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  • Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Louisa” and the Problem of Female Choice

Freeman’s “Louisa” features the parent-offspring conflict resulting from maternal interference with a daughter’s mate choice. Like all such conflict, it is grounded in the arithmetic of genetic relatedness and reflects the inescapable blending of altruism and selfishness characterizing familial relationships. Focusing on parental demands that offspring favor the interests of kin, even in mating decisions, the story explores the costs and benefits of nepotism. Freeman’s plot harnesses the literary force of poetic justice to expose self-interested biases in maternal advice and flaws in maternal judgment, thereby encouraging and validating a daughter’s resistance to parental influence.

In her 1890 short story “Louisa,” Mary Wilkins Freeman explores nepotistic interference with female mate selection. Twenty-five-year-old Louisa Britton is pressured by her mother to marry against her inclinations, that is, to accept a suitor whom she does not “like.”1 The focal point of Freeman’s plot is the ensuing mother-daughter conflict, an evolutionarily significant issue that invites readers to consider the questions it raises in larger terms: What motivates parents to interfere with a daughter’s mating decisions? Is a parent’s assessment of potential mates likely to be more accurate than that of the young woman herself? Is parental advice typically helpful—and, if so, helpful to whom? What are the potential costs or benefits of a daughter’s resistance to parental influence? These questions drive the action and create suspense throughout Freeman’s tale. [End Page 466]

The problem of female choice in humans is a vexed one.2 A stable pattern of mating preferences has been identified in women cross-culturally, and its existence presupposes some ability on the part of women, over many generations, to act on those preferences. David M. Buss explains that “women’s mate preferences had to have affected their actual mating decisions some of the time over the course of human evolutionary history or they would not have evolved.”3 In human communities, nonetheless, a number of factors often tend to limit women’s ability to exercise choice. Two sources of constraint emerge repeatedly in historical and ethnographic records: one is strategic interference by men, which ranges from raw physical coercion to culturally enforced norms and practices; the other is interference by relatives, motivated by inclusive fitness considerations. “Parents and other kin sometimes influence . . . mating decisions,” Buss observes, “regardless of personal preferences” (EP, p. 131). This second type of interference is what concerns Freeman in “Louisa.”

Relatives influence female choice in many ways. In some societies, men trade sisters to obtain wives; in systems of arranged marriages— “common across cultures”—parents or other family authority figures usually select spouses and negotiate allocation of resources (Frederick et al., p. 323). “The fact that marriages normally are regulated by elder kinsmen narrows the scope for personal choice,” Donald Symons notes, “and especially narrows the scope for female choice.”4 Even in communities with less formal customs regulating marriage, women often have a difficult time marrying without the permission, explicit or tacit, of family guardians. The exercise of such controlling influence by relatives (which can affect young men as well as women, although usually not as strictly) is evolutionarily understandable. Since children represent a crucial portion of their parents’ biological destiny—a child sharing half of each parent’s genes—mothers and fathers act to maximize their genetic legacy by supervising the mating choices of offspring. Parents steer marriageable daughters away from suitors with obvious physical, social, or material liabilities because disease-ridden, criminally inclined, or indigent men are not likely to provide them with thriving or numerous grandchildren. Instead parents attempt to match their daughters with men who command status and resources, men whose personal traits will help them preserve and increase whatever social and material advantages they already possess, such as vocational competence and social skills, intelligence and ambition, industry and reliability.5 Such qualities are likely to foster the survival and reproductive opportunities [End Page 467] of grandchildren, thus enhancing the genetic continuity of parents who monitor a daughter’s mating decisions with discernment and care.

Because of the significant overlap in fitness benefits between generations, it may be argued that match-making parents are simply exercising choice on a daughter’s behalf. Problems arise because the reproductive agendas of parents do not correspond fully to that of their children. Sharing half—but only half—of a child’s genes, a parent has strong reason to invest in the offspring’s reproductive success, but inclusive fitness considerations sometimes may encourage that parent to override the best interest of a particular child in order to optimize the welfare of other family members. The competing interests of siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins may render it expedient for a parent to curtail or otherwise manipulate a child’s mating options in order to reap potentially increased fitness benefits through genes shared with a wide network of relatives. The child so penalized may share fewer genes with some of those relatives than does the parent enforcing the sacrifice, and thus stands to gain less from the renunciations or compromises a parent might require (Trivers, pp. 144, 146).

