The Country of the Pointed Firs Essays and Criticism
by Sarah Orne Jewett

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Theme of Death in The Country of the Pointed Firs

(Novels for Students)

On first reading, Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs may strike the reader as lighthearted and quaint, depicting a series of quirky elderly characters in a quiet, sleepy town where not much happens. However, there is an atmosphere of darkness and death that permeates the novel, constituting a central focus of the narrative.

The inhabitants of Dunnet Landing encountered by the narrator are all between the ages of sixty and ninety years old. Because of their advanced age, they carry with them an awareness of their own approaching death. The awareness of their own mortality fills these characters with a sense of nostalgia, as they often seem to inhabit memories long past as much as they do the present. These characters are all facing their own impending deaths and whatever afterlife awaits them. It seems as if the narrator herself, gazing out from the shores of Dunnet Landing, gets a glimpse into the afterlife toward which her acquaintances gaze. One morning, looking out at an island offshore with Mrs. Todd, the narrator notes, “The sunburst upon that outermost island made it seem like a sudden revelation of the world beyond this which some believe to be so near.”

Captain Littlepage describes to the narrator the story he was told by an aging seaman years earlier about a mysterious town near the North Pole. Captain Littlepage describes this town as a “waiting-place between this world and the next,” in which the inhabitants all seem to be ghosts. Captain Littlepage’s obsession with this town full of ghosts suggests his preoccupation with his own impending death, as if he himself were occupying a waiting-place between life and death. Dunnet Landing, likewise, seems to be a sort of waitingplace between life and death, in which the inhabitants, with one foot in the grave, look back on a long life and gaze into the distance at the afterlife which awaits them. At one point, the narrator describes Mrs. Todd as if she were one of the ghosts inhabiting the “waiting-place between this world and the next” described by Captain Littlepage; the narrator momentarily feels as if Mrs. Todd “would now begin to look like the cobweb shapes of the arctic town.”

Nonetheless, the inhabitants of Dunnet Landing, though approaching the age at which death lurks just around the corner, seem astoundingly hale and hearty, as if they could almost overcome death with their vitality. The narrator says of the old fishermen who continue to live and work around the port, that the sea

affected the old fishermen’s hard complexions, until one fancied that when Death claimed them it could only be with the aid, not of any slender modern dart, but the good serviceable harpoon of a seventeenthcentury woodcut.

In addition to nearing their own deaths, the inhabitants of Dunnet Landing have all experienced the deaths of loved ones. In part because it is a seaport, the town is inhabited largely by the widows of sailors, most of whom were lost at sea. When Mrs. Todd shows the narrator the Bowden family graveyard, she observes that it contains the remains of few men, because most of them were drowned in shipwrecks or buried at sea. There are, however, several old men encountered by the narrator who are widowers. The narrator, in fact, does not meet any married couples during her summer at Dunnet Landing. The widows she becomes acquainted with include Mrs. Todd, Mrs. Blackett, and Mrs. Fosdick. Mrs. Begg, whose funeral the narrator attends, is said to have survived three husbands, all lost at sea. The widowers include Captain Littlepage and Elijah Tilley.

Elijah Tilley, whom the narrator meets toward the end of her stay in Dunnet Landing, is a widower whose entire life is consumed with the memory of his wife, who died eight years earlier. He tells the narrator, “I can’t git over losin’ of her no way nor no how.” His entire home is devoted to keeping the memory of his wife alive, as he maintains it in the exact same manner she had. Thus, although he has...

(The entire section is 5,198 words.)