Few female literary characters have been treated with more scorn and ridicule than the ‘spinster’. In this essay, I examine how modern critics of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” (1891) have interpreted the unmarried female protagonist of this short story, Louisa Ellis. Representative critical strategies are analysed with focus on how they interpret the protagonist, and what the political and methodological implications of choosing a particular strategy are. The two common perspectives on the text are the male-centered and the feminist, where the former interpret Louisa as mentally ill and the latter define her as a woman artist. Although the aim of these strategies is to contradict each other, I show how they both interpret Louisa Ellis according to a patriarchal understanding of women. This suggests that the difference between the two strategies is that of evaluation and explanation rather than perspective. I argue that the motivation behind most interpretations of the text is to appropriate the female protagonist into a system of thought which ultimately serves the interests of patriarchal society. The result is a transformation of a complex female character into a stereotype according to a simplistic victim/heroine dichotomy. My interpretation of “A New England Nun” shows how the text undermines traditional notions of gender and therefore has a radically subversive potential. The male character Joe Dagget has a feminine personality, while the two female characters Louisa Ellis and Lily Dyer embody masculine character traits. This has never been suggested before. My main argument is that most critics have misinterpreted the text, since they try unsuccessfully to read the text on its own premises, but fail to acknowledge the reversal of traditional notions of gender that these characters portray. Instead, they claim that the text is ambiguous; an ambiguity which I argue is not located in the text, but is created in the critic whose expectations are not fulfilled. To resolve the ambiguity, critics misinterpret the text so that the characters are made to fit notions of gender that they expect to encounter in a nineteenth-century story, meanwhile making the text predictable and harmless. In this context, the consequence of misinterpretations is that critics re-define and elevate the male character Joe at the cost of Louisa and the authority of the text. An important aspect of other critics’ misinterpretations is that they mostly make the same errors. This indicates that they do not arise from individual inclinations, but rather on the cultural conventions which influence their reading and the ideological pressures working on them. By analysing “A New England Nun” with focus on its subversive potential and by analysing the misinterpretations of it, I formulate the ideological pressures working on the critics of this story.