Sarah Orne Jewett Essay - Critical Essays

Sarah Orne Jewett American Literature Analysis

Few writers have so successfully described Jewett’s achievement and characteristics as Cather does in her preface to The Country of the Pointed Firs, and Other Stories. Cather says that Jewett “once laughingly told me that her head was full of dear old houses and dear old women, and that when an old house and an old woman came together in her brain with a click, she knew that a story was under way.”

Jewett’s best fiction deals mainly with women, especially older women, in the villages and towns and on the farms of Maine. Her themes generally concern the beauty and dignity of these characters, who live in the shadow of a more prosperous and culturally richer past and who often have suffered losses—those of husbands and sons to the sea, or of friendship to accident, time, or human weakness. Jewett shows how these people succeed or fail at transcending their circumstances.

Many of her stories deal with the relations of the individual to the larger community. Sometimes, an individual must withdraw from an oppressive community in order to create or strengthen the independent self, as in “A White Heron” (1886). Sometimes, the individual who has experienced unhealthy separation must be gathered into a vital community in order to find happiness, as in “Miss Tempy’s Watchers” (1888). Human happiness in Jewett’s works always involves finding a balance between the need to be a self and the need to belong intimately to a community. Perhaps her best representation of this ideal of balance is Mrs. Blackett in The Country of the Pointed Firs.

Cather praises Jewett for possessing “the kind of beauty we feel when a beautiful song is sung by a beautiful voice that is exactly suited to the song.” Jewett has not been widely recognized for her style, but it is a very important aspect of her writing. Cather points out that Jewett’s subjects are not often exciting in the usual sense: She “wrote of people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment.” For example, “A Native of Winby” (1893) concerns not the heroic actions of Joseph Laneway but rather his evening’s visit with a dear friend of his youth. This choice of subject creates two major problems of style: how to make the stories interesting and how to avoid sentimentality.

The development of Jewett’s writing career is, in part, an illustration of how to find the right tone. Jewett learns to vary her tone within a fairly narrow range, rising quietly to heights such as the vision of the heron in “A White Heron” and the moments of self-transcending sympathy in “Miss Tempy’s Watchers,” without creating a false melodrama of pastoral/urban opposition in the former or gothic mystery in the latter. This command of style is crucial to the success of stories such as “Martha’s Lady” (1899), in which a servant woman recalls a brief summer visit from a lovely and loving lady, remembering her chiefly by means of a few relics of their short time together.

Cather implies that Jewett’s strength of style arises from a personal gift that was central to her becoming a great writer. The great writer, says Cather, has the gift of sympathy: “That alone can make his work fine. He fades away into the land and people of his heart.” It was this sort of sympathy that inspired Jewett to write about the vanishing culture of the Maine coast, and that earned for her the label as one of the most accomplished writers of the regional school of the end of the nineteenth century. While Jewett did not consider herself a member of any school of writers, she did share with a number of her contemporaries, notably Mark Twain, the wish to preserve in art a beautiful and valuable aspect of American culture that seemed destined to disappear in the new industrial age.

Cather also notes Jewett’s humor: “She had with her own stories and her own characters a very charming relation; spirited, gay, tactful, noble in its essence and little arch in its expression.” Though always subtle and quiet in tone, some of Jewett’s stories are among the funniest in nineteenth century American literature. “The Flight of Betsey Lane” (1893) provokes laughter as Betsey’s aging almshouse friends toil out to the pond to see if she might have drowned herself, when in fact she has used a small legacy to visit the Philadelphia exposition. “The Guests of Mrs. Timms” (1895) exploits irony and humor reminiscent of Jane Austen as two women go to the city to visit a woman who invited them insincerely. “Miss Debby’s Neighbors” (1884) is almost a tall tale in the manner of Twain, telling of spiteful brothers moving their houses until one house gets caught on the railroad tracks.

