Sarah Orne Jewett

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Sarah Orne Jewett American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4171

Few writers have so successfully described Jewett’s achievement and characteristics as Cather does in her preface to The Country of the Pointed Firs, and Other Stories. Cather says that Jewett “once laughingly told me that her head was full of dear old houses and dear old women, and that when an old house and an old woman came together in her brain with a click, she knew that a story was under way.”

Jewett’s best fiction deals mainly with women, especially older women, in the villages and towns and on the farms of Maine. Her themes generally concern the beauty and dignity of these characters, who live in the shadow of a more prosperous and culturally richer past and who often have suffered losses—those of husbands and sons to the sea, or of friendship to accident, time, or human weakness. Jewett shows how these people succeed or fail at transcending their circumstances.

Many of her stories deal with the relations of the individual to the larger community. Sometimes, an individual must withdraw from an oppressive community in order to create or strengthen the independent self, as in “A White Heron” (1886). Sometimes, the individual who has experienced unhealthy separation must be gathered into a vital community in order to find happiness, as in “Miss Tempy’s Watchers” (1888). Human happiness in Jewett’s works always involves finding a balance between the need to be a self and the need to belong intimately to a community. Perhaps her best representation of this ideal of balance is Mrs. Blackett in The Country of the Pointed Firs.

Cather praises Jewett for possessing “the kind of beauty we feel when a beautiful song is sung by a beautiful voice that is exactly suited to the song.” Jewett has not been widely recognized for her style, but it is a very important aspect of her writing. Cather points out that Jewett’s subjects are not often exciting in the usual sense: She “wrote of people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment.” For example, “A Native of Winby” (1893) concerns not the heroic actions of Joseph Laneway but rather his evening’s visit with a dear friend of his youth. This choice of subject creates two major problems of style: how to make the stories interesting and how to avoid sentimentality.

The development of Jewett’s writing career is, in part, an illustration of how to find the right tone. Jewett learns to vary her tone within a fairly narrow range, rising quietly to heights such as the vision of the heron in “A White Heron” and the moments of self-transcending sympathy in “Miss Tempy’s Watchers,” without creating a false melodrama of pastoral/urban opposition in the former or gothic mystery in the latter. This command of style is crucial to the success of stories such as “Martha’s Lady” (1899), in which a servant woman recalls a brief summer visit from a lovely and loving lady, remembering her chiefly by means of a few relics of their short time together.

Cather implies that Jewett’s strength of style arises from a personal gift that was central to her becoming a great writer. The great writer, says Cather, has the gift of sympathy: “That alone can make his work fine. He fades away into the land and people of his heart.” It was this sort of sympathy that inspired Jewett to write about the vanishing culture of the Maine coast, and that earned for her the label as one of the most accomplished writers of the regional school of the end of the nineteenth century. While Jewett did not consider herself a member of any school of writers, she did share with a number of her contemporaries, notably Mark Twain, the wish to preserve in art a beautiful and valuable aspect of American culture that seemed destined to disappear in the new industrial age.

Cather also notes Jewett’s humor: “She had with her own stories and her own characters a very charming relation; spirited, gay, tactful, noble in its essence and little arch in its expression.” Though always subtle and quiet in tone, some of Jewett’s stories are among the funniest in nineteenth century American literature. “The Flight of Betsey Lane” (1893) provokes laughter as Betsey’s aging almshouse friends toil out to the pond to see if she might have drowned herself, when in fact she has used a small legacy to visit the Philadelphia exposition. “The Guests of Mrs. Timms” (1895) exploits irony and humor reminiscent of Jane Austen as two women go to the city to visit a woman who invited them insincerely. “Miss Debby’s Neighbors” (1884) is almost a tall tale in the manner of Twain, telling of spiteful brothers moving their houses until one house gets caught on the railroad tracks.

All Jewett’s most memorable themes and all the best qualities of her writing appear in her generally recognized masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs, the unusual novel that Cather equates with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

“A White Heron”

First published: 1886 (collected in A White Heron, and Other Stories, 1886)

Type of work: Short story

Young Sylvia resists the temptation to tell a charming hunter where to find the nest of a beautiful bird.

“A White Heron” is Jewett’s best-known short story and the only one to have an entire critical book written about it, Louis Renza’s “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature (1984). Though Jewett wrote many other stories at this level, this one has been most often anthologized, and it connects thematically with works that have much greater reputations, such as Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942).