To maximize their inclusive fitness, Robert Trivers explains, parents exploit the long period of juvenile dependency to ingrain familial loyalty and related “virtues” in their offspring, including altruistic commitment that may support a parent’s fitness more than a child’s (Trivers, pp. 144–45). Since humans are predisposed to recognize and pursue the benefits of inclusive fitness, social training in this case serves to reinforce evolved adaptations while skewing nepotistic tendencies in children so as to benefit parents. Indeed, socialization of offspring by parents plays an important role in what Richard Dawkins dubs the “battle of the generations.”6 Even as parents impart vital information about cultural expectations, preparing their children to navigate local norms successfully, they “attempt to mold each offspring in order to increase their own [that is, the parents’] inclusive fitness” (p. 145). At the same time, of course, “each offspring is selected to resist some of the molding.” The resulting conflict of interest extends to antagonism focused on “the adult reproductive role of the offspring” (p. 146).

Parent-offspring conflict provides the stuff of many literary plots, with special emphasis on daughters resenting and resisting spousal choices made on their behalf by parents. With conspicuous regularity, as evolutionary analysis predicts, parental manipulation of daughters’ mating and reproductive options tends to subordinate a daughter’s fitness interests to those of parents and other kin. Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, to name [End Page 468] a well-known example, would force her daughter Elizabeth to marry the socially (and possibly genetically) suboptimal Mr. Collins because a union with him, the holder of the entail on her husband’s property, would preserve Elizabeth’s mother and sisters from future economic privation. From the mother’s perspective, the sacrifice of one daughter’s reproductive advantage would repay itself in anticipated gains for the other four. Illustrating the exploitative parental tendencies described by Trivers, Mrs. Bennet uses moral suasion in her efforts to secure her daughter’s acquiescence to a mating decision bound to benefit others more than the young woman herself: she chastises Elizabeth’s resistance to maternal influence as “undutiful” behavior.7 Elizabeth escapes the fate her mother intends for her chiefly because her father refuses to support his wife’s wishes.

Thomas Mann’s Antonie Buddenbrook is not so lucky: her parents mount a united campaign of influence, separating her from the suitor she prefers and pressing ruthlessly for her agreement to marriage with an apparently successful businessman whose wealth promises to provide important backup for deteriorating Buddenbrook fortunes. These parents exploit the familial loyalty they have so carefully inculcated in their daughter in order to secure her compliance with their wishes. This is “exactly the marriage which duty and vocation prescribe,” Antonie tells herself; all her life she has been taught to embrace “her responsibilities toward the family and the firm.”8

In Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, Gilbert Osmond similarly relies on parental “teaching” to enforce obedience in his marriageable daughter.9 Valuing the status he stands to gain if he succeeds in marrying Pansy to a man with a title, Osmond pressures her to renounce a very acceptable suitor to whom she is warmly attached. He uses his paternal authority to enforce his wishes, ignoring the fact that the older, wealthier, more nobly born man he prefers for Pansy almost certainly would prove to be a less compatible match for her. “It is what I educated her for,” he coolly explains. “It was for this—that when such a case should come up she should do what I prefer” (Portrait, p. 309).

Like these and other fictional figures, Freeman’s Louisa Britton is pressured to put family welfare before her own. Set in a farming community of people living not far from the edge of subsistence, Freeman’s story demonstrates the critical importance of nepotistic loyalty to aging or sickly individuals. It is not ambition for exalted status (such as Gilbert Osmond’s fervent wish to be the father-in-law of a titled lord) that impels the “small and feeble” Mrs. Britton to intervene in her daughter’s mating [End Page 469] decisions but fear of starvation (L, p. 58). Circumstances have conspired to put the family’s survival at risk: the death of Louisa’s father, who farmed their small, one-acre holding; the loss of Louisa’s teaching job with its “meager” but dependable salary; the senility of her grandfather, who frequently undoes Louisa’s efforts to grow a food crop, interfering witlessly with her plantings (p. 64).

