"What do you ask?" The ritual question was always put, and the postulant, kneeling, answered, "To try my vocation as a Benedictine, in this house of Brede."
A woman enters a religious community, usually to take vows. Either as a nun or a religious sister. This is more commonly historically, or in historical works.
Reasons of drama have split this up into several types:
Retiring to a convent
A woman, often elderly, usually widowed or heartbroken, goes to a convent to take refuge from the world, or perhaps an Arranged Marriage
or to escape from an abusive marriage already in effect
. A rape victim may avoid the malicious gossip (or perhaps Honor-Related Abuse
) and hide in an all-female world. After a Heel-Face Turn
, this may show repentance. Some do not actually take vows, but none of them intend to return to the world
This is usually a Ending Trope
, and a Bittersweet Ending
at that, because she usually is escaping tragedy to the only refuge she has. It may also be a way to dispose of minor characters without much ado.
In the middle of the story, a character may attempt
this, but this usually leads to the abbess rebuking her gently and sending her back into the world on the grounds she has no vocation.
A woman's father ruthlessly compels her to enter the convent to shut her off from her lover
, because he thinks she has disgraced the family, or just to save her dowry. (The permanent form of Locked Away in a Monastery
Or a woman who promised I Will Wait for You
foolishly gave up hope, and her lover returns to find she entered a convent. Horrors! This differs from Retiring to A Convent in that her decision was foolish even if a desperate attempt to escape an Arranged Marriage
, and her being bound by her vows is treated as a dreadful thing. Unsurprisingly this particular trope was chiefly Protestant, and was a Discredited Trope
by the end of the Victorian era.
Usually found only in explicitly religious literature. A woman wants to become a nun when her family considers it her duty to submit to an Arranged Marriage
. She is often — especially when the story is far removed from Real Life
— So Beautiful, It's a Curse
, because they think they can get a good match because of it.
A Real Life
vocation is a spiritual prompting, like becoming a priest or minister after feeling "called" by God. But a woman who merely wants to become a nun and does with little or no opposition seldom appears in stories while she is doing it, because that part of her story lacks drama.
Men can fall under any of these reason as well, although their greater ability to control their own lives and lesser need for a refuge have meant it's a predominately female trope. Men are also more likely to become The Hermit
for religious reasons, which can also hit this trope.
These tropes can apply to either Buddhist or Christian nuns — and were used in some Crystal Dragon Jesus
pagan situations. Note that it applies only to nuns, and monks, whose taking vows was a significant event in either the story itself or its Back Story
. Has nothing to do with Get Thee to a Nunnery
- In Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou, Prince Houssain, having lost out in the competition for Princess Nouronnihar, became a hermit. At the end of the tale, he remains one because he found himself happy in it.
- In the movie Robin and Marian the middle-aged Robin Hood returns from the crusades to discover Marian has, in his absence, taken holy vows and risen through the ranks of the convent to become Mother Superior.
- Averted in El Cid. Rodrigo and Ximene steal away to spend some time together, but Rodrigo is called once again to fight for Spain. Upset, and pregnant, she returns to the convent where she was educated. The Mother Superior tells her she's welcome to stay as a guest, but not to consider joining up; "You were made for the world, Ximene. One day you will want to go back to it."
- The last third of The Song of Bernadette depicts Bernadette riding out of town on a gorgeous spring day to spend the rest of her life in a convent. In the film she wanted to marry her friend Antoine, but was told she had to "choose Heaven" because of her visions. Antoine shows up by the roadside with a huge spray of flowers announcing that he plans to live a single life too. (see the Real Life section, below).
- In L. M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, the young Emily writes an epic in which her heroine takes vows because she thought the young man she was in love with had died. She asks a priest whether there's any escape. He asks whether there was a feud between the families and is unsurprised to learn there was; he explains that since the heroine had no siblings, she could get a special dispensation to leave and marry to resolve the feud. Emily is taken aback by the prospect of putting "special dispensation" into verse but gamely tackles it.
- In The Wind in the Willows, Mole recounts how the field mice children had put on a play about a sailor who returned from imprisonment and found his sweetheart had become a nun.
- In G. K. Chesterton's The Return Of Don Quixote, Michael Herne, familiar with the conventions of a romantic novel, tracks down his beloved Rosamund, and the first thing he says is to observe that she is a nurse and not a nun. She tells him she had not given up hope of marriage.