All Jewett’s most memorable themes and all the best qualities of her writing appear in her generally recognized masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs, the unusual novel that Cather equates with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

“A White Heron”

First published: 1886 (collected in A White Heron, and Other Stories, 1886)

Type of work: Short story

Young Sylvia resists the temptation to tell a charming hunter where to find the nest of a beautiful bird.

“A White Heron” is Jewett’s best-known short story and the only one to have an entire critical book written about it, Louis Renza’s “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature (1984). Though Jewett wrote many other stories at this level, this one has been most often anthologized, and it connects thematically with works that have much greater reputations, such as Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942).

Sylvia, a shy nine-year-old, is bringing home the milk cow when she meets a young ornithologist who is hunting birds for his collection of specimens. He goes with her to her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, has rescued Sylvia from a crowded home in the city, where she was languishing. The farm has proven a good environment for her. The handsome hunter, however, awakens Sylvia’s interest in a larger social life. He is friendly and sociable. He offers money and other rewards for information about where he can find the white heron he has seen. He spends a day with Sylvia looking for the heron’s nest, during which Sylvia comes to find him increasingly attractive, even though she is repelled by his killing birds. She knows where the nest probably is, but she hesitates to tell him.

On the second morning of the hunter’s stay, Sylvia climbs a nearby landmark pine at dawn to see the heron rise from its nest. She seems to have decided to help the ornithologist; however, at this point Jewett uses some special narrative devices to subvert Sylvia’s apparent intentions. Shifts in verb tense and point of view create an intimate unity between the narrator, the reader, and Sylvia herself. One effect of this unity is probably to help the reader share Sylvia’s enriching mystical union with nature that leads her finally to decide not to tell what she has found. Sylvia is not yet ready to surrender a life “heart to heart with nature” for the “great wave of human interest” represented by the hunter. Before she can return to the more various social life she has temporarily left behind to live on the farm with her grandmother, she must come to possess herself. For her, this can happen best in the comparative isolation of country life.

Though it is easy to read this tale as extolling a life close to nature over a richer social life in the city, Jewett’s story is more complex. Jewett herself lived alternately in the quiet, rural village of South Berwick and in the cosmopolitan social and literary life of Boston, and she often traveled to other cities (and several times to Europe). The story deals with several of Jewett’s major themes, one of which is the necessity, at some times and for some people, of withdrawing from social life into a simpler set of relations where the self can be fostered or renewed. The story does not imply that Sylvia will find a lifetime of happiness only on her grandmother’s farm—though indeed she may—any more than Thoreau’s discoveries at Walden Pond require that he live all the rest of his life there.

The ornithologist is attractive as well as a little dangerous; the wave of human interest he represents is, for most of Jewett’s characters, necessary to happiness. Sylvia simply is not yet ready to enter into the great stream of social life, and to do so too soon would threaten her ability to create and maintain a strong self. Were she to help the young man now, she would come to love and serve him “as a dog loves.” Such a love does not suggest the most rewarding kind of relationship between strong equals.

“Miss Tempy’s Watchers”

First published: 1888 (collected in The King of Folly Island and Other People, 1888)

Type of work: Short story

Sarah Ann Binson comforts Mrs. Crowe as they keep watch in Tempy’s house on the night before her funeral.

“Miss Tempy’s Watchers” is one of a number of Jewett’s subtle and moving tales of the lives of older women who must deal with loss and hardship. Just before they drift off into a short sleep, as Sarah Ann Binson and Mrs. Crowe watch together in Tempy’s house, Mrs. Crowe reflects that Tempy—Temperence Dent—always made the best of everything. For example, she made excellent quince preserves by taking care of a thorny old tree with such attention and good cheer that she seemed to “kind of expect” it into blooming. Sarah replies, “She was just the same with folks.” This is a story about blooming—about how, with the deceased Tempy’s help, Sarah begins to replace her, and so helps Mrs. Crowe to begin to bloom into a more generous person.

Tempy’s spirit hovers over a scene she has created by asking...

(The entire section is 4171 words.)