Louisa accepts her role as sole breadwinner in this small, struggling family, making increasingly heroic efforts to support her mother and grandfather. She works herself to exhaustion on the family farm, undertaking labor regarded by her community as masculine. Her mother scolds her for these departures from expected feminine behavior: working “jest like a man, for all the neighbors to see” may harm Louisa’s reputation and, by extension, that of the whole family (L, p. 54). Mrs. Britton is still more aghast to learn that Louisa has hired herself out as a day laborer, “rakin’ hay” in a neighbor’s field (p. 68). She bemoans damage to Louisa’s appearance as well as violations to decorum: the girl’s complexion is ruined (“her face . . . sunburnt as a boy’s”), her hands “hard and brown” (p. 66). Mrs. Britton’s failure to appreciate her daughter’s uncomplaining and loyal labors on behalf of close relatives is rooted in her determination that Louisa rescue them all from poverty through matrimony. As she sees it, her daughter is taking on men’s tasks and making a spectacle of herself for no good reason, given that an eligible suitor has presented himself.

Jonathan Nye is physically unprepossessing, “tall and clumsy” and “long-necked” and not, perhaps, particularly intelligent: “a slow reader” (L, p. 61). “Stiff” in “demeanor” and easily brought to “embarrassment,” he demonstrates little social poise and certainly no vivacity or wit. He is “the largest land-owner” in the region, however, occupying “the best house” and eating “butcher’s meat . . . every day in the week,” and he will become sole proprietor of the family holdings when his elderly mother dies (pp. 63, 58). Wealthier than most of his neighbors, he is, in addition, “the only marriageable young man in the place” (p. 67). Mrs. Britton feels grateful and proud that her daughter has attracted the notice of this man, whose material resources are sufficiently abundant to preserve the whole family from want. Louisa’s refusal to accept his attentions therefore infuriates her. Going out of her way to discourage her suitor’s visits and gifts, Louisa makes her disinterest in the match perfectly clear. Questioned by her mother, she will only say that she does not “like” Jonathan Nye, meaning, the omniscient narrator informs readers, that she does not “love” him (p. 66). Although she has “never [End Page 470] seen anybody whom she would have preferred,” she harbors “dreams” which marriage to Jonathan would not fulfill (p. 67). Despite a paucity of alternatives, the young woman is determined to resist this lackluster mating opportunity. Evidently she is willing to risk spinsterhood and long-term poverty rather than join herself for life to a man for whom she feels no warmth.

Mrs. Britton’s positive assessment of Jonathan Nye’s qualities as a potential husband for her daughter is based almost entirely on his resources, and she makes no attempt to conceal this. Because he is prosperous, polite, and attentive, bringing gifts of honey when he comes to call on Louisa, he seems to her mother a man without fault, “good an’ worthy,” that is, a man with resources and an apparent willingness to invest them (L, p. 65). When Louisa suggests that her mother must have felt a deeper emotional attraction to her own husband, Louisa’s father, Mrs. Britton denies this, declaring that “common-sense” guided her marital choice. The narrator immediately casts doubt on this assertion: too many years have passed since “her own love-time” for Mrs. Britton to assess her youthful feelings with retrospective accuracy. She is deceiving herself as much as her daughter when she claims that “calm reason” motivated her to accept “young John Britton” as a husband (p. 66).

Mrs. Britton’s inability—or refusal—to empathize with Louisa’s vision of a more congenial suitor stems from desperate self-interest: as provisions and cash reserves dwindle, the family faces increasingly “sore straits” (L, p. 64). Louisa’s grandfather, “who could not each much solid food,” weeps when they can no longer afford the porridge on which he chiefly subsists (p. 57). Failing to thrive on the “green-vegetable diet” remaining to them, Mrs. Britton grows ever thinner, “so weak that she could scarcely stand” (pp. 70, 72). She augments these tangible signs of physical deterioration with bitter recriminations. Instead of praising Louisa for her exertions on the family’s behalf, or thanking her when she goes out of her way to procure special foods her mother has indicated she might “relish,” Mrs. Britton rebukes her for failing to relieve their problems by marrying a man she doesn’t love (p. 58). Day and night, Louisa is forced to hear “her mother’s scolding voice pursuing her like a wrathful spirit” (p. 64). She and Louisa’s grandfather will soon “starve,” Mrs. Britton assures her daughter: “we can’t neither of us stan’ it much longer” (p. 71). Making reference to the “graveyard” both soon can expect to occupy, she points out that Louisa will be responsible for the death of her immediate family members; with this argument, Mrs. Britton increases the emotional pressure on her daughter to the [End Page 471] maximum. If Louisa allows her relatives to die when she easily might rescue them through marriage, she will prove that she “ain’t got no feelin’ at all” (p. 70). Put in Darwinian terms, Mrs. Britton accuses her daughter of unnatural behavior: she finds Louisa deficient in the emotion—love for family members—that serves as the mechanism driving altruistic behavior toward kin.

