Questions on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun,” “The Revolt of ‘Mother,’” and “The Long Arm”

Directions: In a group of 3-4 people, analyze these stories in light of the information that you can find about them and their cultural contexts.  You’ll be presenting this information to the class.

I. “The Revolt of ‘Mother’”


1. What is Sarah Penn’s character like?  Why does she continue to make mince pies even if she’s angry at Adoniram? What gives Sarah the idea to move into the barn?

2. Do you think that Sarah engineered that letter from her brother so that Adoniram would leave?

3. What does the story have to say about the relative positions of both genders? How does Sammy exemplify his father’s values, for example?  

4. Look closely at the language of the characters: how do males and females talk to to each other? What words do they use?

5. Did you find the ending believable? Would an obedient woman like Sarah actually have moved into the barn? What support does the story provide for this idea?


6. Why might Adoniram have wanted to build another barn rather than to build another house?

7. What were Sarah Penn’s property rights in the matter of moving into the barn? Could Adoniram have forced her to move back into the house?

8. What effect does Calvinism and the role of religion have on the story?  How does it inform Sarah’s choices?

9. Were there any terms unfamiliar to you (e.g., “ninepence,” “buttery”)? What additional context would a reader of today need to understand what’s happening in this story?


What additional questions should be asked about this story?



II. “The Long Arm”


1. What conventions of detective fiction does Freeman use in this story?  At what point did you realize who the real murderer was, for example?  Does it use a “detective” figure?

2. What clues led you to the solution of the mystery?  Were there any false clues? Did the solution to the mystery make sense?

3. Freeman’s other fiction relies heavily on a detailed depiction of character, as in “A New England Nun.” What is the character of Sarah like? Did you believe her capable of murder? What would be her motive?

4. What is Sarah’s relationship with the men in the story (her father and lover)?  With the women?

5. How does Sarah’s father’s story help to make sense of the rest of his actions?  In what senses is this a story of passion?


6. How much does the story rely on the characteristics of regionalism or local color?  How would the original audience have understood Sarah’s reluctance to go against her father’s wishes, for example? 

7. This story is often read as an early depiction of a lesbian relationship (Phoebe and Maria), or at the very least a “Boston Marriage.” Would you agree? How are heterosexual and lesbian relationships portrayed in the story?

8. “The Long Arm” is Freeman’s response to the Lizzie Borden case of 1892.  Look up the information about that case and identify the parts that parallel the story’s version of the case.   



What additional questions should be asked about this story?




III. “Old Woman Magoun” 


1. From what does Mrs. Magoun want to protect Lily? 

2. What is Lily’s background?  Who is her father, and what role does he play?  Why does the narrator say that “there had been rumors” about Lily’s mother (p. 362)?

3. Analyze the character of Lily.  How old did you think she was? Why does she carry a doll? What kind of clothing does she wear?

4. At one level this is a story about an economic system in which objects are traded for other objects.  Nelson Barry wants Lily to take candy from him and to give up her doll, for example.  What are the significant objects in this story, and what do they mean? 

5. Lily is offered several things to eat. What does she eat, and what does she decline?

6.  Analyze the role of the natural and built environment in this story.  What does the bridge mean symbolically? 

7. At what point did you realize what Mrs. Magoun was going to do to Lily?  Did she do the right thing?

8. Did Mrs. Magoun also kill Lily’s mother?


9. Freeman uses a lot of words related to heredity in this story, and the Barry and Willis families are both wealthy families in decline. What caused their decline?

10. Why would Lawyer Mason refuse to take Lily because of the “Barry blood”?  What does that mean?

11.  What did people of this era (1905) believe about the effects of nature versus nurture on an individual’s character?

12. Is it possible to die by eating the berries of the “deadly nightshade”?

13. Does this story remind you of any fairy tales? Why might Freeman rely on these associations from her readers?

14. What was the state of rural New England at this time—economically and socially?

What additional questions should be asked about this story?