“Old Woman Magoun” is a haunting and puzzling tale. It is not only the witness of Lily’s murder that leaves the reader haunted, but the fact this story spares none of its adult characters. All are pathetic, trapped in the scope of their own vices or malice, or the vices/malice of another. This is especially true for the females. If all of Mary Freeman’s stories provide a glimpse into the private, and often sad or angry world of society’s marginalized – be it a spinster, a long-suffering wife, or life-battered and weary widow – then “Old Woman Magoun” encompasses them all into its scope.
Freeman offers a bleak assessment of both adulthood and womanhood; one which, though disabling the reader to condone Old Woman Magoun’s atrocious act, does provide a glimpse of motive. It is this motive – the desire to protect her granddaughter from life’s harsh and suffocating reality that comes as a natural part of adulthood, i.e. marriage – in which the puzzle of Lily’s overdrawn childhood makes sense. In barring adolescence – though an ultimately futile and unsustainable pretense – Old Woman Magoun is barring grief and pain. (The question remains from whom is she barring this pain: altruistically from Lily or selfishly from herself). Yet try as Old Woman Magoun might, like the evils which have plagued her life and surround her world, adolescence is a natural process that must march on. It can’t be blocked or circumvented; the tragedy of it is that Lily, despite her grandmother and perhaps even unconsciously, seeks and welcomes the inevitable cage of adulthood.
And as in all good tragedies, irony abounds. Because of Old Woman Magoun’s obsessive desire to keep her from dying, albeit a symbolic and emotional death, Lily must die literally. In keeping her a child, Old Woman Magoun is as suffocating and subjugating a force as Lily’s dead-beat father or no-account husband would be. She is ill-equipped to take on the stress and responsibility of adulthood, but she can’t stay a child. Adolescence itself is the death knell of childhood. However, Lily is denied its passage. Therefore, Lily is forced to be a living ghost, an unnatural presence in the natural world. Death is the only viable solution, ironically so because of her grandmother’s drive to avoid it.
This short story is rife with symbolic imagery alluding to adolescence. The most obvious image, of course, being the bridge to cross Barry’s Ford. Right from the start, the bridge is the catalyst to the story’s plot. “ ‘That bridge ought to be built this very summer,’ said Old Woman Magoun” (81). Much like a child’s maturation, the initial processes of the maturation occurs within the time frame of a season, and is suspected by those more experienced. In declaring the bridge be built, Old Woman Magoun is signaling the symbolic seasonal change in both her and her granddaughter’s life. Indeed, not only does the old woman declare its on-set, but she assumes the responsibility for it as she “[is] largely instrumental in bringing the bridge to pass” (81). This bridge is figuratively a coming of age for the town. And, as generally females are the first to show physical signs of maturation, leaving her male peers in an awe-stricken befuddlement, so does the concept of the bridge: “the weakness of the masculine element in Barry’s Ford was laid low before such strenuous feminine assertion” (81).
Yet even before we read of the bridge and the excitement it stirs among the men and women of the town, Freeman paints a maturing female picture of the hamlet itself. Symbolic phrases like “the hills lie in moveless curves” and “green-cresting waves” (81) present images akin to a girl’s bosom. Too, the description of “the little turbulent Barry River,” recalls both the temperamental turbulence that is associated with adolescence, and especially the adolescence of the littlest Barry in the story, Lily, as well as the flowing turbulence of a girl’s menses. With her menses signaling the biological capability of reproduction, the “rude bridge” (81) of adolescence is a preparation for her now “fordable” state.
Of course, the reader cannot be sure if Lily has entered her own menstrual cycle, and therefore fully entered into puberty. Freeman, however, does allude multiple times to the fact that Lily is stepping into this transitional phase of life. For starters, the question, assertion, and implication of her biological age are raised four times. “She looked only a child, although she was nearly fourteen; her mother had been married at sixteen. That is, Old Woman Magoun said that…there had been rumors” (82). This acknowledgment, “nearly fourteen,” is critical. Typically, a girl’s menarche occurs between the median ages of twelve and thirteen, with close to ninety percent approaching fourteen (thirteen and three-quarters of a year) before it actually appears ( The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – ACOG). Hence, in Lily’s case, though she externally seems a child, in large part due to her comportment and dress, internally the probability of maturation is likely.
