Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

When The Country of the Pointed Firs was published, Sarah Orne Jewett’s friend Rudyard Kipling said, “I maintain (and will maintain with outcries if necessary) that that is the reallest New England book ever given us.” Willa Cather wrote in 1925 that this book, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), would stand up to the tests of time.

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Jewett wrote four short sequels to this novella: “The Queen’s Twin” (1899); “A Dunnet Shepherdess” (1899), in which she introduces William’s fiancé, Esther Hight; “The Foreigner” (1900); and “William’s Wedding” (1910). In all of these stories, as in the novella, one of Jewett’s main themes is the centrality of friendship to a meaningful life. The narrator goes to Dunnet Landing to isolate herself in order to write. She finds that isolation is not really what she needs, although she does need to escape what she characterizes in “William’s Wedding” as “the hurry of life in a large town, the constant putting aside of preference to yield to a most unsatisfactory activity.” The narrator discovers that what she really needs is to cultivate friendships, to be let into the confidence of the people of Dunnet Landing, and to learn to know them. She is somewhat reluctant at first and a little impatient to get on with her work, but as she gets to know the often eccentric but delightful people such as Captain Littlepage, the Blacketts, and Susan Fosdick, she comes to value the treasures in this rich, if sparsely populated, mine of life. Each new acquaintance challenges her in some way to extend and perfect her skills of conversation. By the end of the summer, she has new friends, a new family, and a new home. Her skills of friendship have been honed to a fine edge, so that she can listen with sympathy and warmth to the somewhat ridiculous but touching devotion of Captain Tilley for his dead wife. She learns to open herself to the epiphany of a sudden revelation of spiritual beauty in another and to the communion of sharing such revelations.

Jewett adopted an unusual form for her novella, which gives it the appearance of a collection of superficially related sketches. The narrator’s discovery of the richness of the community, her cultivation of friendships, and her development of the skills of conversation give strong thematic unity to these sketches. There is also strong structural unity provided by the gradual integration of the narrator into the community, as well as by the narrator’s growth in understanding and appreciation: Chapter 1 brings her to Dunnet Landing; chapters 2-6 show her somewhat reluctantly drawn into intimacy with Almira and earning her trust; chapters 7-11 show her integration into Almira’s immediate family; chapters 12-15 develop the contrasting example of Joanna, who left community behind permanently; chapters 15-19 reveal the unity of Almira’s immediate family with the larger Bowden family, and that of the Bowden family with all families throughout human history; chapter 20 provides balance and contrast for the narrator’s encounter with Captain Littlepage (this time she eagerly and easily pursues the intimacy Captain Tilley offers); and the final chapter takes her away from Dunnet Landing. This organization results in a subtle plot that may seem static to some readers but that inspired later writers to similar experiments. Several major works of twentieth century fiction—among them William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942) and Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples (1949)—are structurally indebted to Jewett’s novella. In the century following its publication, Cather’s prophecy proved true. Recognition of the stature of The Country of the Pointed Firs increased and the work received more sophisticated attention in scholarship, literary criticism, and literature classrooms.

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