Despite her accusatory tactics and undemonstrative manner, Mrs. Britton is proud of her daughter: “she had the feeling of a queen for a princess of the blood about her school-teacher daughter.” She views the menial labor in which Louisa currently is engaged as “galling and terrible,” incommensurate to her daughter’s high quality and value. Reporting that in Mrs. Britton’s eyes “the projected marriage with Jonathan Nye was like a royal alliance for the good of the state,” the narrator compares this rural courtship to the politically motivated marriages of European monarchs (L, p. 65). In both cases, principles of inclusive fitness motivate parents to sacrifice the interests of individual daughters in order to secure or increase the welfare of a lineage. Tellingly, Mrs. Britton never directly argues that marriage to Jonathan Nye is necessary for Louisa’s own future well-being. Thus she tacitly acknowledges that Louisa will be moved by the need of kin more than by appeals to self-interest: she recognizes that her daughter has responded remarkably well to the parental “molding” described by Trivers.

In a last-ditch effort to avoid the marriage her mother is promoting so relentlessly, Louisa calls on the familial loyalty of another relative when she asks Uncle Solomon for help. Although there is long-standing bad feeling between him and Louisa’s mother’s side of the family, she reminds him that Mrs. Britton is his “nearest relative” and legally the presumptive heir to his considerable property (L, p. 75). He does respond, albeit grudgingly, to these reminders of nepotistic obligation. Offering much-needed provisions (ham, eggs, flour, and meal) but no transportation, he leaves Louisa to manage as best she can. Her system of carry-and-return, carry-and-return, triples the distance she must walk (twenty-one miles home instead of seven) on an “awful hot” day (p. 74). What motivates her to undertake this Herculean task is the prospect of feeding her family without marrying against her inclinations. “At the end of the burning, desert-like road was her own maiden independence”: preservation of female choice and reproductive autonomy (p. 76).

This grotesquely difficult journey is the culmination of Louisa’s many sacrifices for her family; the undertaking commands considerable narrative space and cements readers’ disposition to empathize with her more [End Page 472] than with her mother. Although the family’s poverty is extreme, readers are not encouraged to agree that Louisa should yield to Mrs. Britton’s matrimonial designs. Evidence that other girls in the community consider Jonathan Nye’s resources an irresistible attraction only moves readers to regard Louisa’s choosiness more highly. When Louisa arrives home with her hard-won provisions, her mother is unusually solicitous, advising her with “sharp tenderness” to lie down and cool off (L, p. 77). Mrs. Britton also is bursting with important news. During Louisa’s absence, a representative of the school committee has called, offering to reinstate Louisa in her teaching position. Her services are needed because the young woman who had replaced her (“put . . . in” at the request of her locally powerful father) is leaving that employment to marry—in fact, to marry Jonathan Nye (p. 61). Giving up on the unresponsive Louisa, Jonathan has begun courting a different girl. An act of nepotistic favoritism on the part of a local family had cost Louisa her employment, but now the new teacher’s prospective marriage, made possible by Louisa’s disinterest in Jonathan, has with beautiful irony landed the job back in her lap. The Britton family will survive, as before, without sacrificing Louisa to a loveless union.

The satisfaction inherent in this resolution of the story’s central conflict is augmented by further irony. A gossiping neighbor has dropped by, informing Mrs. Britton that Jonathan Nye explicitly disavowed any intention of helping to support Louisa’s family: “if Jonathan had you, he wa’n’t goin’ to have me an’ father hitched on to him; he’d look out for that,” Mrs. Britton tells Louisa (L, p. 77). Benevolence to in-laws, people recognized as kin through marriage, is a cross-culturally universal expectation. In order to enjoy the benefits of the “more extended kin network” marriage brings, it is necessary to treat relatives of a spouse— who will be blood relatives of any children the union produces—as family to whom some degree of nepotistic loyalty is owed.10 Nye’s rejection of such obligation marks him as a stingy and shortsighted individual. It is clearly not adaptive for a man (one well able to offer assistance) to allow his future children’s grandmother to starve. Mrs. Britton’s endorsement of his courtship was based, as readers recall, on exalted estimation of the support her son-in-law-to-be would provide: she assumed that soon she would be “installed in [his] large white house as reigning dowager” (p. 65).