To further support the argument, her mother’s age when “married,” the euphemism for active sexuality, was only two years older than Lily. Biologically this is significant for two reasons: 1) menstruation often follows hereditary patterns and 2) though a girl may experience menarche at fourteen, on average it takes about two years for ovulation and the menstrual cycle to stabilize and become consistent (ACOG). Knowing what can happen when the “rudimentary bridge” becomes a fully capable and operable bridge, having experienced it with her own daughter, it is no wonder why her grandmother “ain’t in any hurry to have her git married” (84).
Despite Old Woman Magoun’s willful intention to keep Lily firmly rooted in childhood, she is aware of its futility. She never outright admits to the fact, yet instances, such as the initial conversation with Sally Jinks resulting in Lily’s trip to the store, provide glimpse of this awareness. When Sally asks rather derisively if Lily will be carrying her doll to the store, Old Woman Magoun defends her granddaughter by replying “she likes to” (83). If Freeman left her reply at that, not much would be thought of it. However, Freeman allows insight when she describes the tone of the reply as being spoken “in a half-ashamed yet defiantly extenuating voice” (83). If Lily were actually a child, Sally Jinks would not be questioning Lily’s attachment to the doll, nor would Old Woman Magoun be slightly embarrassed by it. After all, the purpose of a child’s doll is to act as a substitute for the real thing, which will eventually come in the due course of time. A child is incapable of producing a baby of her own and therefore the substitution is both societally and physically acceptable. Lily, however, is not a child, and thus the substitution is not only unnecessary but detrimental to her progression from girl to woman.
The rub for the woman is not in Lily’s actions, but that she herself is the cause of those actions, or “prolonged childhood” (83). It’s for this cause that Old Woman Magoun eyes Sally Jinks “with covert resentment” when she asks “Why don’t you let her go?” and “bristles” when she suggests that “Some girls at her age is thinkin’ about beaux instead of rag dolls” (83 – 84). Her pride and fear can’t take the reality that Lily must grow up, with or without her grandmother’s permission. In spite of her declaration that “Lily ain’t big nor old for her age” (84), an illogical contradiction revealing the old woman’s tenuous hold on Lily’s childhood, Lily is doing just as Sally Jinks suggests. This, of course, subconsciously done by Lily.
It is the subconscious yet keenly interested awareness towards the opposite sex that is a hallmark of the early stages of adolescence. Freeman relates this subconscious interest, the passage of her leaving childhood and entering into the waters of adulthood, through grammar and sentence structure. “Lily was watching the men at work on the bridge, with her childish delight in a spectacle of any kind, when her grandmother addressed her” (83). The first phrase of the sentence, ending at the comma, is an act of a woman. She was not just looking at the bridge, but she was watching the men. Of course, after the comma, we are told that she watches with “childish delight,” implying innocence in her interest towards the opposite sex. The word “with” is the bridge of adolescence between the two phrases, and therefore parts of her life. Adolescence is an awakening awareness of adulthood, while still maintaining juvenile characteristics. The final part of the sentence, “when her grandmother addressed her” (83) interrupts her wonder and awareness. This, again, is symbolic of Old Woman Magoun disrupting Lily’s approach into adolescence. In preparing her to go to the store, Old Woman Magoun babies her out of her maturity; hence, “the absurd travesty of a face peep[ing] forth” (83) from curls and a hat.
In a scene reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Lily’s adolescence reemerges when she encounters Jim Willis on the way to the store. Upon his smile, “Lily saw he was very handsome indeed, and that his smile was not only reassuring but wonderfully sweet and compelling” and later, when he clasped her hand, “she felt a complete trust in him” (84). A child may allow herself to trust a stranger, but she would not be compelled by his physical attributes. Lily, entering adolescence, though flustered by his reaction to her age and baby doll a little while later, still remembers his physicality and develops a small crush on him.
It is this crush that sets her at odds with her grandmother, and the one which propels Old Woman Magoun to action. She knows Lily is crossing the bridge, in spite of all her best efforts to keep her from it. “The sun was getting low, and the bridge was near completion. Soon the workmen would be crowding into the cabin for their promised supper” (87). This supper, like the bridge, is symbolic. It is a promised reward obtained only “after the bridge should be finished” (81). Though described as a “treat,” the actual details of the supper, “two sucking pigs, pies, and sweet cake” amounts to something larger and more momentous. If the bridge, and its completion, is the figurative public acknowledgment of a girl transformed into a woman, then the supper is nothing short of a wedding feast. The “realization of a long-expected blow” (87) occurs to Old Woman Magoun at a point when she can’t take back her promise of the reward. Not only is Lily starting to seek men, but men will literally be coming to her. It is for this reason she hides Lily away.
