Sarah Orne Jewett

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Sarah Orne Jewett Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4779

The proper classification of Sarah Orne Jewett’s first effort at long fiction, Deephaven, remains problematic even after a century. In some circles it is regarded as a novel, while many literary historians regard it as a collection of short stories, a contention immediately attributable to the book’s genesis. It originated as a popular series of sketches that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly beginning in 1873. Howells encouraged her to combine the sketches and flesh them out with a suitable dramatic framework and continuity, and the result—which was titled Deephaven after the composite Maine seaport in which the sketches are set—was an immediate popular success. Even if a reader were unaware of the book’s origins, however, he or she still might be inclined to perceive it as a collection of stories, for the individual chapters—and, at times, even portions of chapters—tend to function as discrete fictional units rather than as elements subsumed within a satisfying whole. Deephaven’s confusing fictional status is caused in part by its young author’s inexperience with revision, and as such it may be perceived as a flawed book; the fictional hybrid quality of Deephaven, however, ultimately became Jewett’s stylistic trademark, and for many readers this blurring of the traditional distinctions between the novel and the short story is precisely the source of much of the charm and uniqueness of Jewett’s work.


Regardless of whether one reacts to Deephaven as seriously flawed or charmingly eclectic, the fact remains that structurally speaking it is a sort of fictional quilt: The individual chapters retain much of their original discreteness, while the fictional framework that was constructed around them is patently an afterthought; in other words, the seams show.

Jewett introduces two young ladies of Boston, Kate Lancaster and Helen Denis, who spend an extended summer vacation in Deephaven, Maine, at the home of Kate’s late grandaunt, Katharine Brandon. The two women are wealthy, educated, and affectionate twenty-four-year-olds: All of this background is revealed in a flurry ofexposition within the first chapter or two, and in fact one learns nothing more of the women in the course of the next 250 pages. Their sole function in the story is to react to Deephaven and to record those reactions, and although Kate and Helen fulfill this function dutifully, their characterizations suffer accordingly. One has no sense of them as flesh-and-blood humans; indeed, they disappear from the text while some salty sea captain or rugged farmer, encouraged by an occasional “Please go only on!” from Kate, recounts a bit of folklore or personal history. Thisnarrative frame, however annoying and contrived a technique it may be, suited Jewett’s interests and purposes: Never skillful at portraying upper-class urbanites, she was strongest at presenting the colorful, dignified, and occasionally grim lives of common people clinging to a dying way of life in coastal Maine in the late nineteenth century. These farmers, villagers, and seafarers were a source of perennial interest to Jewett, and the rich variety of their lifestyles, skills, and experiences were elements that she lovingly recorded, even as they were dying before her eyes. Ultimately, it is this impulse to record various aspects of a cross section of American life, rather than poor judgment or technical incompetence, which must be cited as the source of Jewett’s distinctive fragmentary style.

That style was rapidly being crystallized in the creation of Deephaven. As noted, the two outsiders who react to the coastal village almost disappear from the text despite the novel’s first-person narration, but frankly they are not missed. The book dissolves rapidly into a series of character studies, anecdotes, events, and descriptions of the landscape or homes. Individual characters are far more memorable than the volume in toto. The reader is inclined to recall Mrs. Kew, the lighthouse keeper; the widower Jim Patton, who repairs carpets; Danny the red-shirted fisherman, whose only friend was a stray cat; the so-called Kentucky giantess, a local woman turned sideshow attraction; Captain Sands, a firm believer in thought-transference and the power of dreams; and Miss Sally Chauncey, the insane survivor of a once prosperous family. Each character is painfully aware of the passing of the economic and cultural prominence of Deephaven and, concomitantly, the passing of each one’s way of life; accordingly, each (rather incredibly) recounts his or her life’s high points, along with bits of folklore and anecdotes, to the two vacationing Boston ladies.

