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 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...
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