Old Woman Magoun is not the only one to notice this change in Lily. After offending her about the doll, “Lily gazed at her father and hugged the doll tightly, and there was all at once in the child’s expression something mature. It was the reproach of a woman” (86). This is the first and only outright statement of Lily’s adolescence that Freeman records. Her father, Nelson Barry, like many other fathers past, takes advantage of his daughter’s development as a source of wealth increase. In offering Lily to Jim Willis as a bride to erase a gamboling debt, he is accepting her adolescence has arrived. Though callous and utterly selfish in motive, he is also finding a socially suitable future for her. In the argument where he confronts Old Woman Magoun so he can reclaim custody of Lily, he breaks out into the open that which the old woman has been trying to avert: “Yes, her best good. The girl is a beauty, and almost a woman grown, although you try to make out that she is a baby. You can’t live forever” (89).
Knowing that she can’t always be Lily’s protector, and having read the writing on the wall, Old Woman Magoun knows that Lily can’t stay a child but can’t be an adult either. She has in no way ever been prepared for it. Even in the week that she is supposedly preparing Lily to enter her new life, she reiterates her dogmas to keep Lily a child. When Lily asks if men are nice, she replies “No, they ain’t, take them all together” (91). And when Lily, in her innocent way, wistfully brings up her crush on Jim Willis as a possible exception to the rule, “her grandmother reached down and took the child’s hand in its small cotton glove,” quickly apologizing at her force to say, “[I] wouldn’t hurt you for nothin’, except it was to save your life, or somethin’ like that” (91). It is this sad realization – Lily’s life is not safe no matter which way one looks at it, because it is being suffocated out of existence by both her grandmother and her father – which drives Old Woman Magoun to such a desperate and cruel measure.
The final pages of the short story are haunting and painful. We learn Old Woman Magoun is murdering her granddaughter as she had once murdered her own daughter, placing the blame on sour apples and milk, and leaving the guilt at an innocent woman’s feet (Mrs. Mason). Yet, even in this last scene, Freeman presents Lily in that space between childhood and adulthood. She trustingly seeks her grandmother’s comfort, like a child. “Lily had her poor old rag doll in bed with her, clasped close to her agonized little heart. She tried very hard with her eyes…to see her grandmother’s face” (95). The old woman reassures and “coos” (95) to her, hoping to ease her passage from life along. Though in most ways it is a child who dies, the way she dies is similar to that of a woman dying in childbirth. The source of her pain is abdominal, and it is from that pain which makes her cry out in agony. “Meanwhile Lily grew worse. She suffered cruelly from the burning in her stomach, the vertigo, and the deadly nausea” (94). All the symptoms described are exact to the throes of labor. But because Lily is only at the “rudimentary” stage of adolescence, these symptoms can only mimic and not actually produce.
The final paragraph is fitting, and moralizes the dangers of blocking life’s natural progression. In having barred Lily from her adolescence and approach into adulthood, Old Woman Magoun extinguishes life itself. “Old Woman Magoun continued to live as she had done before … but people say she was a trifle touched, since every time she went over the log bridge … she carried with her, as one might have carried an infant, Lily’s old rag doll” (97). We never learn of Old Woman Magoun’s first name, nor maiden name. She is a woman, and she is old. She is a post-menopausal widow, without hope of producing life. Therefore, in society, her life’s purpose is over. The one person who could have provided her solace in the last stage of life, she kept as an eternal child. Lily was denied purpose in being denied adolescence. Therefore, in combining the aspect of the old with the aspect of the infantile (the rag doll), both symbolize, if not death, the incapability for life.
“Menstruation in Girls and Adolescents.” ACOG – American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. N.p., Nov. 2006. Web. 23 Oct. 2012. <http://www.acog.org/>.
Wilkins Freeman, Mary E. “Old Woman Magoun”The Revolt of “Mother” and Other Short Stories. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998. 81-97. Print.