In 1891, women were viewed as subordinate to men. Women were only expected to get married, have children, and spend their days completing the work that needed to be done around the house. Louisa became engaged to Joe Dagget before he went on an adventure to try and find great sums of money. He was almost entirely missing from Louisa’s life for fourteen years out of their fifteen-year relationship. They “had seldom exchanged letters” (107) and those letters was all they had heard from each other over Joe’s entire absence. While Joe was on his quest for riches, Louisa was at home dealing with tremendous losses and found herself feeling truly alone. She became accustomed to the way that she was living and was uneasy at the thought of changing her organized life and adding someone else into it that could interfere with the way she liked things done. Louisa had to adapt to the conditions of her life and this transformed her into a free, self-reliant person that did not rely on a man, and she did this despite society’s perspective on what women should do.
After being separated from her fiancé for fourteen years, Louisa develops into an independent woman who values cleanliness and living alone. Louisa was happy and doing fine living her normal life until Joe came home and disrupted her lifestyle. She lived an organized life and when Joe simply moved a book from the bottom of the pile to the top, it made her uneasy because “that was the ways they had been arranged in the first place” (106). While Joe was away, Louisa inherited her deceased mother’s house and had lived in it since then. During this period, her brother also died. This left her with no one. She felt her feet, “meet a check at her grave… so narrow there was no room for any one at her side” (108). She is feeling the loss of her family along with the temporary loss of her husband, and now feels like she will be alone until the day of her death. But the thought of being alone soon turns into an appreciation for it, and it becomes one of the aspects of her life that is most important to her.
Mary Wilkins Freeman uses the yellow canary and Caesar to represent Louisa’s feeling of being “caged” and uncomfortable around Joe. When Joe first walked in the door, the yellow canary started to flap its wings profusely, and Louisa was hustling to put away her pink-and-white apron. Louisa’s first described feeling of seeing Joe was “consternation, although she would not admit it to herself” (108). The canary represents Louisa in this encounter beautifully because of what the bird does when Joe walks in the door. “A little yellow canary that had been asleep in his green cage at the south window woke up and fluttered wildly, beating his little yellow wings against the wires” (105). The canary and Louisa both are startled and uncomfortable with the arrival of Joe. Louisa, like the bird, feels caged in this situation because of how long she’s been connected to Joe without any real relationship with him. Similarly, Freeman uses Caesar to represent Louisa being bound to the house like Caesar’s dog collar, “the old dog had remained a close prisoner” (110). Caesar has also been bound to the house for fourteen years since “he inflicted that memorable bite” (110) which is the same amount of time Louisa has been bound to the house. Freeman’s use of animals as symbols is a clever way to represent different ways that Louisa feels trapped and threatened by Joe and the idea of a new life with him.
Despite the fact that Joe is having an affair with the girl that is helping his mother, Louisa is more disturbed at the thought of leaving her house and having a life with him. When Joe returns home, it is obvious that Louisa does not love him. Their relationship is awkward as evidenced by the two of them talking about the woman with whom Joe was having an emotional affair. This woman, Lily Dyer, was helping Joe’s mother with things because of her old age. Louisa brings up her being “pretty-looking” (106) and Joe’s agreement is a strike against him. When Joe left Louisa’s house, “Louisa, on her part, felt much as the kind-hearted, long-suffering owner of the china shop might have done after the exit of a bear” (107), which shows her relief that he left. When Louisa strolled outside on a night of a full moon, she came across the voices of Joe and Lily and discovered their hidden romance. The day after, Joe came to her house and still, “she could hardly believe she had heard right” (113). This affair with Lily gave Louisa the perfect opportunity to break things off with him without making the reason all about herself. However, despite her relief that she is out of the dull relationship, “she had lived so long in one way that she shrank from making a change” (113). She was concerned about adjusting to the new life she would have completely separated from Joe.
Louisa found herself stuck in an uncomfortable position. Her fiancé left to find money after they got engaged and left her all alone at home for an extended period. She lost members of her family and had to find ways to cope with those losses by herself. Her methods of coping were cleaning and being an organized person. When Joe finally returned after fourteen years, she discovered that their relationship was no longer romantic, just awkward. When Louisa came across Joe and Lily talking one night and learned that Joe was having an affair, she finally had an excuse to cut off the relationship with Joe without looking selfish. Louisa had to make due on her own from the very beginning, and she grew so independent while Joe was away that she didn’t feel like she needed him anymore. Joe’s absence was the cause of Louisa finding her confidence and becoming an independent and self-reliant woman.