Freeman’s Old Woman Magoun

Old Woman Magoun can be read as a fairy tale. The text contains codes and imagery of the tale. Its characters are contemporary adaptation of the princess, the prince, the king, the wolf, the godmother and the witch. Mary Wilkins Freeman succeeded in creating ambivalence in all the characters. The text was written for self-interpretation, and like a tale, its symbolic message is different according to the reader.

Old Woman Magoun is about an old woman, raising her granddaughter, Lily and treating her as a child even though she is about to turn fourteen. Lily’s mother died when her baby was one week old and her father, Nelson Barry never had great interest in his daughter. Nevertheless, Nelson decides to marry his child to a friend of his. Old Woman Magoun is very protective of her grandchild, she doesn’t accept at first to give Lily back to Nelson Barry. Lily eventually gets sick and dies without being married. Now, the cause of her death and Old Woman Magoun’s responsibility may be discussed. Old Woman Magoun is constructed like a fairy tale and its characters echoes archetypes of fantastic literature. I will study the main characters in order to reveal their profound nature and understand the moral of Freeman’s tale.


Lily mixes features of the young girl and the woman. She is thirteen, going on her fourteen. However, Old Woman Magoun dresses her as a child with colourful muslin dress and straw hat. Lily is above all very innocent. She does not seem to know much about the outside world, especially men. She is also very shy. Therefore, when she goes to the shop for the first time on her own, she grasps her rag doll like if it was a life buoy as soon as strangers speak to her. She is very close to the traditional princess. She is young and beautiful. People cannot decide to speak to her as a girl or a woman. She has feature of Goldilocks, Snow White and the Little Red Riding Hood. Lily is lost in a cruel world. She feels much safer at her grandmother’s house. On the other hand, she is seduced by a young man on her first walk alone, which show her growing-up woman statute.

Finally, she dies as a princess, poisoned by nature. Her name is a flower, implying that her natural beauty is going back to Nature. She is pure of any adult understanding of the world. She feels like she discovers love but never gets married. One might consider her silly because she is thirteen and clearly manipulated by Old Woman Magoun. For instance, Lily has no idea why she is so sick nor why she went to Lawyer Mason’s house but she does not question older people’s decisions. She deals with it.

Nelson Barry and men

According to fairy tales, two types of men can be pointed in Old Woman Magoun: the prince and the wolf. The first time Lily meets Jim Willis, she trusts him and falls in love with him, even though she cannot name her feeling. Meanwhile, this first encounter sounded like an exchange between the Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. Lily looks as a child more than ever, and Jim dare take her hand in a paternalistic manner. He immediately falls in love with her and he is agreeably surprised to learn she is old enough to get married.

The image of the wolf is furthermore present when Lily meets her father, Nelson Barry. He seduces the girl with candies but failed to convince her to lose the doll. Barry’s attempt to make the girl enter the adult age is unsuccessful. Nelson has a bad reputation for being “the fairly dangerous degenerate of a good old family”. His  family was rich and honourable. Barry’s Ford got its name from their family. The last name is the key element to consider Nelson Barry as a possible aristocracy thanks to his family’s history.  Nelson Barry, as a local king, is the one to decide to marry Lily to a prince: Jim Willis. All of the sudden, the wolf becomes a saviour for the girl with a hope of make her growing up and finally live her own life. Another potential saviour would be lawyer Mason. He wears his work name as a noble title. He is also the richest man in town. However he refuses to adopt Lily as she bears Barry’s blood; and in spite of the young girl’s beauty, Mason says:

“The stock has run out; it is vitiated physically and morally”.

Old Woman Magoun

The old woman is the main character of the story. She is morally strong and is not afraid of men. Her psychology is alike the mother in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s The Revolt of Mother. Like men in this short story, Magoun has two faces. She is on one side a benevolent fairy queen. Since Lily’s mother died, Old Woman Magoun became her foster mother. She wants to protect her granddaughter from the outside world by preventing her from seeing or talking to anybody, especially men and more especially Nelson Barry. Old Woman Magoun hates Nelson as he never married her daughter even though she was pregnant. Moreover, he never took care of Lily when her mother died. Magoun considers him as an alcoholic lazy man with no manners. The old lady seems to have good intentions with Lily, even if her authority is very excessive. Her behaviour changes when Nelson Barry claims his daughter in order to marry her.

Several hints reveal Old Woman Magoun’s ambiguous attitude. The way she locks fair-haired Lily in her room and considers her as a child echoes the fairy tale Rapunzel. The poisoning of the girl is also very obscure. Magoun accuses the mix of milk and sour apple (Snow White’s fate) for Lily’s delicate stomach. The irony is that we learn that Magoun’s daughter died in the same manner. However, the most disturbing element is the absence of reaction when the girl starts eating poisonous nightshade berries, or when she complains from stomach ache, or when she suffers in her bed. At this point, Old Woman Magoun is very calm and starts describing the paradise to Lily. The old woman knows that her granddaughter is sick but instead of calling a doctor, she accompanies her in her death. We know that Lily ate two dangerous foods; the question is to determine what Magoun’s responsibility is.

Fairy Queen or Cruel MotherOld woman

The most innocent reason is that Magoun realized that Lily was dying, but the grandmother didn’t do anything in order to prevent Nelson Barry to take the young girl away from her. The most perverse reason is that Old Woman Magoun encouraged Lily’s death. Magoun never told the girl that the berries were poisonous even though they stop twice at the same place. The first time the grandmother says “You can’t have any now”. Why now? Is the girl allowed to eat some later? In case lawyer Mason refuses to adopt her? Old Woman Magoun is in fact a witch who realizes she cannot keep her girls for herself. Nelson Barry took her daughter away, and now he wants her granddaughter. In order to save Lily, Magoun prefers let the little girl die. Moreover, this act can be the revenge of a mother. Old Woman Magoun replaced her affection for her deceased daughter by conditioning Lily into a child forever young. Besides, once Lily is gone, Magoun gives her love to her granddaughter’s rag doll.

(2 commentaires)

  1. Would Lily’s life have been good with Willis? Look at the absolute, shiftless evil with which Barry turned her over to her « prince. »


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