[(essay date autumn 2000) In the following essay, Cherciu evaluates Freeman's humorous critique of traditional courtship rituals in "Juliza" and "One Good Time," and comments on Narcissa Stone's obsession with clothing.]
In a letter sent in 1886 to her friend Mary Louise-Booth, the editor of Harper's Bazar, Mary E. Wilkins expresses succinctly the apparent paradox of her short stories, according to which laughter and tears are often interchangeable:
I have just finished a story, which I do not dare send as yet. It is so very tragic. Mary Wales who always giggles at my pathetic points, has just burst into a flood of tears much to my alarm. I thought she was laughing, and there she was crying. I may change it, and marry the man instead of killing him, but I fear it won't be as artistic.(68)
Most of Freeman's stories of ludicrous courtship combine strategies of revolt disguised in the apparently innocuous mask of humor with often improbable evasions out of the constricting limits of reality. Interpreting the humor and pathos in Freeman's stories of courtship, I will try to bypass the popular "A New England Nun," a story that has become an icon within the increasing body of criticism on Freeman's work. Instead, I will analyze two less known stories, "Juliza" and "One Good Time."
In an attempt to enlarge the scope of her reception, Freeman took pains to disengage herself from the radical message in her enormously successful story "The Revolt of 'Mother.'" Sarah Penn, or the "Mother" in the title, decides to move her family into the barn her husband has stubbornly built instead of their long promised new house. Her brave decision scandalizes her community but convinces her husband about the power of her determination. Discussing this model of a woman's revolt in an article somewhat misleadingly called "An Autobiography," Freeman claims that the story is not true: "When I wrote that little tale I threw my New England traditions to the winds and trampled on my New England conscience" (134). By the same token, one could argue that the conflicts in "Juliza" and "One Good Time" might be improbable. Definitely, they do not correspond to a traditional definition of what women should be. However, the delicate balance of humor manages to recuperate the truth in what might appear as an irreverent revolt against tradition.
The mixture of pathos and humor in Freeman's stories became apparent quite early. Although most early reviews signaled the presence of humor, Shirley Marchalonis and Gregg Camfield have published the only studies dedicated exclusively to Freeman's humor. Specifically, Marchalonis develops a theory of humor starting from the limitations and the benefits of the local color label. In her view, the function of humor is relevant in its connection with other modes: "Throughout Freeman's work, including those early stories described by Pattee and others as grim, there is often a core of humor--perhaps irony, perhaps the absurd, but humor nonetheless. Characters are placed, or, rather, have placed themselves, in...