(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 1395 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett focuses on a topic similar to that found in Deephaven (1877); in both books, summer visitors from the city meet the sometimes-eccentric local population of a remote Maine village. The narrator in The Country of the Pointed Firs, a middle-aged female writer, has come to the village for the solitude she has associated with the place since an earlier brief visit. She boards with Mrs. Todd, a widow with mystical powers, who gathers and sells curative herbs. Mrs. Todd’s rural ways contrast sharply with those of the urban narrator. Although these women characters have little in common, Jewett describes, with exceptional sensitivity, how a touching relationship between the two develops. They come to understand and appreciate each other. From annoyance grows mutual respect and interdependence.

The annoyance is that the narrator counts on having her mornings alone to write while Mrs. Todd is gathering herbs in the surrounding countryside. Such, however, is not the case: While Mrs. Todd is away, customers bang on her door. The narrator attends to their needs. In desperation, she rents a small schoolhouse to which she transfers her morning writing activities. There she begins to feel isolated. She realizes, as she watches a funeral in which much of the community participates, that her urban identity separates her from the townspeople. Soon, wishing to feel more integrated into the community, she resumes her morning duties at Mrs. Todd’s, to her landlady’s great delight.

Gradually, Mrs. Todd reveals to the narrator her inmost feelings, confessing that she had a lover who married someone else and then died and that she did not really love her husband, who also died, causing her to experience an intermixture of guilt and relief. The bond between these women is cemented when the narrator treats Mrs. Todd’s old friend, the demented Captain Littlepage, respectfully. Mrs. Todd takes the narrator to Green Island to meet her mother, Mrs. Blackett, a remarkable woman often called upon to comfort the dying as her daughter is called upon to cure the ailing. Mrs. Todd’s shy son, William, takes the two women to the island, but he remains aloof until the narrator wins him over by a simple act.