The discovery that her assessment of Louisa’s suitor was wrong, her eager promotion of the match based on faulty assumptions, represents poetic justice in action. Having rooted for Louisa throughout the tale, [End Page 473] silently urging her to stick to her “dreams” and resist her mother’s emotional arm-twisting, readers are delighted to learn just how mistaken Mrs. Britton has been in her opinion of Jonathan Nye. The economic predicament of mother and grandfather would have grown still worse, readers must recognize, if the marriage for which Mrs. Britton lobbied so hard had taken place. Once married, Louisa no longer would have been available to work the family’s land or contribute day wages to household expenses.

Instead of acknowledging her poor judgment or apologizing to her daughter, Mrs. Britton repeats to her what she says she told the neighbor: “I told Mis’ Mitchell that I guess there wa’n’t none of us willin’ to hitch, you nor anybody else.” Louisa does not challenge this astounding misrepresentation of her mother’s behavior during the preceding months. Mrs. Britton was not only “willin’” to accept Nye as a son-in-law, she tormented her daughter shamelessly in her efforts to force her into a marriage with him. Her protest to the contrary is intended as a public announcement, however, rather than as private communication. She wants the gossiping neighbor to pass on her supposed dislike of the match: “I hope she’ll tell Mis’ Nye” (L, p. 77). It is impossible for readers to know whether Mrs. Britton actually has persuaded herself that she opposed the match—in an almost incredible act of self-deception—or simply is engaging in a face-saving maneuver. Community members are likely to regard her daughter as having been “cut out” by another girl, rejected in favor of a more desirable mate (p. 73).

To forestall any consequent devaluation of her daughter in local estimation, she wishes to spread the word that Louisa herself repulsed Nye’s suit. This is, in fact, the case—Louisa repelled Nye’s attentions unequivocally, to the point of rudeness—but Mrs. Britton obviously thinks she needs to go farther once she learns that Nye viewed her and Louisa’s grandfather as potential parasites on his resources. By claiming that “none” of the family wanted to be “hitched” to Jonathan Nye, Mrs. Britton hopes to erase the socially embarrassing image of them, fostered by Nye’s remarks, as burdensome hangers-on.

From an evolutionary perspective, one of the most interesting questions raised by the story’s conclusion is whether or not Louisa’s dislike of Jonathan Nye is inspired by recognition, conscious or unconscious, of his ungenerous character. Has she discerned that, despite his small gifts and embarrassed courtesies, he will behave callously to her relatives? Although the story offers no direct comment on this issue, it seems possible that Jonathan’s essential meanness has communicated itself [End Page 474] to Louisa’s awareness, however dimly, contributing to her repugnance without necessarily forming the whole of it. As Robert Wright points out, “emotions are . . . evolution’s executioners.”11 Ardent reception of a potential mate’s attentions occurs only after complex, largely unconscious, evaluation processes have taken place (Trivers, p. 72). Marriage to a tight-fisted man who rejects the claims of kin acquired through marriage—one who may provoke widespread ill will through excessive parsimony and related antisocial behavior—might well compromise his wife’s inclusive fitness. Whether or not it reflects conscious realization of his character defects, Louisa’s negative response to him appears to be more adaptive than readers initially could have suspected.