Sylvia, a shy nine-year-old, is bringing home the milk cow when she meets a young ornithologist who is hunting birds for his collection of specimens. He goes with her to her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, has rescued Sylvia from a crowded home in the city, where she was languishing. The farm has proven a good environment for her. The handsome hunter, however, awakens Sylvia’s interest in a larger social life. He is friendly and sociable. He offers money and other rewards for information about where he can find the white heron he has seen. He spends a day with Sylvia looking for the heron’s nest, during which Sylvia comes to find him increasingly attractive, even though she is repelled by his killing birds. She knows where the nest probably is, but she hesitates to tell him.

On the second morning of the hunter’s stay, Sylvia climbs a nearby landmark pine at dawn to see the heron rise from its nest. She seems to have decided to help the ornithologist; however, at this point Jewett uses some special narrative devices to subvert Sylvia’s apparent intentions. Shifts in verb tense and point of view create an intimate unity between the narrator, the reader, and Sylvia herself. One effect of this unity is probably to help the reader share Sylvia’s enriching mystical union with nature that leads her finally to decide not to tell what she has found. Sylvia is not yet ready to surrender a life “heart to heart with nature” for the “great wave of human interest” represented by the hunter. Before she can return to the more various social life she has temporarily left behind to live on the farm with her grandmother, she must come to possess herself. For her, this can happen best in the comparative isolation of country life.

Though it is easy to read this tale as extolling a life close to nature over a richer social life in the city, Jewett’s story is more complex. Jewett herself lived alternately in the quiet, rural village of South Berwick and in the cosmopolitan social and literary life of Boston, and she often traveled to other cities (and several times to Europe). The story deals with several of Jewett’s major themes, one of which is the necessity, at some times and for some people, of withdrawing from social life into a simpler set of relations where the self can be fostered or renewed. The story does not imply that Sylvia will find a lifetime of happiness only on her grandmother’s farm—though indeed she may—any more than Thoreau’s discoveries at Walden Pond require that he live all the rest of his life there.

The ornithologist is attractive as well as a little dangerous; the wave of human interest he represents is, for most of Jewett’s characters, necessary to happiness. Sylvia simply is not yet ready to enter into the great stream of social life, and to do so too soon would threaten her ability to create and maintain a strong self. Were she to help the young man now, she would come to love and serve him “as a dog loves.” Such a love does not suggest the most rewarding kind of relationship between strong equals.

“Miss Tempy’s Watchers”

First published: 1888 (collected in The King of Folly Island and Other People, 1888)

Type of work: Short story

Sarah Ann Binson comforts Mrs. Crowe as they keep watch in Tempy’s house on the night before her funeral.

“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.

“A Native of Winby”

First published: 1893 (collected in A Native of Winby, and Other Tales, 1893)

Type of work: Short story

The successful businessman, soldier, and politician Joseph Laneway quietly visits his birthplace at Winby.

While not one of Jewett’s best-known stories, “A Native of Winby” is typical of her better work. Jewett carefully presents four scenes of return, showing different kinds of welcome received by Senator Joseph K. Laneway when, after about fifty years, he visits Winby, the New England town where he was born and where he lived for thirteen years before his family went west. Laneway has been an enormously successful businessman, a Civil War general, and a leading United States senator from an influential western state. He is at first surprised and a little pleased to find that no one recognizes him in Winby. His anonymity allows him to make three quiet pilgrimages before the public can lionize him.

First he visits the country school he attended as a child. The story opens from the point of view of the young teacher, Marilla Hender, struggling to get her students to work on a warm May afternoon and inspiring them with reminders of their distinguished schoolmate, Senator Laneway. She and the students do not recognize him in the elderly visitor who asks to observe them for awhile. After he has enjoyed evoking his childhood memories, he identifies himself and gives them a short speech admonishing them to be brave and good.

As he walks on his second pilgrimage, he reflects that the first was not entirely satisfactory, even though it had its moments—noticing that his speech really inspired a few students and seeing the amusing caricature of himself in one student’s arithmetic book. He walks to his old home, which he is disappointed to find in ruin. A remnant of the rose bush his mother missed in the West evokes memories that make him linger at the spot, but finally he is humbled and made aware of his mortality and his comparative unimportance in the great scheme of things.