- In The Count of Monte Cristo, Mercedes retires to a convent at the end.
- In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte has one of Jane's cousins convert to Catholicism so that she can then pack her off to a convent, where she became abbess. Eliza's motivation seems to have been isolation from a world whose disorder and disruptive emotions irritated her.
- In Madeleine L'Engle's A Severed Wasp, an important minor character had entered a convent after her child had died of cancer and she and her husband divorced.
- In Longfellow's Evangeline, the title character became a Sister of Mercy when separated from her betrothed, finally rediscovering him only after he was stricken with illness; he dies in her arms.
- This is the main plot of the book and film The Nun's Story, starring Audrey Hepburn. It was based on the life of Marie Louise Habets, who told her story to author Kathryn Hulme. It is a factual account of the Vocation variety, except Gabrielle wanted to marry and hadn't been allowed to because of insanity in the boyfriend's family. This was a factor, but not the deciding one, in her decision to join up; the deciding factor, as for many in Real Life, was a visit to Lourdes. Whether or not any of this was actually true of Habets is unknown.
- At the end of The Colossus of Rhodes, Lupus's mother dedicates herself to Apollo and becomes a priestess at a temple for him. It is in keeping with a vow she made years previously for if her son lived.
- In Japanese period works becoming a nun can be the only way for a woman to get a divorce, or indeed avoid a forced marriage: basically, run away, retire into a women's monastery, stay as Buddhist nun for a set number of years (7 if memory serves), and then you're free to go. I remember reading something where the male protagonist helped his unhappily married love interest get away from her husband this way and it was all very bittersweet, knowing they could be together 7 years into the future at the earliest.
- Princess Ilana attempts to do this in book two of the Arcia Chronicles, after being disgraced by her association with the Big Bad Mikhai and losing her flame Rene to Gerika. However, Shander Gardani prevents this by offering to marry her.
- In the Deryni novels, Rothana Nur Hallaj was introduced as a novice nun who had taken her initial temporary vows for vocational reasons before her convent was attacked by Mearan troops. She met Kelson Haldane in the aftermath of that attack, and decided to set aside her vows for him (and another kind of public service as his queen). Things got complicated, and she later takes a place with rediscovered Servants of Saint Camber, partly for the vocation and partly for the shame/heartbreak-induced retirement. Later still, Kelson and Araxie offer her the number two job at the new scola to provide an alternative service job outside a convent.
- In some versions of the Arthurian myths, after the Battle of Camlann Lancelot returns from France to find that Guinevere, repenting for what she has indirectly caused, has taken vows in a nunnery. In the same vein, Lancelot then goes on to become a monk.
- In Ivanhoe, Rebecca of course does not become a nun, but she does explicitly compare her dedication to a life of good works and prayer when explaining it.
- Evvy in the Circle of Magic book Melting Stones ends the story promising herself that she'll become a novice in the Living Circle religion—not precisely out of a vocation to serve their gods, but because she believes in their philosophy and wants to be a better person.
- Avice of Thornbury in the Brother Cadfael novel The Leper of St Giles, has been a noble's mistress for years. She becomes a nun after his murder as a career not a vocation. Cadfael reflects that with her energy and ability she's likely to end up an Abbess or even a saint.
- She returns later in the series as Sister Magdalena, and is very much a Distaff Counterpart to Cadfael.
- In "Monk's Hood", Cadfael's New Old Flame Richildis thinks that she's the cause of a gender-flipped version — that Cadfael took the cowl because she married another man. Cadfael doesn't disabuse her of the notion.
- In The Confession of Brother Haluin half the cast is either this trope or considering becoming it. The eponymous Brother Haluin joined Shrewsbury Abbey to atone for a disastrous love affair. And it turns out the lover he thinks is dead is very much alive and has herself 'retired to a convent' after a forced but not unhappy marriage. Haluin and Cadfael encounter a young man considering taking the cowl because the girl he wants is forbidden (she's his father's half-sister). The girl herself agrees to make another marriage to a fine young man who wants her badly only to disappear the night before the wedding She takes refuge in her mother's convent where she is eventually discovered. Finally while guests at a new convent Cadfael is relieved to see that the young sister portress - almost certainly immured by her family for economic reasons — is thoroughly enjoying her responsible office and happy in her new life.