Freeman’s story obviously supports women’s resistance to parental interference in mating decisions. Having less at stake than a daughter in her mating success, and driven by fitness agendas not entirely congruent with hers, parents may make self-interested and otherwise disadvantageous choices on her behalf. Louisa’s experience offers evidence, too, that daughters often may choose more wisely than family elders who lay claim to experience, knowledge, and benevolence in order to justify their intervention. Mrs. Britton’s failure to acknowledge her own faulty assessment of Nye, let alone pay tribute to her daughter’s superior acumen, can only increase readers’ inclination to side with daughters against parents. Louisa’s struggle demonstrates how difficult it can be to resist parental demands for altruistic self-sacrifice, or, in Melissa McFarland Pennell’s words, “the lengths to which a woman must go to preserve her own freedom of will.”12 By presenting a case in which a daughter’s evaluation of a suitor proves more accurate than her mother’s, showing that submitting to her mother’s influence would have plunged the protagonist’s relatives into a disastrously unforeseen predicament, Freeman encourages women to distrust parental influence and rely instead upon their own emotions, preferences, and judgments.

Leah Blatt Glasser has argued that Louisa’s resistance to her mother represents a rejection of marriage per se, “a struggle to remain single in the face of the economic and social pressures to marry.” She interprets Louisa’s “girlish dreams” as “an effective substitution for marriage, a way of maintaining freedom through spinsterhood.”13 The story offers little support for such an inference, however: the omniscient narrator states that Louisa’s “dreams [about men and marriage] which she had in common with other girls,” are typical rather than eccentric, romantic rather than rebellious (L, p. 67, emphasis added). “Flush[ing] red” when bringing up the topic of marital love with her mother, Louisa indicates that she [End Page 475] finds the prospect of “lik[ing]” (or “lov[ing]”) a man appealing, that she yearns to respond to a man the way she assumes her mother once did to her own husband-to-be (p. 66). The story concludes with Louisa “turn[ing] again from him” (that is, from Jonathan Nye, whom she has glimpsed from her window) in order to immerse herself in “sweet, mysterious, girlish dreams” (p. 78).

This language does not invite readers to picture Louisa musing dreamily on the advantages of perpetual spinsterhood. Freeman’s phrasing suggests, rather, that her story’s protagonist is imagining romantic encounters with high-quality suitors: young men more appealing than Jonathan. Louisa’s actions demonstrate that she would rather remain forever unmated than marry a man who does not stir her, certainly, but her willingness to accept spinsterhood is not presented as an absolute preference for the unmarried state. Given the paucity of eligible men in her immediate environment, chances for her to fulfill her “sweet, mysterious” dreams appear to be limited, but she has retained the freedom to pursue whatever mating options come her way. She has not committed herself irrevocably to a union she considers undesirable.

Glasser touches on an evolutionarily significant point in that Louisa’s decision to wait for a better mating opportunity may not result in the wished-for outcome. If she fails to find a husband she considers suitable before her reproductive years have ended, she will compromise her fitness and that of her kin irretrievably. To undertake reproductive efforts with Nye might be less than ideally adaptive, but if she remains permanently unmated and childless she will confront complete reproductive failure: Louisa is gambling on future options that may never appear. Evolutionary theory reminds us, however, that a risk-taking strategy only needs to pay off more than half the time to remain in the repertoire of human behavior (EP, p. 301).

Louisa’s strategic refusal of an undesirable mate represents a lower-class, American version of Elizabeth Bennet’s action in Pride and Prejudice. When Elizabeth rejects the obviously substandard Mr. Collins, he cannot believe her refusal is earnest because, as he smugly informs her, her “loveliness and amiable qualifications” cannot compensate for her “unhappily small” dowry, which radically reduces her chances of receiving an offer of marriage—“ever”—from anyone else (PP, p. 82). Although his assessment of her matrimonial prospects is harsh, and no doubt rendered harsher by his inflated ego, it is not entirely unrealistic, given the social environment Austen depicts. Elizabeth is gambling that her looks, intelligence, and charm (all well above average) will enable her to [End Page 476] attract a suitor superior to the one at hand, at the same time deciding that the possible benefits of allying herself to the repellant Mr. Collins are not worth obtaining. Freeman’s protagonist confronts a similar set of considerations. Austen allows readers to see Elizabeth’s gamble pay off, most richly, while Freeman leaves her readers in doubt about Louisa’s matrimonial future. The happy ending that Austen prepares for Elizabeth—marriage to a man with much higher status and far more material resources than her circumstances render likely—underlines the idea that high-risk mating decisions sometimes may be spectacularly rewarded. Freeman ends her story on a more realistic note of suspense: at the time a risk-fraught decision is made, long-range consequences of that decision cannot be predicted.