Disappointed and depressed, he is forced at the end of the day to seek shelter at the home of his closest school friend, Marilla’s grandmother, Abby, where he finds what he has been looking for. She knows him at first sight, seeing through all he has done and become to the boy he was when she knew him last and that he still is in his deepest self. As they talk through the evening, Jewett shows how each of the friends has been of at least equal value to the world. Each has shown courage and strength, has striven for the good and kept faith with their youthful hopes, and has lived a satisfying and productive life despite hardship, loss, and pain.

Joe and Abby’s visit becomes a communion of the sort that Jewett consistently presents as the ideal in human relationships. As a result, when Marilla, excited by the public welcome Joe receives on his departure, returns from accompanying him to the Winby train station, the reader sees as clearly as Abby does that this acclaim, while deserved, is not really what Joe wanted in Winby. What he wanted was to go with Abby down to the cellar to draw some of her cider that tastes like the month of October and to share it, their memories, and a cheerful laugh.

The Country of the Pointed Firs

First published: 1896

Type of work: Novella

Hoping for quiet isolation, a writer flees for the summer to a rural, coastal village, but she finds there a vital community that distracts and renews her.

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 Mrs. Blackett: a perfect forgetting of the self. From this point of view, the book can be seen as a series of visits that gradually add to the narrator’s understanding of the community and ability to commune with these people. As her intimacy increases, so does her appreciation, until at the end of her summer, she feels herself so at home that leaving is painful.

The narrator and Mrs. Todd quickly become so intimate that the narrator is unable to write in Mrs. Todd’s home and, therefore, rents the local schoolhouse as a summer office. There she is visited by Captain Littlepage, a man alienated in time and place by the loss of his profession as a sailor. Though a small, dried-up grasshopper of a man, he comes to vivid life when he tells his fantastic tale of a “waiting place” near the North Pole, where the dead go to wait until they can enter the next world.

The narrator’s next major visit is to Mrs. Todd’s mother and brother out on Green Island. There her friendship with Mrs. Todd deepens when she meets and becomes intimate with her relatives. Mrs. Blackett is presented as the center of the village, even though she lives on its far periphery and rarely comes to the mainland. As the oldest member of the Bowden family, which is the largest family in the area, she is seen by all as its matriarch. The narrator sees Mrs. Blackett as the perfectly developed social person, with a self so strong and secure that she is completely free to give herself to her family and community. All have felt and believe in her love for them, and a constant—if intermittent—stream of affectionate communication flows like the tides between her and all who recognize her for what she is. The chapters that complete this revelation and show the narrator reaching her fullest understanding of and intimacy with the community are the centerpieces of the book. The main remaining incidents are a visit by Mrs. Fosdick to Almira, the Bowden family reunion, and the narrator’s visit with Captain Tilley.

Mrs. Fosdick is a “professional visitor.” She is highly desirable company as a sort of traveling newspaper. Instead of reporting the political and general news, however, she helps examine family and communal events and helps to keep them clearly within the context of the community’s history. Her main story is of “Poor Joanna,” a woman who became angry with God when her betrothed jilted her. Having committed “the unpardonable sin,” she thinks herself no longer fit to live among folks and so isolates herself on Shell-Heap Island. This portrait of a person who cut herself off from a community as rich and sustaining as Dunnet’s Landing is a continuing cause of wonder for all three women and has been one of the outstanding historical events in the community, though it would hardly interest the newspapers.

The story of Joanna, like the Bowden reunion and the narrator’s solo visit with Captain Tilley, illustrates the degree to which the narrator has entered into the life of the community. She is welcomed without reserve into Mrs. Fosdick’s conversation. She sees in Joanna an image of herself as she was at the beginning of the summer—very distant from what she has become. At the Bowden reunion, she is made an honorary Bowden, and she almost feels as if she really is a member of the family. With remarkable tact and sensitivity, she succeeds in drawing out Captain Tilley.

Tilley has sought her out in the way Littlepage did earlier in the summer. When Tilley opens himself to her, she is more successful at relating to him than she was with Littlepage. Tilley’s story is about how, after his wife’s death, he has come to identify with his wife and so to understand her and love her even more than he did in life. This communion has sustained him in his loneliness. Tilley’s multifaceted story brings an appropriate end to the narrator’s brief stay, for it reminds her of what she learned on Green Island and shows how she may continue to commune with Dunnet’s Landing after she leaves.

Seeking a hermitage, the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs finds a home, a true retreat. She never reveals whether she completed the writing she intended at Dunnet Landing, but this book is proof that she finds a subject there which is, perhaps, of greater importance.

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