Freeman’s story The Revolt of Mother is set at a time and place when family and the church were the only socialization environments. This made communication – or lack of it – between the pillars of a family a fundamental issue which influenced and even modeled people’s lives. The story details the gendered nature of communication between the main characters; communication which, in the nineteenth century, was based on the generalized principle that women had a hard time trying to communicate in a male-dominated world. In Freeman’s story, both Mother and Father fight their own battle for power. Both of them play their cards, choose their tactics, but in every battle for power there has to be a victor, in this case it is Mother. It is her communication revolt which gives her the advantage. A revolt which is new to herself, too: “Nobody’s ever heard me complain” (554), she confesses. Hers is a successful revolt because it is different from the usual pattern of “patriarchal or non-patriarchal language, of speaking men or silent women, of barn versus home” (Cutter 291). This essay will try to prove that the way in which Mother and Father communicate reveals a tacit agreement of keeping to social conventions when in fact both of them understand perfectly well which the best ways to defend their personal interests are.
As from the title of the story, Freeman establishes the social and hierarchical distinction between the two main characters. The word “Mother” between quotations suggests associations with biological and social connotations. The story which begins in medias res with Mother calling her husband “Father” referring to him by his social and family role, reveals the formal and hierarchical relationship between them. Father, Mr. Penn is established as the provider (the only thing he does and cares for is work) while Mother holds her immanent role of procreator and housekeeper. Instances of that hierarchical/social aspect in their relationship are illustrated by Mother demanding her husband to provide comfort (by building the new house he had promised) as well as by Father suggesting that Mother keeps to her role: “I wish you’d go into the house, mother, an’ ‘tend to your own affairs,” the old man said then (553).
There seem to be many demands but little communication. From the very beginning of the story, the reader learns that cooperation, the most important principle of communication, is deliberately “violated” by Father who refuses to cooperate hoping, thus, to maintain Mother in the realm where she “belongs” (housekeeping). With the tactics he chooses to use, Father seems to dictate the rules that shape the nature of their battle. When Mother calls her husband, he responds with the question “What is it?”(553) showing some sort of impatience, and when Mother expresses the desire to know why the men are digging in the yard, he “shuts his mouth tight” and continues to harness the mare. He only interrupts his silence to express his desire to see her tend to her affairs. He seems to feel it has to be like this, forty years without complains prove his logic that that’s the way Mother “wants it to be”. Father’s words are said, according to the omniscient narrator, in an ambiguous manner “almost as inarticulate as a growl” (553). Mother again seems to be used to this type of communication. The narrator tells us that “the woman understood; it was her most native tongue.” (553)
Later in the story, the reader witnesses another of Father’s tactics to avoid communication.
“Father! “she called.
“Well, what is it!”
“I want to see you just a minute, father.”
“I can’t leave this wood nohow. I’ve got to git it unloaded an’ go for a load of gravel afore two o’clock. Sammy had ought to helped me. You hadn’t ought to let him go to school so early.”
Annoyed by his wife’s persistence, Father avoids talking to her on the pretense that he has too much work. Here, the use of modals “I have got to” and “You hadn’t ought” implies once more, that idea so constant in Father’s way of communicating: I have things to do- There are things you haven’t done.
But Father’s apparent power and dominance is illusory, and he knows it perfectly well. So does Mother. She knows that part of her duty is keeping that illusion because that is the socially accepted way. When the narrator states that Mother had “meek downward lines about her nose and mouth; but her eyes, fixed upon the old man, looked as if the meekness had been the result of her own will, never of the will of another” (553) we can discover that pretense very clearly. Mother’s self conscious will to recognize Father’s power is again disclosed when she tells
“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.”
Then she immediately justifies Father.
“You hadn’t ought to judge father, though. He can’t help it, ’cause he don’t look a things jest the way we do. An’ we’ve been pretty comfortable here, after all. The roof don’t leak — ‘ain’t never but once — that’s one thing.”
This shows that Mother understands reality from both female and male perspectives. Men are different, that is the way they are, they do not do it on purpose, they can only perceive reality from their perspective so she pardons him and accepts the place she has to occupy in the relationship. But Mother never loses her self-identity (Cohn 270). She asserts her dominance when Father’s annoying silence becomes more than she can bear.
“Father, you come here.” Sarah Penn stood in the door like a queen; she held her head as if it bore a crown; there was that patience which makes authority royal in her voice. Adoniram went.
In response to Father’s tactic of silence, Mother counterattacks with a long speech in which she includes all kinds of attempts to appeal to Father’s feelings:
An’ this is all the room my daughter will have to be married in. Look here, father!”
— “there’s all the room I’ve had to sleep in for forty year. All my children were born
there — the two that died, an’ the two that’s livin’. I was sick with a fever there.”