Just as Austen presents the case of Charlotte Lucas as a counterexample to Elizabeth, Freeman offers readers a glimpse of Vinnie, “one of [Louisa’s] girl acquaintances” (L, p. 72). Vinnie cannot understand why Louisa is passing up such an apparently advantageous match, declaring that she herself would “like” any man who “had such a nice house and as much money as Jonathan Nye” (p. 73). Charlotte does not go so far as to profess a liking for Mr. Collins, but she takes active steps to secure him as a husband. Accurately assessing her chances of attracting another suitor as considerably less than her friend Elizabeth’s, she accepts Mr. Collins in full awareness of his defects: he is “neither sensible nor agreeable,” “his society . . . irksome.” Seven years older than Elizabeth and much plainer (never “having been handsome”), Charlotte sees her window of opportunity for mating and reproduction closing rapidly. Marriage to Mr. Collins provides a socially acceptable “preservative from want” and also will benefit her kin, freeing her sisters to marry sooner and releasing her brothers from the economic burden her spinsterhood would represent to them (PP, p. 93). Waiting for a more desirable suitor to appear would represent a greater risk for Charlotte than for Elizabeth because her mate quality is lower: in terms of youth, beauty, wit, and vivacity, Elizabeth outshines her.

Understandable though Charlotte’s calculations may be, they are not presented as admirable. Austen and Freeman both encourage readers to admire young women who refuse to accept unpalatable mates, steering reader sympathies toward Elizabeth and Louisa rather than toward Charlotte and Vinnie. In this way, both authors shed light on the risks inherent in all mating decisions. Freeman makes explicit what is only implicit in Austen’s novel: while it is risky to reject a less than ideal suitor in the hopes of finding a better one, accepting an individual with known [End Page 477] defects exacts inevitable costs. For reasons already discussed, a union with Jonathan Nye would imperil the survival of Louisa’s relatives. His intended abandonment of relatives acquired through marriage does not bode well for the future of anyone connected to him and thus poses potential threats to his wife’s inclusive fitness. Revelation of this aspect of his character is the crux of the story’s plot, underlining Freeman’s central point: the marriage would not have brought Louisa and her family the benefits it seemed to promise.

Marriage to Mr. Collins is similarly risk-laden. Speaking through her heroine, Austen castigates Charlotte’s capitulation to worldly interest: her choice of a husband not only shows a want of “principle and integrity,” it demonstrates “insensibility of danger” (PP, p. 102). It is dangerous, as Elizabeth recognizes, to be joined for life to “a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” (p. 103). He courts social and financial ruin every time he opens his mouth. Austen’s narrative shows that Charlotte’s intelligence and tact have preserved the couple, so far, from the worst potential consequences of his behavior, but Charlotte cannot exercise absolute control over the dangerous mixture of foolishness and arrogance in her husband’s character. A woman settling for Mr. Collins (and for the socially handicapped offspring likely to grow up under his paternal influence) might well suffer from reduced fitness. Austen and Freeman both present young women who must decide whether or not to accept a suitor who possesses adequate resources but is subpar in important respects, a situation that occurs often enough in real life. Acknowledging the very real risks of waiting for better opportunities, particularly in small, closed, social worlds, Austen and Freeman draw readers’ attention to the dangers any mating decision entails. To wait for options that may not appear is risky, true, but accepting a discernibly unappealing mate means incurring known costs—together with the unanticipated costs that factor into every mate choice—at the same time foreclosing future long-term mating options.

In one way or another, Freeman’s story keeps the topic of nepotism at the forefront of events. The central plot focuses on parental demands for a self-sacrificing mate choice on the part of an adult child, at the same time highlighting that child’s overwhelmingly generous, yet still self-protective, response. The subplot featuring Uncle Solomon portrays disruption of nepotistic benevolence due to family strife, at the same time indicating that such disruption typically is neither permanent nor absolute. Jonathan Nye’s expressed intention of refusing aid to a wife’s needy relations represents a fitness-damaging defiance of nepotistic [End Page 478] principle and behavior. Mr. Mosely, the school committee member, exercises kin-directed favoritism in the realm of work when he ousts a capable employee in order to provide a job for his daughter. Closely woven together to form the plot of Freeman’s story, these varied instances of nepotistic impulse and demand compel readers to muse on the mixed blessings—that is, the costs and benefits—of kin selection. Without the evolved tendency to assist relatives, individuals suffering the effects of injury, illness, or old age might not survive: Louisa’s mother and grandfather, for instance, clearly need the help she (or an Uncle Solomon) can provide. Thus a tendency to trade altruistic assistance within a kinship group plays a critical role in safeguarding the health, status, and survival of all its members.

