a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

An Old Arithmetician (1885)
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

The title character of this short story, which appeared in the September 1885 issue of Harper's Weekly, is an old, uneducated woman who loves computing (with chalk and slate):

(quoted from An Old Arithmetician)

You have always been very fond of mathematics, haven't you, Mrs. Torry?" said the minister, in his slow retreat.

"Lor', yes. I can't remember the time when I wa'n't crazy to cipher."

"Arithmetic is a very fascinating study, I think," remarked the minister, trying to slide easily off the subject and down the porch steps.

"'Tis to me. An' there's somethin' I was thinkin' about this very forenoon -- seein' all them leaves on the ground made me, I s'pose. It's always been a sight of comfort to me to count. When I was a little girl I'd 'most rather count than play. I used to sit down an' count by the hour together. I remember a little pewter porringer I had, that I used to fill up with beans an' count 'em. Well, it come into my head this forenoon what a blessed privilege it would be to count up all the beautiful things in this creation. Just think of countin' all them red an' gold-colored leaves, an' all the grapes an' apples in the fall; an' when it come to the winter, all the flakes of snow, an' the sparkles of frost; an' when it come to the spring, all the flowers, and blades of grass, an' the little new light green leaves. I don' know but you'll think it ain't exactly reverent, but it does seem to me that I'd rather do that than sing in the other world. Mebbe somebody does have to do the countin'; mebbe it's singin' for some."

In the story, the minister and the math teacher, Mr. Plainfield, give her a challenging mathematical problem to work on.

Mrs. Torry lives with her granddaughter, who complains to her about the math teacher, saying that he can't even do sums as well as an old woman. Mrs. Torry defends the teacher, saying:

(quoted from An Old Arithmetician)

"Sometimes it don't make any difference if anybody's ignorant, an' 'ain't got any book-learnin'; air old, an' had a hard-workin' life. There'll be somethin' in 'em that everybody else 'ain't got; somethin' that growed, an' didn't have to be learned. I've got this faculty; I can cipher. It ain't nothin' agin Mr. Plainfield if he 'ain't got it; it's a gift."

In the end, however, she seems to conclude that her gift is more of a curse. The woman becomes angry with herself when her granddaughter goes missing as she is lost in thought, working on the problem.

I'm not exactly sure what kind of problem it is that she is supposed to be working on. At several points, it is referred to as a "sum". However, it is difficult for me to think of a sum that would be so difficult to compute and engrossing. Certainly, there are mathematical problems that capture the attention of people who love mathematics and can keep them occupied for hours, days...even years, but I would not describe any of them as a "sum".

Contributed by John C. Konrath

This is an interesting tale worth the short time that it takes to read. The plot is one that most people can associate with (a loved one is not at an anticipated place at an anticipated time and the protagonist worries.) While a mathematical problem is the tool the author uses to advance the tale, it might just as well have been any distracting undertaking. The story says more about obsessive behavior that any clear aspect of mathematics.

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to An Old Arithmetician
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Old Mathematician by Dinah Maria Muloch
  2. The Young Mathematician by Anonymous
  3. Hidden Figures by Allison Schroeder (writer) / Theodore Melfi (director and writer)
  4. The Blue Door by Tanya Barfield
  5. Stand and Deliver by Ramon Menendez
  6. Long Division by Michael Redhill
  7. iPhone SE by Weike Wang
  8. Mathemagics by Patricia Duffy Novak
  9. In Our Prime [I-sang-han na-ra-eui su-hak-ja] by Lee Yong-jae (screenwriter) / Dong-hoon Park (director)
  10. Axiom of Dreams by Arula Ratnakar
Ratings for An Old Arithmetician:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (2 votes)

MotifFemale Mathematicians, Math Education,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

Home All New Browse Search About

Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)