Having failed to appeal to her husband’s feelings, Mother reminds him of his promise to build the house. From his socially influenced point of view Father is not committed to keep promises made to a female and, thus, continues to refuse all cooperation by remaining silent. He knows that if he speaks he may lose ground to Mother, because he knows his wife’s reasons are as valid as his. His final transformation proves this. But the barn means a lot to him, in his view, just as much as the house means to his wife. The barn is a social event he generated, it makes him feel proud, it raises his status as a successful man. He feels he has the same right to have a better barn as his wife has to have a better house.
Men came on pleasant Sundays, in their meeting suits and clean shirt bosoms, and stood around it admiringly. Mrs. Penn did not speak of it, and Adoniram did not mention it to her, although sometimes, upon a return from inspecting it, he bore himself with injured dignity.
Father cannot see the rationality in his wife’s speech. He confidentially tells Sammy: “It’s a strange thing how your mother feels about the new barn”. The verb feel suggests that Father interpreted it as something womanly connected with emotions and not with logic. He just does not understand, Mother had said it before “He can’t help it, ’cause he don’t look at things jest the way we do.” As a specialist in linguistics, Deborah Tannen has studied how the conversational styles of men and women differ. She suggests that “men approach the world as a place where people try to achieve and maintain status. Women, on the other hand, as a network of connections seeking support and consensus.”
Mother decides that they have had enough words; communication has failed as a tactic, so she tries action. She waits until her husband has left for a few days and sets her plan going. But, is cheating allowed in this battle for power? The author surreptitiously suggests that Father’s trip to Vermont has been arranged by Mother. She suspiciously tells her daughter:
“S’posin’ I had wrote to Hiram,” she muttered once, when she was in the pantry —
“S’posin’ I had wrote, an’ asked him if he knew of any horse? But I didn’t, an’ father’s goin’ wa’n’t none of my doin’. It looks like a Providence.” Her voice rang out quite loud at the last.
“What you talkin’ about, mother?” called Nanny.
In the last part of the story, there are many instances of symbolism which adhere to this essay’s comparison of Mother’s revolt with real battles.
During the next few hours a feat was performed by this simple, pious New England mother which was equal in its way to Wolfe’s storming of the Heights of Abraham. It took no more genius and audacity of bravery for Wolfe to cheer his wondering soldiers up those steep precipices, under the sleeping eyes of the enemy, than for Sarah Penn, at the head of her children, to move all her little household.
The last move has been made in the barn vs house battle. . As soon as he arrives back, Father senses his defeat. The narrator tells us he sits down on the doorstep, leans his head on his hands and weeps. After losing his masculine stubbornness Father moves into a mode of awareness and sensitivity to her family’s feelings over his own. Freeman says of him, “Adoniram was like a fortress whose walls had no active resistance, and went down the instant the right besieging tools were used”. We find once more the author’s use of war symbolism conveyed through words like “fortress,” “besieging tools,” and “triumph” which evoke scenes of medieval conquests, confirming Mother’s victory.(Carter 40)
As Michael Grimwood states in his Architecture and Autobiography in “The Revolt of ‘Mother’”, this is Father’s story as much as it is Mother’s. Father’s story expresses some kind of regret that he is too weak to stand a challenge. Mother’s story is about her claim for space within her marriage and her society. Nevertheless, Mother success is not seen in a very optimistic light by some critics. Leah Blatt Glasser, literary critic and Freeman scholar wrote “Sarah ‘revolts’ only to return immediately to the role of serving her husband’s needs. Having won the victory of creating a new home, Sarah is overcome by her triumph. Yet to my mind, she had won only the victory of providing her husband and family with a place in which to serve them better.” In any case, one of the best characteristics of “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” is that it depicts a complex reality. The truth is that, as in real life, neither Father nor Mother is wholly a victim, a rebel or an oppressor. If the story leaves something in the reader, “it is not because one spouse has defeated the other but because at the last moment we learn, they learn, that their care for each other transcends any roles” or battles for power (Grimwood 80)
- Carter, James B. “Princes, Beasts, or Royal Pains: Men and Masculinity in the Revisionist
- Fairy Tales of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.” Marvels & Tales 20 (2006): 30-46
- Conn, Peter J. Literature in America: An Illustrated History. CUP Archive, 1989: 270
- Cutter, Martha J. “Frontiers of Language: Engendering Discourse in ‘The Revolt of ‘Mother’.”
- American Literature 63.2 (1991): 279-291.
- Glasser, Leah Blatt “She Is the One You Call Sister: Discovering Mary Wilkins Freeman.”
- Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write About
- Their Work on Women, ed. Carol Ascher, Louise DeSalvo, and Sara Ruddick. New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Grimwood, Michael. “Architecture and Autobiography in “The Revolt of ‘Mother’”American
- Literary Realism 40.1 (2008) 66-82 North Carolina State University. 9 March 2009 http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_literary_realism/v040/40.1grimwood.html
- Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand. Women and Men in Conversation. Harper Collins 2001: 24-25
- Wilkins, Mary E. “The Revolt of ‘Mother.’” Electronic Text Center. University of Virgini Library. 9 March 2009: 553-561 http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/WilRevo.html