Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Oldtown Folks, a historical novel and an early example of local-color fiction, to interpret early New England life and to understand how New England influenced its own people as well as the growing United States. To analyze and interpret the small Massachusetts community she re-creates, Stowe focuses on character rather than plot, hypothesizing through her first-person narrator Horace Holyoke that to analyze the life of any given person one must study the society and history that produced that person.

Stowe uses character description and analysis as a means to understand the history of New England, a history that, Stowe believed, profoundly influenced the United States as a whole. In this work, plot takes a lesser importance. The novel may be read as an index of how New England heritage, which forms certain characters, influences their lives. If readers understand Oldtown Folks to be about how culture produces character, and how characters in turn create their lives, readers can see why the book is preoccupied with childhood and child rearing. As the narrator and his friends grow up, the plot is foreshortened, until the final chapters summarize the adult outcomes experienced by the characters.

In Oldtown Folks, families are created out of difficult circumstances and none of the children whose stories the book tells are raised by their mother and father in a nuclear family. Horace’s father dies in the opening chapters, and his mother moves back to her parental household along with her children. Horace’s grandmother, Mrs. Badger, becomes his dominant motherly influence. Harry and Tina Percival are orphaned; they flee from Crab Smith and his sister, Asphyxia Smith, who attempt to rear them to be efficient workers, and happen upon Horace’s grandmother’s house. The Badgers take in Harry, while Tina is adopted by village spinster Mehitable Rossiter. The displacement of the children emphasizes how regional culture, rather than simply parental guidance, may play a crucial role in the formation of character.

Stowe discusses at length the theology professed and the religion practiced by the adults involved in the children’s upbringing, particularly focusing on Calvinist, Arminian, and Episcopalian faiths, but also pointing out the influence of skepticism. Crab and Asphyxia reject religion altogether, and not coincidentally they lack...

(The entire section is 990 words.)