fully committed to the integrity of her decisions and actions

and be prepared to defend them.

When Sarah directs Nanny to pack up her belongings and enlists Sammy to help her

disassemble the bedstead, they wondered at her audacity. Neither child refuses though, which

tells us that their mother does not vacillate. They “followed their mother’s instructions without a

murmur; indeed, they were overawed” (Freeman, 8). Sarah could not accomplish the tasks

necessary to move her entire household without their help. If either child might refuse to

cooperate, it would challenge her surety of the righteousness of this decision. At no point does

she doubt their loyalty or complicity with her plan. As their mother, she knows she can depend

on them to support her mission as it would benefit them all. Even when Adoniram returns and
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her children quake, waiting for their father’s reaction, they do not run to him and apologize for

their actions. They stand with their mother, and her son Sammy even announces the move to the

barn as the family’s decision. Sarah’s confident marshaling of her children shows Nanny that

while the family may respect the father, they listen to the mother above all.

Rather than stand defiantly on the porch waiting for Adoniram to return from his journey,

Sarah wisely prepares his favorite Saturday evening supper. She arranges the new home in

perfect order, puts on a clean dress, and is to all outward appearances the model wife when he

returns. She escorts her husband into a small room, closes the door, and privately tells him that

the family will indeed be residing in the new barn going forward. She doesn’t apologize, but she

also does not yell or insult him. She clearly and firmly tells him what he’ll need to do to

complete the home for his family and then directs him to the supper table. She is solicitous as she

helps him clean up for dinner and sets his plate of favorites before him. Sarah submissively asks

him to say the blessing, deftly re-establishing him as the head of the household despite her brief

and dramatic rebellion. Later, when he concedes defeat, she hides her face in her apron,

“overcome by her own triumph” (Freeman, 10) but also protecting her husband’s pride. If he saw

her joy at her success, his feelings might be hurt. Her deference to him demonstrates for her

daughter that there is a time for rebellion and a time for submission, and it is crucial to recognize

the appropriate way to approach one’s husband in any given moment.

In “Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman”, critic

Janice Daniel points out that “at first glance, one might assume that… Freeman is simply

perpetuating that century’s stereotypical images of woman’s limited ‘place’” (Daniel, 69). Sarah

Penn’s revolt may seem to a modern reader to be rather tame. She quietly and sneakily moves

her household into a barn when her husband refuses to build her the new home she’s been
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promised. She does not demand her home. There are no raised voices, no stamping feet, no

slamming doors, and no loud and messy conflict. Many modern readers would find this story

completely lacking in drama and struggle to find the ‘revolt’. Readers who have been married for

a significant length of time can recognize and appreciate the brilliance in this story. Sarah Penn

gets her way without a dramatic fight. She maintains respect for her husband even while working

against his plans. She does not lambast him to her children or society. Sarah stands her ground

even when challenged by the community, in the form of the minister. She knows what is right

and follows her heart without trampling on anyone else’s in the process. She demonstrates for

her children confidence, humility, and respect in the context of marriage. At the conclusion of

this story, Nanny Penn is far more prepared to be a new wife than she is at the beginning through

the observation of her mother’s brief but shining rebellion.

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Works Cited

Camfield, Gregg. “`I Never Saw Anything at Once so Pathetic and Funny’: Humor in the Stories

of Mary Wilkins Freeman.” ATQ, vol. 13, no. 3, Sept. 1999, p. 215. EBSCOhost,


Daniel, Janice. “Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins

Freeman.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 33, no. 1, Winter 1996, p. 69. EBSCOhost,


Freeman, Mary E. W. “The Revolt of ‘Mother".” Ed. Jeff Kaylin.

White, Brian. “‘In the Humble Fashion of a Scripture Woman’: The Bible as Besieging Tool in

Freeman’s ‘The Revolt of “Mother.”’” Christianity & Literature, vol. 58, no. 1, Sept.

2008, pp. 81–92. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/014833310805800106.