‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’ by Mary Wilkins Freeman: Short Story Analysis
‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’ is a nineteenth-century Puritan ghost story penned by American writer Mary Wilkins Freeman. However, this short story titled ‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’ was published in 1903. Mary Wilkins Freeman was a prominent American writer who was born in Massachusetts. Her books dealt with Puritanism, and she was one of the first women in America to be elected to the National Institute for Arts and Letters. She was distantly related to another American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. I have analyzed two shorts stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne on my blog. You check them out for reference. One of Hawthorne’s stories is a Puritan ghost story titled ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’. ‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’ is a paranormal short story about a spinster Rebecca Flint who has come to Ford Village to take her elder sister’s daughter with her back to Michigan. The daughter’s mother, Grace, was deceased, and her only daughter Agnes used to live with her stepmother Mrs. Emeline Dent alone in a house away from the main village. Her father, John Dent, was dead, but he was in constant touch with his first wife’s sister Rebecca while alive. Rebecca now wanted to take care of Agnes because she had inherited some money. She had left her teaching job and had the time to care for Agnes. This story has several themes, the main one being deception.
One would presume that this story’s central theme would be about secrets. Everyone in Ford Village, including the postmaster Thomas and his simple-minded wife, was aware that Agnes was dead and most probably had been murdered by her stepmother Mrs. Dent. It was only Rebecca who was unaware of this crucial fact. Notice how the wicked Mrs. Dent tries to hide the truth of Agnes’s death from Rebecca. She was doing so because she did not want Rebecca to file a case against her as her niece’s murderess. Apparently, Mrs. Dent had always ill-treated Agnes and a year ago when the sixteen-year-old girl was ill, Mrs. Dent neglected her medical treatment, and she died. It was an open secret that Mrs. Dent had killed her stepdaughter. John Dent kept writing letters to Rebecca and once sent a picture of Agnes to her. Throughout the story, Mrs. Dent successfully keeps the truth of Agnes’ death from Rebecca though it seems like the ghost of Agnes wants to communicate with her aunt about her death. Thus, it is a deception that is the central theme of this short story more than secrets.
Other themes of this Puritan ghost story could be horror, feminism, superstition, paranormal activity, terror, hatred, greed, and lies. The story focuses on Agnes’s ghost haunting the home where she lived, which is picked up by the weak witted Rebecca. Rebecca is slow to realize that Agnes is dead, and that Mrs. Dent was leading her to think that Agnes was alive. Mrs. Dent is aware that the house is haunted, but she is accustomed to it. She is a robust and bulky woman dressed in black-laced widow’s garments and is prone to fainting spells. Mrs. Dent gives the following excuses to Rebecca to answer for the absence of Agnes:
- She was visiting Addie Slocum’s home because they were best friends and always spent long hours together with each other.
- Addie Slocum had taken Agnes to a Church get-together where boys were present. Mrs. Dent goes out of the way to rudely tarnish Agnes’s name in front of Rebecca, saying that she liked boys’ attention and going to places where she could be in the presence of boys.
- That Agnes had overstayed and spent the night in Addie’s home.
- That Agnes had gone with Addie on the ferry to Porter’s Falls, which she often used to do. Addie had an aunt over there and a pretty boy cousin whom Agnes liked.
- That the following day, Agnes and Addie had gone off to Lincoln as Addie had an uncle who was a train conductor and had got them passes. They were going to stay with Addie’s aunt Margaret, and Addie could not come over to tell Mrs. Dent about it because of her dirty black hands as she was putting up grapes at Addie’s.
These are all lies spoken by Mrs. Dent, who tried tricking Rebecca to go home. We notice the jealousy Mrs. Dent had towards Agnes, especially for her beauty. She always spoke of Agnes’s shortcomings and was unrepentant that Agnes had died due to her negligence. However, more than negligence by the looks of the guilt-free conscience and her otherwise laid-back attitude towards the haunted house, it was quite possible that Mrs. Dent was deranged and had purposely killed Agnes through neglect. Notice the fact of the letter that came from Michigan to Mrs. Dent’s house. The postscript in that letter was not written by the friend but by Mrs. Dent herself. She might have posted that letter when she was out of the house and lied to Rebecca that she was going to Addie’s house to call Agnes back home. Very cunningly, Mrs. Dent tried to get Rebecca out of her house lest she discovers the truth about Agnes’ death. Indeed, Mrs. Dent was only interested in her wealth, the house’s property, and having every type of elegant comfort all to herself. She had no respect for Rebecca’s deceased sister, Agnes’ mother, or the dead woman’s articles. The memory of the dead mother had so angered Mrs. Dent that she sold most of the dead woman’s possessions by auction, which, according to her, had fetched a tiny sum. The rest she had placed in the garret. Mrs. Dent portrays to be the epitome of etiquette, but she was wickedness personified.