In addition to offering poignant and often penetrating studies of common folk, Jewett provides accounts of events that are symptomatic of the passing of Deephaven. These accounts include a circus full of tired performers and exhausted (or dead) animals and a lecture on the “Elements of True Manhood” written for young men but addressed to a town whose young men have all died or departed to find new lives in urban factories or in the West. Finally, Jewett provides extended descriptions, often of home interiors. As a symbol of the luxurious life of the past, she offers a lengthy (full chapter) discussion of the house of the deceased Aunt Kate (an analysis so meticulous that it mentions the tiny spiders on the wallpaper), along with a companion study of the home of the mad Miss Sally, whose crumbling mansion without furniture is decorated with frames without paintings. Clearly this is not the sunny, sentimental world that is generally—and erroneously—attributed to local-color writing of the late nineteenth century. Although Jewett is often accused of avoiding the less positive aspects of life, this is certainly not the case with Deephaven: One finds a world of despair, poverty, unemployment, disease, alcoholism, insanity, and death. This is not gratuitous misery, but life as Jewett perceived it in coastal Maine.

Despite the book’s rather unexpected acknowledgment of the unpleasant in life, however, it was warmly received, not only because of the limitations Jewett set for herself (she was surely no literary naturalist when compared to Émile Zola, Stephen Crane, or Jack London), but because of the twoprotagonists through whose eyes the reader experiences Deephaven. Early in the book, as they giggle and kiss their way through the alien environment of Deephaven, Kate and Helen generate a sentimentalized and frankly vacuous aura that is in keeping with the book’s initial focus on the superficially picturesque aspects of the town; later in the story, as Jewett progressively focuses more on the grim side of life, the two girls begin to lapse frequently into improbable dialogues. For example, it is after a poor, unemployed widower dies of alcoholism that Kate reveals the lesson she’s learned: Helen, I find that I understand better and better how unsatisfactory, how purposeless and disastrous, any life must be which is not a Christian life. It is like being always in the dark, and wandering one knows not where, if one is not learning more and more what it is to have a friendship with God.

Kate and Helen are ingenuous and often preachy; they offer a romanticized counterbalance to the realistic world of Deephaven. As such, the book was rendered palatable to a Victorian audience, but as a result, it appears disjointed, dated, and sentimental to modern readers. With the notable exception of The Country of the Pointed Firs, these unfortunate qualities tend to pervade all of Jewett’s attempts to write fiction of substantial length.

A Country Doctor

Jewett’s second effort at long fiction, and her one book that is most amenable to classification as a novel, is A Country Doctor. Unfortunately, the book is marred by technical problems. Poorly proportioned, it concentrates so much on the childhood of its heroine, Nan Prince, that her adult activities as a determined medical student and successful physician are simply matters of unconvincing hearsay. Structurally unimaginative, it offers a dry chronological account and a glaring paucity of psychological depth: The strength of character that Nan ostensibly possesses is scarcely glimpsed as she facilely combats with laughter or thin logic the feeble attempts of acquaintances and townspeople to dissuade her from embarking on a “man’s” career instead of assuming the more “natural” role of wife and homemaker. Even so, A Country Doctor was Jewett’s favorite work, and it is easy to understand why. Despite its flaws, the book is in several respects representative of her finest work; its focal character, Dr. John Leslie, is a loving portrait of Jewett’s own father, Dr. Theodore Herman Jewett.

The technical problems in A Country Doctor are apparent from even the most cursory reading. As Jewett herself acknowledged, she was far more adept at the delineation of character than at the development of plot, but even so, the characters in A Country Doctor are not generally handled effectively. Four of the characters to whom the reader is initially introduced—the twins Jacob and Martin Dyer and their wives (who coincidentally are sisters)—are interesting rural types and fascinating examples of the power of early sibling relationships, heredity, and environment in the determination of adult character and behavior. Also interesting is Grandmother Thacher, the death of whose troubled prodigal daughter, Adeline, leaves her with the infant Nan, and whose son, John, a country lawyer, is old long before his time. Unfortunately, Jewett does not utilize the potential of these characters: The four Dyers are forgotten not long after they are introduced, Grandmother Thacher dies while Nan is still young, and the child’s Uncle John is dispatched a few pages after he makes his belated appearance in the story.

