Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Repeatedly, Sarah Orne Jewett presents the conflict between past and future: the old, pre-Civil War America with its frugality and innocence on one hand; the new, prosperous, mechanized country heading into the twentieth century on the other. She recognizes the changes that are affecting even the small towns in Maine: The old Laneway house is gone; other children sit in Laneway’s former place at school.

However, Jewett stresses the permanence of the land in the midst of these changes. Laneway finds that the air is still as sweet and fresh as it was in his youth. Though the Laneway house has vanished, the old rosebush his mother tended is still blooming, still putting out fresh shoots. Laneway’s mother often wished that she had removed the sweetbrier to their new western home, but Jewett suggests that some plants, like certain virtues, cannot be transplanted.

Tied to the land, Winby is an idealized portrait of stability in the midst of flux. The old families still live in the same houses. They still cook the same foods, make and drink the same cider from apples that come “from the old russet . . . and the gnarly, red-cheeked ungrafted” trees, not the newer, human-made varieties. The school desks are the ones Laneway used and bear notches that he carved with his first jackknife almost sixty years before.

Jewett’s nostalgia for the past extends beyond a desire to retain old plants and old furniture. For her, these physical objects symbolize traditional—and better—ways. The young Marilla does not recognize the senator she repeatedly invokes, but her grandmother recognizes him instantly. Marilla can cook “kickshaws” and “fairy gems” but not substantial fare. Indeed, Abby knows that “there ain’t one in a hundred, nowadays, knows how to.” Marilla wants to feed Laneway in the formal parlor, where he can see the best furniture and dishes, but Abby insists that they share the intimacy, warmth, and hospitality of the kitchen. Jewett believed that these homespun values were vanishing; yet these are the values she treasured and sought to preserve in her fiction.