- Judith Perle, a protagonist of The Rose Rent, confides a desire to take the veil to Cadfael who discourages her as she has no vocation just a wish to escape from the world. He sends her to Sister Magdalen who agrees with Cadfael but offers Judith the shelter of her convent - without vows - any time the world becomes to much for her, Judith, to bear.
- In Sharpe's Honour, the Marquesa gets immured in a convent so she can't contradict the false evidence being used to frame Sharpe.
- In Madeleine E Robins's Sold For Endless Rue, Laura is urged to take vows before she attends medical school; it would simplify life. In the end, when Bieta tracks her down, she is indeed wearing the attire of a lay sister, and explains how she came to take vows.
- In Margot Benary-Isbert's Under The Changing Moon, the heroine thinks of returning to the convent where she had gone to school. When she writes, the abbess writes back that it looks like an attempt at escape, not a vocation, and furthermore, if she finds obeying her mother irksome, she should remember that she would have to take vows of obedience. When she falls impossibly in love, she concludes that she has no vocation.
- In Poul Anderson's "Kyrie", the opening paragraph recounts the work of sisters on the moon, and how one of them annually attends a mass she had endowed before joining. The story recounts the events leading to that.
- In Poul Anderson's "The Live Coward", a Gender Flip and unusual use. Wing Alak defeats Varris in a duel by injecting him with a substance that makes him suggestible. When he is tended for his injuries, he listens to the abbot and takes vows. This makes him legally dead.
- In Gone with the Wind (at least in the book), Scarlett's youngest sister, Carreen, becomes a nun after her sweetheart is killed in the Civil War.
- In Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novel Unnatural Death, when recounting the Dawson family history, the Old Retainer recounts the story of Mr. Paul with horror: he had fallen in love with the sister of his brother's wife, but she had become a nun, and he had, shockingly enough, become a Catholic and a monk.
- In Katherine Paterson's Of Nightingales That Weep, after the Old Flame Fizzle brings home to her her failure, she goes to the convent to try to take vows with the former Empress. Her confession, however, makes the empress question whether she would really fit in as a nun.
- The quote at the top of the page is from Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede, about Philippa Talbot, a successful professional woman who well into her forties abandons her life of London sophistication for the cloister.
- In Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor, there is becoming a votary of this god or that. This is suggested for a woman betrothed but not married to a prince, which means she was detached from her natal family but not attached to her marital one yet. Also for Maia when conspirators try to force him to abdicate.
- In Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, Rild, having failed to assassinate Sam, because he can't after Sam saved his life, stays with the monks, and after a time, feels a vocation. Sam warns him not to do it out of guilt, but Rild assures him he feels the vocation before donning the saffron robe.
- In Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Brother Francis is in fact only a novice at the beginning; wanting to finish it is his motive for some actions during his vigil.
Myth & Legends
- Ursula on The Borgias becomes a nun after Cesare kills her abusive husband in a duel, out of guilt over her (indirect) involvement in his death.
- On My Name Is Earl, Earl's former landlady entered a convent after being convinced she'd heard the voice of God...which was actually just Earl on a walkie-talkie being picked up by her hearing aid. (Earl and his friends took full advantage of this, and used the walkie-talkie to convince her to do nice things for them.) When Earl tells her what he did she has a Crisis of Faith.
- Averted in Brides of Christ. Diane/Catherine feels Artie calling for the vocation, even though she leaves at the end of the series.
- Averted in Call the Midwife. The nuns of Nonnatus House all feel the religious life is their vocation; even Sister Bernadette, who leaves the Order to get married, is incredibly conflicted, and it's possible she'll have some sort of relationship with the Order later on (potentially as a Third Order sister). On the other hand, Chummy, a devout Anglican, seriously considers joining the Order when her mother tries to shoot down her plans to marry Constable Peter Noakes; she thinks better of it, and instead marries Peter and takes a six-month trip as a midwife-missionary in Sierra Leone.
- One legend of Guanyin says that in an incarnation as the Princess Miaoshan, she preferred to enter the convent rather than make a grand marriage. Her father sent her to work at menial tasks, but when wild animals helped her complete them, he had her executed instead.
- One legend of the Buddha had a woman bring him her dead son. The Buddha told her he could bring the boy back to life with mustard seed from a house that had never known mourning. When she could not find it, he instructed in her the Way, resulting her becoming a nun from vocation.
- At the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira, whom Don Giovanni had seduced and abandoned, decides she will opt for a convent.