Jewett clearly wished to devote her time and energy not to secondary characters, but to Dr. Leslie himself, and in fact she succeeded so well in this endeavor that she inadvertently blurred the focus of the novel. The very title A Country Doctor apparently was designed to do double duty, referring to both Dr. Leslie and Dr. Nan Prince, his ward after the deaths of her grandmother and uncle; in fact, however, Jewett’s primary concern was the presentation of Dr. Leslie. His portrait is vivid and touching: A widower well into middle age, Leslie is a trusted, competent physician much loved in the community of Oldfields, Maine. If he possesses any character flaws or troubles, aside from occasional grief for his wife or qualms over the stress his ward will encounter as a doctor, he conceals them nicely. Even the transparently contrived visit from his ex-classmate and foil, the well-traveled surgeon Dr. Ferris, fails to convince Leslie that his life might have been more productive, happy, or exciting away from Oldfields.

Living with the obligatory salty housekeeper in an old house full of books and flowers, Dr. Leslie readily adopts the orphaned Nan and interprets her “wildness” as simply “natural” behavior—and in this respect he is not only in keeping with the autobiographical elements of the book but also serves to express several of Jewett’s own theories. For much as Dr. Leslie is Jewett’s father, young Nan is Jewett herself, and their unusual fictional relationship mimics the real one. Like Dr. Leslie, Dr. Jewett permitted his daughter to be absent from school and took her with him on his rounds, educating her with his discussions of science, literature, history, and psychology. Like Nan, Jewett was far more comfortable out of doors than in a classroom, and at an early age she decided to pursue a career as a physician rather than marry; although Jewett later abandoned her plans for medicine, the similarities between her own situation and the fictional one are quite pronounced.

Perhaps for this reason, the elements of the book that are least satisfying are those that are not derived from Jewett’s personal experiences. The opening chapter, in which the wretched Adeline Thacher Prince decides against drowning herself and young Nan, and with her last breath returns home to die on her elderly mother’s doorstep, is blatant melodrama. Nan’s eventual reconciliation with her wealthy, long-lost aunt (also named Nan Prince) is a fairy-tale motif that does not offer even psychological tension to make it worthwhile. Finally, Nan’s ostensible love affair with the milquetoast, or timid, George Gerry utterly lacks credibility, let alone passion.

In theory, the relationship has much literary potential: George is the son of Aunt Nancy Prince’s former lover, much as Nan is the daughter of Aunt Nancy’s once-beloved brother, and both young people desire to better themselves; but George is a dull, admittedly mercenary lawyer in equally dull Dunport, and he is so threatened by Nan’s blithely setting a farmer’s dislocated shoulder—George “felt weak and womanish, and somehow wished it had been he who could play the doctor”—that it is clear that the tension Jewett seeks to create between Nan’s personal desire to become a physician and society’s desire to make her a wife simply cannot materialize. George is a cipher; marriage is never a serious issue; and the single-mindedness with which Nan pursues her career, although obviously meant to demonstrate the strength of her character, compromises the chances for any development of her personality or the generation of interest in the plot. Indeed, the two elements that would have had extraordinary potential for the development of both character and plot—Nan’s admission into medical school, and the difficulties she must overcome as a student—are simply ignored.

