Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990
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 any compassion for children and are wholly unfit to raise them. Grandmother Badger is a determined Puritan Calvinist, yet she tempers the harsh doctrines of that faith through her own generosity, charity, and love. Her husband, Deacon Badger, is Arminian, and while disagreeing with Grandmother Badger’s convictions concerning Original Sin and predestination, he is in accord with her practice of Christian charity. Mehitable Rossiter has long lived in religious doubt, but her faith is renewed when Tina comes to live with her. She has trouble disciplining Tina according to child-rearing advice she reads and hears, and Tina is indulged constantly as she grows up. The children encounter Episcopalian faith, with its tolerant doctrines and aristocratic ritual, when they visit Boston. Harry gravitates toward the Episcopal Church, in which he eventually will be ordained.
Oldtown Folks avoids oversimplifying the characters who ascribe to certain church dogmas; each individual understands and practices faith in complex ways, and Stowe never suggests that personality is simply a product of religious training. Rather, she explores how various temperaments may respond in different ways to a culture whose identity was grounded in religion, and in which religious debate was characteristic of many household discussions.
The plots that the characters eventually live out demonstrate how their New England upbringing influenced them. A harsh Calvinist training unrelieved by compassion taught children that God did...
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not love them and that they were sinful until they experienced conversion. The children raised under this faith struggle in their adult lives, as illustrated by secondary characters Ellery Davenport (the fictional grandson of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards) and Emily Rossiter. Ellery rejects the faith of his forefathers and becomes the clever, charming, and skeptical villain of the novel. His fall is paralleled by the story of Emily Rossiter, Mehitable’s half sister, who, in revulsion from Calvinism, accepted French philosophy and rationalized her decision to become Ellery’s mistress. Tina Percival, who was first too harshly, and then too leniently, treated, is unable to see Ellery’s moral weakness and marries him. She suffers through ten years of increasingly unhappy marriage, until Ellery is killed in a duel, and then marries the narrator Horace, who has always loved her. Harry’s simple but strong faith helps rescue Esther Avery, a minister’s daughter, from the painful self-doubts created by her Puritan upbringing, and they marry happily.
These plots are common in popular fiction: a courtship plot with deserving hero and worthy heroine, and a seduction and betrayal plot with unworthy hero and misguided heroine. Stowe’s interest is not in rehashing these narratives, which she briefly summarizes in the final chapters of the novel, but in showing why some characters are more likely than others to establish harmonious domestic lives. Children raised with a balance of discipline and love are inclined to choose a happily resolving courtship plot. Children raised with an excess of either strictness or leniency are more apt to experience an unhappily resolving seduction plot or to enter an unfortunate marriage.
Oldtown Folks contributes to American literature in several ways. It explores conflicting doctrines from the perspective of someone whose life experience and deep reading informed what she wrote. It also portrays with precision and grace many New England characters, customs, and places. Therefore, it is a pioneering work within the local-color literary tradition. As a product of the post-American Civil War era, Oldtown Folks critiques the rapacious capitalism of Reconstruction politics and affirms some claims of the women’s rights movement. Within Oldtown Folks, Stowe advocates equal education for women, critiques the sexual double standard, and creates a gallery of strong and independent female characters who experience richly complex internal lives.