Miss Tempy's Watchers

by Sarah Orne Jewett

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

“Miss Tempy’s Watchers” is one of a number of Jewett’s subtle and moving tales of the lives of older women who must deal with loss and hardship. Just before they drift off into a short sleep, as Sarah Ann Binson and Mrs. Crowe watch together in Tempy’s house, Mrs. Crowe reflects that Tempy—Temperence Dent—always made the best of everything. For example, she made excellent quince preserves by taking care of a thorny old tree with such attention and good cheer that she seemed to “kind of expect” it into blooming. Sarah replies, “She was just the same with folks.” This is a story about blooming—about how, with the deceased Tempy’s help, Sarah begins to replace her, and so helps Mrs. Crowe to begin to bloom into a more generous person.

Tempy’s spirit hovers over a scene she has created by asking her two friends to watch together in her house. The women reflect repeatedly upon how they seem to feel Tempy’s living presence as they converse through the night, and the narrator adds touches that contribute to the reader believing that Tempy is spiritually present even apart from her friends’ memories and talk. Left alone together for the long night, the women find themselves confiding private thoughts and fears.

Mrs. Crowe, especially, has much to confess. Tempy’s death has made her feel more than ever the pain of her stinginess. Because she is rich and socially powerful, Mrs. Crowe’s small contributions to the community earn her praise and gratitude out of proportion to her true generosity, and she knows this. Though she is not fully aware of the degree to which Sarah follows Tempy in giving all she possibly can for the happiness and well-being of children and the more needy, she does know what Tempy has done. This knowledge humbles her “to the dust,” and she has resolved to make Tempy’s example her own. Confiding this commitment to Sarah will help Mrs. Crowe to carry it out; moreover Sarah knows who is in need, as she is not insulated by wealth from suffering in the community.

When Sarah and Mrs. Crowe go upstairs to check on Tempy, Mrs. Crowe is reminded of her fear of death, about which she cannot speak directly. Sarah sees this and speaks directly to her fear, quoting Tempy first and then the minister. This discussion moves into a discussion of aging as the women eat a snack. Before they drift into sleep, Sarah reflects, as Mrs. Crowe and she did at the beginning of the more intimate conversation, that she cannot imagine getting on without Tempy. She wishes that folks could come back once after they die, to explain where they have gone.

In fact, Tempy has returned to them but not in the way Sarah imagines. Tempy has used her death to create the situation in which she can “expect” these women’s friendship into blooming. By bringing them together so successfully, she has left a duplicate of herself in the world: a woman with the knowledge of how to be generous and another with the means to be generous, wedded in what promises to be productive friendship. Tempy has gone into their hearts to live.

“Miss Tempy’s Watchers” embodies the opposing theme to “A White Heron.” Here, a woman who has been unhealthily alienated from her community is gathered in, drawn to the center by acts of communal and personal love. Mrs. Crowe’s latter years promise a greater happiness than she yet has known.

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