- In Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxanne retires to a convent after being widowed. Cyrano visits her every day.
- In The Sound of Music, Maria tries to retire to the convent after she realizes she is in love with the Captain. The Reverend Mother, being a rather savvy sort of person, informs Maria kindly but firmly that she can't use the convent to run away from her feelings, and reassures her that "just because you love this man, it doesn't mean you love God less."
- Of course, Maria had already been in training to become a nun when she was sent to the von Trapps as a nanny.
- In Much Ado About Nothing, when Hero has been accused of being unfaithful, the priest's Plan B is to quietly ship her off to a nunnery where she can live out the rest of her days in anonymity.
- Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet also had this plan for Juliet after discovering that Romeo had committed suicide.
- In The Comedy of Errors Egeon and his wife Emilia were separated at sea during a storm and both think the other had perished. Emilia entered a convent and eventually beame an abbess (Mother Superior).
- In Hamlet, Hamlet tells Ophelia "Get Thee to a Nunnery," which is nowadays taken at face value rather than as a Double Entendre.
- In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Thaisa becomes a nun in the temple of Diana after she believes her husband and child died at sea. She is wrong, and they are reunited 14 years later thanks to some Divine Intervention.
- In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus offers this option to Hermia as an alternative to being executed or marrying Demetrius. She decides to Take A Third -- well, fourth -- Option and elope with Lysander instead.
- Isabella in Measure for Measure, a novice in a convent, is left with a choice between marriage to the Duke and becoming a nun at the end of the play. Since her interest in taking her final vows is never shown to waver and Shakespeare gives her no reply to the Duke's proposal, her choice is up to the director (or can be left ambiguous).
- In some Kabuki plays, a female character takes temporary vows (by cutting her hair) as a Buddhist nun to duck a forced marriage.
- In The Saint of Bleecker Street by Gian-Carlo Menotti, visionary Ill Girl Annina says she will take the veil one day. She ultimately does, but dies during the ceremony.
- Subverted somewhat by Sister Fidelma; in ancient Ireland monasteries were important places of learning even before Christianity, and it was common for people such as Fidelma to seek the religious life merely for the educational opportunities it offered.
- One of the prisoners rescued from the slave camp in Dragon Quest V becomes a nun.
- In the H-Game Kango Shicyauzo, this (retiring to a convent) is Sister Maria's backstory. She took her vows after being widowed and is now the head nun at St. Michael's Nursing School.
- St. Clare of Assisi and her best friend Ines had to elope in the middle of the night to become a nun. Her family chased after her to try to get her back, but she had already taken her vows — and cut her long, beautiful hair, which was what really convinced them.
- One medieval saint hung outside her window holding on with her fingers until her family thought she had fled and then dressed as a man and ran off to get to the convent and escape the Arranged Marriage.
- Bernadette Soubirous, who had eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes when she was fourteen, entered a hospice school at sixteen and at 22 joined the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction. Fictional accounts aside, her own writings show that she wanted to do this. Her friend Antoine Nicolau really was just a friend, and in fact was married before the visions began. However, her story codified the Vocation type where seeing the Blessed Mother means you have to Take The Veil and die young, preferably of TB. (Bernadette, an already physically frail Ill Girl, died of bone tuberculosis when in her 30's.)
- Of the three children who had visions of Mary at Fatima, Portugal, only Lucia survived into adulthood. (Francisco and Jacinta fell victim to the Spanish Flu) She was almost immediately popped into a school run by the Dorothean Sisters, and her name changed to Maria Dores, to keep pilgrims from hounding or venerating her. After graduation she chose to join the Dorotheans, later switching to the Discalced Carmelites, a very strict contemplative order.
- Christine De Pizan entered a convent towards the end of her life. Her daughter eventually followed suit.
- Russian Tsars, being the defenders of Christian orthodoxy that they were, were never allowed to divorce. They got around this by sending their wives to convents, allowing them to remarry.
- Princess Alice, Prince Philip's mother, took her vows later in life, founded a religious order in Greece, and ran an orphanage. It was a capstone to a colorful life that included sheltering Jews from Nazis in Athens and being named as one of the Righteous Among Nations.
- The Japanese empress dowager Kenrei-mon-in, after her failed suicide at Dan-no-ura and capture by the Minamoto, became a Buddhist nun and lived most of her remaining years in seclusion in a small hut at the remote temple of Jakko-in.