Part of the problem with A Country Doctor is that Jewett downplays plot in her desire to utilize the book as a sort of lecture platform. Much as the two girls in Deephaven (transparently speaking for Jewett herself) occasionally lapse into brief lectures on Christianity, the advantages of rural life, and the like, so too the characters in A Country Doctor embark on improbable discussions on behalf of the author. For example, in the chapter “At Dr. Leslie’s,” one learns of Jewett’s ideas about child rearing and heredity. As Dr. Leslie talks about young Nan at an incredible length with his old classmate, Dr. Ferris, one finds that Nan’s guardian seeks to rear her in a deliberately “natural” way. Leslie’s interest in her “natural” growth is grounded in his scientific predisposition: He feels that “up to seven or eight years of age children are simply bundles of inheritances,” and Nan presents a unique case for study: Grandmother Thacher was “an old fashioned country woman of the best stock,” but there had been “a very bad streak on the other side” that led to Nan’s mother being marginally insane, tubercular, and alcoholic. Whereas Dr. Leslie’s desire to let Nan grow naturally stems from scientific curiosity, Nan’s desire is eventually traced to a religious impulse: She feels it is her God-given (and hence “natural”) duty to become a doctor, and indeed her final words in the story are “O GodI thank thee for my future.”

In addition to injecting some of her ideas about child-rearing, heredity, and theology into the story, Jewett presents her ideas about feminism: It certainly cannot be the proper vocation of all women to bring up children, so many of them are dead failures at it; and I don’t see why all girls should be thought failures who do not marry.

Jewett also discusses the shortcomings of urban life (Nan’s mother degenerates as a result of moving to Lowell to work) and the economic deterioration of New England (the once-thriving Dunport is dying, albeit in a picturesque fashion). In short, A Country Doctor is typical of Jewett’s work in that it shows her incapacity to sustain plot, her occasional inability to present and develop characters who are both believable and interesting, and her unfortunate tendency to preach or theorize. These difficulties were happily under control when Jewett came to write The Country of the Pointed Firs.

The Country of the Pointed Firs

The Country of the Pointed Firs is unquestionably Jewett’s masterpiece: An immediate popular and critical success, it is the only one of Jewett’s five volumes of long fiction that is widely known today, and it is at the center of the perennial theoretical controversy as to how one should differentiate between a true novel and a collection of related short stories. As noted above, this situation exists with regard to Deephaven, but with an important difference: Deephaven was Jewett’s first book, and so its hybrid quality is generally attributed in part to its author’s inexperience. On the other hand, The Country of the Pointed Firs is clearly a more mature effort. It is tight in structure, consistent in tone, complex in characterization, and profound in thought. It demonstrates how two decades of writing experience had honed Jewett’s judgment and technical skill. Thus, the impression that The Country of the Pointed Firs somehow manages to straddle the two traditionally separate fictional classifications must be regarded as intentional. Of course, The Country of the Pointed Firs is considerably more than a text for fictional theorists—it is a delightful book that shows Jewett at the height of her literary powers.

A comparison of The Country of the Pointed Firs with Deephaven gives some indication of the extent of those powers, for essentially The Country of the Pointed Firs is a masterful reworking of the earlier book. The premise is the same in both stories: A female urbanite visits a Maine coastal community for a summer and records her impressions. In Deephaven, the reader follows the experiences of two rather silly young women from Boston; in The Country of the Pointed Firs, there is only one visitor from an unspecified city, and even alone she is more than a match for Deephaven’s Kate and Helen. A professional writer, she is by nature and training far more perceptive than the two girls.

Well into middle age, the woman of The Country of the Pointed Firs also has the maturity and experience to comprehend the residents of Dunnet Landing, who themselves are people who have led quite full, if not always pleasant, lives. The visiting woman has credibility; one can believe that she enters into the world of Dunnet Landing and that people are willing to impart to her their most private and painful thoughts, whereas it is almost impossible to believe that any thinking person could be so intimate with giggly Kate and Helen. By the same token, although one knows little of the background and personal life of the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs (the reader is never told her name), one does know what goes on in her mind—her reactions, concerns, interests, misgivings—and as such she seems more like a real person than a fictional creation.

