Sarah Orne Jowett's short story "Miss Tempy's Watchers" tells of two women, Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann Binson, passing a long night "watching over" the house and body of a third woman, Miss Temperance Dent, the night before her funeral. The action all takes place within Miss Tempy's home, and consists mainly of Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann talking to each other. They discuss Miss Tempy's life, share anecdotes about her, and compare themselves to her. Both Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann find themselves wishing they were more like Miss Tempy, and both determine to try to emulate the deceased woman henceforth. The story closes as the day of the funeral dawns.
The story's surface plot is deceptively simple, with apparently no rising action, climax, or denouement. The real plot occurs within the conversation between Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann. These women are both pillars of their small community, and they know each other socially. Bound together for the night as Miss Tempy's watchers, they come to know each other more intimately. Each feels that Miss Tempy's house is a place of safety, where they can express their fears and shortcomings without judgement:
One would think that neither topics nor opinions would hold out, at that rate, all through the long spring night; but there was a certain degree of excitement just then, and the two women had risen to an unusual level of expressiveness and confidence. Each had already told the other more than one fact that she had determined to keep secret; they were again and again tempted into statements that either would have found impossible by daylight.
The rising action of the plot happens slowly, as the women reveal more of their true selves to each other and to the reader. Mrs. Crowe is the wife of a wealthy farmer. She seems friendly and is highly regarded in the community, but she is stingy and impatient. Sarah Ann, by contrast, is an old maid who works hard to support herself, her widowed sister, and her six nieces and nephews on her small farm. She is considered "sharp-set" by her neighbors, but she is actually a kind and generous soul. Mrs. Crowe would not normally have much to do with Sarah Ann, so their union as Miss Tempy's watchers enables them both to bridge the social divide and see each other as people.
Both women express their deep admiration of Miss Tempy's character, and their sorrow at her passing. Miss Tempy was the glue that held much of her community together, providing comfort, advice, companionship, and material aid whenever and wherever it was needed, although she herself was relatively poor. Sarah Ann remarks:
"She’s helped me through with many a trial, has Temperance. I ain’t the only one who says the same, neither.”
Mrs. Crowe shyly admits that she wishes she could be more like Miss Tempy, and feels humbled by her example:
"I should like to say, while Tempy is laying here yet in her own house, that she has been a constant lesson to me. Folks are too kind, and shame me with thanks for what I do. I ain’t such a generous woman as poor Tempy was, for all she had nothin’ to do with, as one may say . . . I made up my mind this morning that Tempy’s example should be my pattern henceforth."
Discussing Miss Tempy's many acts of kindness leads Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann to regard each other kindly, in a way they have not previously. There is a brief moment of tension in their conversation when they touch upon the topic of renovating the meeting-house—a subject upon which they strongly disagree—but in deference to the example of Miss Tempy, both women choose to be tactful and diplomatic, and the tension passes as quickly as it arose.
The growing bond between Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann is tested when the women decide to look in on Miss Tempy's body. This is the climax of the story, as it requires the women to cross a hurdle and confront the death of their friend together. Sarah Ann is "much more used to watching than Mrs. Crowe, and much less affected by it," while Mrs. Crowe has a natural fear of death and is reluctant to go into Miss Tempy's room. The crisis occurs at the moment Sarah Ann lifts the sheet from Miss Tempy's face:
Mrs. Crowe’s heart began to beat very fast as the lamp was put on a high bureau, and made long, fixed shadows about the walls. She went hesitatingly toward the solemn shape under its white drapery, and felt a sense of remonstrance as Sarah Ann gently, but in a business-like way, turned back the thin sheet.
. . .
Mrs. Crowe gave a little sigh, and Sister Binson’s quick sympathies were stirred toward this other old friend, who also dreaded the great change.
Miss Tempy's kind and gentle nature once again bridges a gap between Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann, and also between Mrs. Crowe and her fear of death. The deceased woman seems to be smiling sweetly, relaxed and unafraid, as if death itself is nothing more than restful sleep. Sarah Ann relates that Miss Tempy said something similar before she passed:
“I’d never like to forgit almost those last words Tempy spoke plain to me,” she said gently, like the comforter she truly was.” . . . [says] she, looking at me real meanin’, ‘I’m only a-gettin’ sleepier and sleepier; that’s all there is,’ says she, and smiled up at me kind of wishful, and shut her eyes. I knew well enough all she meant. She’d been lookin’ out for a chance to tell me, and I don’ know ‘s she ever said much afterwards.”
Mrs. Crowe is greatly comforted and indeed relieved by this anecdote, and the climax of the story passes subtly into the denouement, where the women, having faced up to the fact of Miss Tempy's passing, now speak to each other easily as true friends. They share some tea and quince jam, and reflect on how different the community will be without Miss Tempy.
“How many things we shall be wanting to ask Tempy!” exclaimed Sarah Ann Binson, after a long pause.”I can’t make up my mind to doin’ without her. I wish folks could come back just once, and tell us how ‘t is where they’ve gone. Seems then we could do without ’em better.”
But the women have both determined through the course of the long night to live by Miss Tempy's example, and so it is clear that the community will have a replacement for the beloved woman in the joint efforts of Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann. The women have accepted their friend's death, and become good friends themselves. Their grief soothed by their newfound friendship, Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann fall asleep, and the spirit of Miss Tempy, which has presided over the story as a third, silent character, watches over them as they rest:
Overhead, the pale shape of Tempy Dent, the outworn body of that generous, loving-hearted, simple soul, slept on also in its white raiment. Perhaps Tempy herself stood near, and saw her own life and its surroundings with new understanding. Perhaps she herself was the only watcher.