Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012

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Sarah Orne Jewett uses the conventional novel pattern of the development of a young person to explore why a nineteenth century woman may choose not to follow a traditional life path. The book further argues that a woman should be encouraged in an alternative path if her inclinations and talents lead her toward a career rather than a home life. Jewett subsumes a courtship plot into the novel of development and portrays the heroine’s rejection of marriage as an important step in her growing up. In A Country Doctor, an independent career rather than a dependent marriage is the final goal.

The primary plot of the novel is Nan Prince’s development, and Jewett intertwines exposition with event to demonstrate how a woman might grow into a vocation instead of into marriage. Nan’s guardian and mentor, Dr. Leslie, makes her a test case with which to try out his theory that a child, like a plant, should be allowed to grow naturally rather than to be clipped, tied, and trained according to predetermined notions. Nan discovers her vocation rather than having Dr. Leslie or society choose it for her. The novel suggests that some combination of inheritance, environment, and the will of God makes people what they are. From her father, Nan inherits a talent for medicine and a determination to pursue goals. From her mother, she inherits a wild streak that, the novel suggests, is better channeled into a career than into domestic life. Nan has no inclination toward domestic pursuits or romantic love, and so she comes to believe that she should fulfill what she believes to be her God-given life purpose of practicing medicine.

After she decides to become a doctor, Nan confronts a series of hurdles that threaten to deter her, and when she has successfully cleared each one, she has proven she deserves the glorious future she thanks God for in the novel’s final lines. Nan is first discouraged by people who persistently trivialize her goals. Many refuse to take her aspiration seriously, assuming that she will grow out of her fancy for working or that she will fall in love and give it up. She successfully maintains her own conviction, however, that her vocation is medicine and not marriage. When she goes to Dunport for an extended visit with her wealthy Aunt Nancy, whom she has never seen before, she faces additional hurdles. She can become her aunt’s heiress if she stays in Dunport, and not be obliged to work for a living at all. Mrs. Fraley, a friend of her aunt and a force to be reckoned with in Dunport society, invites Nan to tea in order to denounce her desire to be a doctor. Rather than buckle under the pressure, Nan politely but assertively defends her choices. The toughest obstacle of all, however, comes from within Nan. She surprises herself by falling in love with George Gerry, Aunt Nancy’s young protégé. The courtship scenes are subsumed into the novel’s overall purpose of tracing Nan’s growth toward a career. Her knowledge of herself is strong, and she knows she cannot give herself entirely to George and to marriage. She knows her marriage will eventually prove to be unhappy, and she knows she will regret turning aside from her life’s purpose, so she rejects George’s marriage offer and her aunt’s insistence that she make Dunport her home. Having successfully overcome these challenges and proven herself true to her convictions, Nan returns to her childhood home, Oldfields, to take up her study of medicine and to begin to establish a practice.

Jewett attempts to present Nan’s rebellion against conventional roles for women as nonthreatening. The novel stresses several times that many women can and should find fulfillment in marriage and homemaking, and that a married woman should devote herself to her husband and home. Nan professes to regard marriage highly; that is one reason she rejects it for herself. Jewett never hints that Nan might both marry and practice medicine. The heroine must choose between those paths. Jewett’s handling of the courtship between Nan and George unsettles the cultural dictate in favor of marriage nevertheless. In the key scene in which Nan, on a pleasure trip with George, confidently and successfully adjusts a separated shoulder for a suffering farmer, Jewett shows that a woman can have power to command men. The farmer and George obey Nan’s directions because she offers them with such confidence, and while the farmer is astonished and grateful at the outcome, George is disturbed. He cannot conceive of a relationship with a woman in which she has superior command, and he begins to conceive of his courtship of Nan as a battle in which he is endeavoring to master her, to persuade her to give up her silly idea of becoming a doctor. When he is defeated, he is forced to recognize his inferiority to Nan, a self-awareness that Jewett suggests will inspire him to work harder toward his own goals. The novel claims on one hand to hold marriage sacred; it also reveals on the other hand that a woman might prove herself independent of romantic love, stronger than men, and fully satisfied with a career.

Jewett is frequently praised for her precise rendition of New England scenes, characters, and language, but the relevance of her work to American literature and culture goes beyond its successful representation of isolated rural communities. A Country Doctor argues that human nature is the same everywhere, and that life may be observed and lived to its fullest in a small New England town as well as anywhere else. When Jewett presents this study of how one young woman found her vocation and proved herself worthy of it, she implies that the lessons learned by Nan are relevant beyond the confines of nineteenth century New England. She shows how an individual may be influenced by her environment and biological heritage and yet exert her free will to choose her own path in life.