Readers wishing to experience The Country of the Pointed Firs, Jewett’s generally acknowledged masterpiece, as she originally published it, should seek out an edition such as that of Mary Ellen Chase (published by Norton in 1968, 1981, and 1994), which reprints the first edition.
Willa Cather’s 1925 edition interpolates three later stories that use the same characters and setting: “A Dunnet Shepherdess” (1899), “The Queen’s Twin” (1899), and “William’s Wedding” (1910, unfinished at Jewett’s death). These three stories, as well as a fourth Dunnet Landing story, “The Foreigner” (1902), are among Jewett’s best, but when shuffled into the novella, they considerably complicate the question of its unity. Despite Cather’s rather puzzling reorganization of the novella, however, her assessment of its worth is often quoted with approval: She said that The Country of the Pointed Firs stands with The Scarlet Letter and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a nineteenth century book most likely to remain a classic.
Cather’s statement usually seems odd to modern readers, because they have heard of Hawthorne’s and Twain’s classics but have rarely heard either of Jewett or this short novel. Recent critics have asserted, with some justice, that Jewett’s work has not been given a fair chance. Powerful early twentieth century male literary critics and historians too easily dismissed her work as of minor importance to modern literature and history. Jewett’s fiction was characterized as essentially nostalgic, logical, and antiquarian in its appeal.
More recent critics, stimulated by feminist revaluations, have come to see this novella and Jewett’s other fiction as being about the dignity and rich variety of the life and culture created and sustained by women even when the masculine interests of trade and adventure diminished in nineteenth century Maine. Marjorie Pryse points out, in her 1994 introduction to The Country of the Pointed Firs, that while male characters tend to become lost and alienated because of the economic decline of New England, the female characters and the men who learn from them carry on life as full and happy as ever.
The overall structure of The Country of the Pointed Firs is simple, but within that structure Jewett creates a variety of complex connecting images and oppositions that make the work a rich text for study and discussion. The story opens with an unnamed woman narrator explaining the attractions of her home for the summer, Dunnet’s Landing. She loved it at first sight and dreamed of it as a place of retirement, where she could escape the bustle and distractions of city life in order to complete a piece of writing.
She finds, however, that in moving here she has moved to another center of social life. At Dunnet’s Landing, she has engaged a room in the home of Almira Todd, the sixty-seven-year-old village herbalist and center of communion. Communion is a key idea in the book, for Mrs. Todd is a purveyor not of gossip but of visiting, the kind of chat and news that connects the entire community in a deep, sustaining fellowship. The narrator is often mystified at how well people seem to know one another, when their surface lives seem so placid and uncommunicative. Some people, in fact, seem to be in almost mystical communication. Mrs. Todd, for example, simply knows when she begins one of her infrequent visits to her aged mother, Mrs. Blackett, that she should take an onion, because her mother’s are probably gone.
One way of viewing the overall structure of the novella is as the progress of the narrator’s ability to understand how these people communicate and, thereby, to join in that...
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communication. The narrator has the necessary talents for this task of learning, including quick observation, tact, the desire to cultivate friendship, and the golden gift of sympathy she finds in Mrs. Blackett: a perfect forgetting of the self. From this point of view, the book can be seen as a series of visits that gradually add to the narrator’s understanding of the community and ability to commune with these people. As her intimacy increases, so does her appreciation, until at the end of her summer, she feels herself so at home that leaving is painful.
The narrator and Mrs. Todd quickly become so intimate that the narrator is unable to write in Mrs. Todd’s home and, therefore, rents the local schoolhouse as a summer office. There she is visited by Captain Littlepage, a man alienated in time and place by the loss of his profession as a sailor. Though a small, dried-up grasshopper of a man, he comes to vivid life when he tells his fantastic tale of a “waiting place” near the North Pole, where the dead go to wait until they can enter the next world.
The narrator’s next major visit is to Mrs. Todd’s mother and brother out on Green Island. There her friendship with Mrs. Todd deepens when she meets and becomes intimate with her relatives. Mrs. Blackett is presented as the center of the village, even though she lives on its far periphery and rarely comes to the mainland. As the oldest member of the Bowden family, which is the largest family in the area, she is seen by all as its matriarch. The narrator sees Mrs. Blackett as the perfectly developed social person, with a self so strong and secure that she is completely free to give herself to her family and community. All have felt and believe in her love for them, and a constant—if intermittent—stream of affectionate communication flows like the tides between her and all who recognize her for what she is. The chapters that complete this revelation and show the narrator reaching her fullest understanding of and intimacy with the community are the centerpieces of the book. The main remaining incidents are a visit by Mrs. Fosdick to Almira, the Bowden family reunion, and the narrator’s visit with Captain Tilley.
Mrs. Fosdick is a “professional visitor.” She is highly desirable company as a sort of traveling newspaper. Instead of reporting the political and general news, however, she helps examine family and communal events and helps to keep them clearly within the context of the community’s history. Her main story is of “Poor Joanna,” a woman who became angry with God when her betrothed jilted her. Having committed “the unpardonable sin,” she thinks herself no longer fit to live among folks and so isolates herself on Shell-Heap Island. This portrait of a person who cut herself off from a community as rich and sustaining as Dunnet’s Landing is a continuing cause of wonder for all three women and has been one of the outstanding historical events in the community, though it would hardly interest the newspapers.
The story of Joanna, like the Bowden reunion and the narrator’s solo visit with Captain Tilley, illustrates the degree to which the narrator has entered into the life of the community. She is welcomed without reserve into Mrs. Fosdick’s conversation. She sees in Joanna an image of herself as she was at the beginning of the summer—very distant from what she has become. At the Bowden reunion, she is made an honorary Bowden, and she almost feels as if she really is a member of the family. With remarkable tact and sensitivity, she succeeds in drawing out Captain Tilley.
Tilley has sought her out in the way Littlepage did earlier in the summer. When Tilley opens himself to her, she is more successful at relating to him than she was with Littlepage. Tilley’s story is about how, after his wife’s death, he has come to identify with his wife and so to understand her and love her even more than he did in life. This communion has sustained him in his loneliness. Tilley’s multifaceted story brings an appropriate end to the narrator’s brief stay, for it reminds her of what she learned on Green Island and shows how she may continue to commune with Dunnet’s Landing after she leaves.
Seeking a hermitage, the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs finds a home, a true retreat. She never reveals whether she completed the writing she intended at Dunnet Landing, but this book is proof that she finds a subject there which is, perhaps, of greater importance.