Closely aligned with this is the fact that the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs stays in focus throughout the story. Even though the book often breaks into little vignettes, character studies, or anecdotes, one never loses sight of the narrator, not only because she is the controlling consciousness who records the events at Dunnet Landing but also because one knows how she reacts to what she sees and hears. Those reactions are not always positive: She is initially annoyed by Captain Littlepage’s account of the mythical Arctic place where souls reside; she is startled (and a bit disappointed) by the modernity of Elijah Tilley’s cottage; and she feels the pang of young Johnny Bowden’s glance of “contemptuous surprise” as she fails to recognize a local symbol pertaining to fishing.

The narrator’s revelation of her inner life is perhaps most apparent in her dealings with Almira Todd, the owner of the house where she stays for the summer. Whereas in Deephaven, Kate and Helen stay in a relative’s mansion and bring their Boston servants to run the household for them, the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs has a close link with the community in the form of her landlady: They live, eat, visit, and occasionally work together (Todd grows and sells medicinal herbs), a situation that enables the narrator to acquire extensive firsthand knowledge of the people and lore of Dunnet Landing. Even so, she is aware that, as a nonnative, she can never truly be admitted into the community; she feels rather out of place at Mrs. Begg’s funeral and at the Bowden family reunion, and her acute awareness of her being privy to many of the more intimate or concealed aspects of the community (such as Todd’s admission that she did not love her husband), while simultaneously being denied knowledge of many others, shows her to be a more complex, perceptive, and thoughtful character than either Kate or Helen could ever be. It also shows that Jewett was able to comprehend and convey the fundamental fact that life is far less cut-and-dried, far more rich and contradictory, than was indicated in her earlier fiction. This is perhaps most evident in her treatment of Dunnet Landing itself.

Jewett goes to great lengths to emphasize the local aspects of Dunnet Landing that make it unique in time and place. She carefully records local dialect by spelling phonetically; she presents characters whose values, interests, and activities mark them as a dying breed living in an isolated area; she reveals the ways in which the region’s unusual environment and situation result in so-called peculiar people, including the woman who designed her life around the fantasy that she was the twin of Queen Victoria. While emphasizing the uniqueness of this late nineteenth century coastal Maine village, however, Jewett also emphasizes its universality: “There’s all sorts o’ folks in the country, same’s there is in the city,” declares Todd, and it is clear that the reader is supposed to derive from The Country of the Pointed Firs a deeper comprehension of the universality of human nature and experience. It is significant in this regard that the reader is never told the year in which the events take place, and Jewett habitually draws analogies between the people of Dunnet Landing and those of biblical, classical, and medieval times.

Jewett’s ability to strike a consistently happy balance between the universal and particular is quite remarkable, and equally remarkable is her talent for maintaining a tone that is profound without being obscure, touching without being sentimental. For once, Jewett also avoids preachiness. For example, Captain Littlepage’s discussion of the Arctic “waiting-place” inhabited by human souls does not lead into a lecture on Christian views of the afterlife nor a debate between matters of scientific fact and religious faith. Littlepage and his recital, like all the characters, anecdotes, and events of the novel, are allowed to speak for themselves, and the effect is a powerful one. Whether or not Willa Cather was justified in maintaining that The Country of the Pointed Firs, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), were the only American books destined to have “a long, long life,” it is true that The Country of the Pointed Firs does show Jewett in perfect control of her material and sure in her use of technique. Unquestionably, she had found the fictional milieu in which she functioned best. Given this achievement, it is all the more lamentable that in her next book Jewett deliberately abandoned the milieu.

The Tory Lover

Jewett’s final attempt at long fiction proved to be her worst book. Usually classified as a historical romance or costume novel, The Tory Lover was transparently intended to cash in on the unprecedented and highly remunerative vogue for historical romances that characterized the American fiction market throughout the 1890’s and the early years of the twentieth century; in fact, the long out-of-print book was reissued in 1975 (under the title of Yankee Ranger) for precisely the same reasons on the eve of the American bicentennial. The Tory Lover is virtually a casebook for students of the mishandling of fictional material and technique, and as such it is a perennial embarrassment to even the most devoted advocates of Jewett’s work.