On the other hand, Rebecca is a sentimental but grim spinster who tends to be overprotective and motherly. She has come to take her dead sister’s daughter Agnes with her because:
- She had come into an inheritance from her deceased uncle.
- She had no one to care of as her mother had died.
- She had left her teaching job.
- She now felt that she had enough money to look after her niece.
- She felt that Agnes would choose to come with her.
Rebecca was sometimes astute and seemed to have steel nerves, but inwardly was a woman who could be easily shocked. We realize this when:
- She gets easily frightened and agitated when she sees the ghost of her niece.
- She feels afraid when her niece’s ghost plays ‘The Maiden’s Prayer’ on the piano. She sat up all night with the lights on.
- She runs to the door to welcome her niece, but she sees her niece’s ghostly shadow.
- She reaches Michigan and is down with a fever because of all the anxiety and fatigue she had to endure at Mrs. Dent’s home.
But Rebecca is persistent and stubborn in her ways. She demands to see Agnes, and even after she returns to Michigan, she writes letters and sends telegrams to the Slocums, Mrs. Dent, and the postmaster. She receives an answer only from the postmaster Thomas who is a man of few words. It is his letter that informs her about the sad but mysterious death of Agnes. While with Rebecca on the ferry boat to Ford Village and his simple wife, Maria, Thomas refused to talk about the matter, which makes the reader wonder at the start of the story itself whether something terrible had happened to Agnes. We get a hint from Maria’s words, ‘do you suppose she’ll see anything’ that ghostly haunting is afoot in this story.
Coming to the piano playing, it was the ghost of Agnes who played the nineteenth-century popular tune ‘The Maiden’s March’ on the piano. It was a sign of Agnes’s innocence and that she died a virgin but was ill-treated by Mrs. Dent.
The rose bush with the single rose could be the plant that housed the dead spirit of Agnes. Whenever Agnes was upset or wanted to communicate with people from the other world, she would somehow make the rose bush blow in a sort of spectral breeze. Rebecca continually refers to the wind blowing in the rose bush when there was no wind blowing at that moment in the area at all. The red rose was again the symbol of Agnes’s life and soul. The laced-up nightgown undergarment was a symbol of Agnes’ virginity. However, the rose bush housed her spirit or soul that kept haunting the house of Mrs. Dent. We are aware that ghosts need things to live in, containing their entities, allowing them to haunt a particular place. Her resting place in Agnes’ case was the rose bush that symbolized her innocence and beauty. That is why Mary Wilkins Freeman decided aptly to title this short story ‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’.
Mrs. Dent was a deceiver and a first-class liar. She lied all the time on the spur of the moment. Nothing that she said was truthful, and the problem was that she believed in the lies concocted by her. I found something of this nature in the current American situation. To read more about my views, you can check out my book review titled The Warning by Anonymous on my blog.
These are the lies that Mrs. Dent told Rebecca throughout the story, ‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’:
- That Agnes was alive.
- That she was with Addie.
- That the Slocum’s were living when we know they were dead.
- That Agnes would return home soon.
- That Agnes had stayed over at Addie’s place.
- That they had gone to the church social.
- That they had gone to the falls.
- That they had gone to Lincoln.
- That Agnes could not play ‘The Maiden’s Prayer’ nor the piano very well.
- That Agnes was a flirt.
- That Agnes never sewed or liked sewing her undergarments.
- That the house was not haunted.
- That Thomas, the postmaster, had sent a letter to Rebecca by the night mail.
- That she was going to fetch Agnes from Addie’s home.
- That she would like Rebecca to stay in the house if she wanted.
Puritanism is rampant in the story, especially the character’s style of speaking, dress, way of life, attitude towards boys, and attitude towards girls’ actions. Notice how it is not becoming of a girl like Agnes to be in boys’ company despite her being sixteen years old. Rebecca represents the forward-looking and independent single woman of present-day urban and rural America. To read up more on early feminism, you can check out my book review of Open Confession to a Man from a Woman by Marie Corelli on my blog. Like the book, this short story tries to show a contrast of behavior between all the women in this story.
In a brief letter to Rebecca, Thomas narrates Agnes’s sad demise, and the story ends with a frightening and shocking climax. It is a wholesome ending, and it is probable that Rebecca being the forthright woman that she was, must have taken Mrs. Dent to court for her evil ways.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Mary Wilkins Freeman. I hope to read and review more American novels, short stories, essays, novellas, non-fiction, and other bookish works on my blog. This is in keeping with the fact that America’s most critical elections have taken place, and I want to celebrate America’s rich literary content. So, if you are looking for American literary or bookish content, this is the site you will have to keep watching. If you want to know more about my take on the current situation, you can check out my short story ‘Coronavirus: Little Boys, Big Toys’ on Amazon.
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