Preferential treatment of relatives is not always good for unrelated outsiders, of course, and may foment ill will: Louisa’s loss of employment is a case in point. The conflict between Louisa and her mother or, indeed, between Uncle Solomon and one whole branch of his family, demonstrates the fragility of nepotistic feeling: readers observe a teeter-tottering balance between self-interest and altruism. Individuals clearly stand to benefit from helping relatives, since they share genes and contribute to one another’s potential fitness. Those who help too much may risk exploitation, however, and may find that the costs of helping exceed the expected benefits: Louisa’s case if she had attempted to assist her relatives through a self-sacrificing marriage. Those who help too little, contrastingly, may forfeit whatever indirect fitness benefits their relatives’ success might have secured them and risk reducing, in addition, the willingness of relatives to assist them, should future need arise: Uncle Solomon and Jonathan Nye come to mind. Those who presume too much upon help from kin, demanding more than their relatives reasonably may be expected to give, like Louisa’s mother, risk alienating those most inclined to assist them.

In sum, Freeman’s story demonstrates that nepotistic feeling is an adaptation that extends its influence into many arenas of human behavior, frequently inspiring conflict. Readers see the battle of the generations in action, including strenuous parental efforts to manipulate the reproductive behavior of adult offspring. One clear admonition that emerges from the tangle of need and demand, altruism and selfishness she depicts is that young women ought to retain control of their own mating decisions. The connection between choice of a spouse and reproductive success, let alone personal contentment, is direct and irrefutable. Thus it is not in young women’s best interest to permit the wishes of relatives [End Page 479] to control the mate-selection process. Parental influence is likely to be biased, Freeman’s tale further indicates, favoring the interests of other kin over that of a marriageable daughter, and parental assessment of potential mates may well prove to be flawed.

Pondering Louisa’s probable future, had she yielded to her mother’s influence and married Jonathan Nye, readers may regard Freeman’s narrative as a cautionary tale. If Louisa had submitted to her mother’s judgment, which is warped by anxiety and self-interest, the daughter’s nepotistically motivated self-sacrifice would have achieved less than nothing for her family. That outcome encourages readers and, by extension, women everywhere to guard the routes to their direct fitness with utmost care and courage, refusing to allow others to decide whose kin group they will join, whose lifestyle they will share, whose values they will support, and whose genes they will accept for their future progeny. Exploring parent-offspring conflict focused on mate selection, Freeman’s story comes down heavily on the side of adult daughters, who have the most to gain, as well as the most to lose, in such decisions.

Judith P. Saunders
Marist College


1. Mary Wilkins Freeman, “Louisa,” in The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories (Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1974), pp. 53, 66, 71; hereafter abbreviated L.

2. David A. Frederick, Tania A. Reynolds, and Maryanne L. Fisher offer detailed discussion of current research and debate on the topic of female mate choice, historically and cross-culturally: “The Importance of Female Choice: Evolutionary Perspectives on Constraints, Expressions, and Variations in Female Mating Strategies,” in Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women, ed. Maryanne L. Fisher, Justin R. Garcia, and Rosemarie Sokol Chang (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 304–29, hereafter abbreviated Frederick et al.

3. David M. Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, 2nd ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2004), p. 131; hereafter abbreviated EP.

4. Donald Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 166.

5. Robert Trivers, “Parent-Offspring Conflict,” in Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 147; hereafter abbreviated Trivers.

6. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 131; hereafter abbreviated SG.

7. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), p. 86; hereafter abbreviated PP.

8. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books, 1924), p. 82.

9. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), p. 294; hereafter abbreviated Portrait.

10. David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 123.

11. Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 88.

12. Melissa McFarland Pennell, “The Liberating Will: Freedom of Choice in the Fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman, ed. Shirley Marchalonis (Boston: C. K. Hall, 1991), p. 211.

13. Leah Blatt Glasser, In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary Wilkins Freeman (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), p. 75.

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