Jewett demonstrates her inability to handle plot, or, as she accurately lamented to Horace Scudder in 1873, “I have no dramatic talent.It seems to me I can furnish the theater, and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there never is any play!” Whereas The Country of the Pointed Firs is strong precisely because it lacks—and in fact does not need—a plot in the usual sense of the word, The Tory Lover is virtually all plot, and it suffers accordingly. Although the book is set in the opening months of the American Revolution (1777), Jewett is unable to convey the excitement and tension of that most stirring era in American history. Surprisingly, little happens in this overlong story: At the urging of his girlfriend, Mary Hamilton, Roger Wallingford of Berwick, Maine, declares himself to be in support of the American cause; he ships out to England on the Ranger under Captain John Paul Jones, is captured during Jones’s attempt to burn Whitehaven, and is imprisoned at Plymouth, eventually winning a full pardon thanks to the efforts of assorted English noblemen.

Although this story line is potentially rich with exciting scenes, none materializes. The transatlantic crossing is quite dull, despite Jewett’s desperate efforts to render credible the novel’s obligatory villain, Dickson. The disgruntled crew’s unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Captain Jones, instead of being excitingly dramatized, is reduced to a comment: “There had been an attempt at mutiny on board, but the captain had quelled that, and mastered the deep-laid plot behind it.” Similarly, Roger Wallingford’s imprisonment, which lasts for much of the novel, is barely mentioned, and his daring and bloody escape is a matter of hearsay. Jewett’s attempts to generate intrigue, mystery, or tension are no more successful. Wallingford’s pardon is the result of the written request of a resident of Berwick, Master Sullivan, but his relationship to the powerful noblemen who actually secure the pardon is never explained, and the effect generated is more annoyance than mystery. Likewise, the tension between Captain Jones and Wallingford that results from Jones’s wearing Mary’s ring is resolved a few pages later when Wallingford bluntly reveals the source of his ill temper. Finally, the book’sclimax—the evil Dickson’s admission of his role in the thwarting of Jones and the arrest of Wallingford—is not in the least surprising or convincing: Quite simply, the drunken Dickson boasts of his deeds in a public house, and his fellow sailors toss him into the street. A few paragraphs later, the book abruptly ends.

Plot had never been Jewett’s strong suit, but even the characterization in The Tory Lover is lamentable. The story’s heroine, Mary Hamilton, is constantly described as beautiful, bright, and charming; but the repeated use of vague adjectives does not constitute characterization. The very little that she thinks, says, and does reveals virtually nothing about her. In this regard, she is perhaps ideally suited to her equally wooden lover, Roger Wallingford, who repeatedly is said to be gentlemanly and handsome, but who in fact is not in the least missed as he languishes for much of the novel in a British prison. Even the historic figures who would be expected to have intrinsic interest, such as Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones, are nothing more than flaccid bundles of adjectives who are irritating in their very lifelessness. Jewett also introduces a series of dull, obligatory stock characters (Dickson as the villain, Madam Wallingford as the grande dame, Old Caesar as the loyal black servant), as well as a plethora of characters who are simply dropped a few pages after they first appear: Dr. Ezra Green, the Ranger’s literary surgeon; wealthy Colonel Jonathan Hamilton, Mary’s allegedly dashing brother; Gideon Warren, the Berwick sailor who is reunited with Wallingford in the Plymouth prison.

Ultimately, The Tory Lover is a cluttered, confusing pastiche of unexciting events and lifeless characters; it is to Jewett’s credit that she was able to acknowledge her inability to write historical romance. There is every indication that she agreed with Henry James’s negative reaction to The Tory Lover. James said, Go back to the dear Country of the Pointed Firs, come back to the palpable present intimate that throbs responsive, and that wants, misses, needs you, God knows, and suffers woefully in your absence.

Jewett’s devastating buggy accident occurred before she could act on James’s admonition, however, and The Tory Lover stands as her last, but far from best, work.

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