Sarah Orne Jewett

Start Free Trial

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221

Regarded as a premier writer of American regional, or local color, fiction, Jewett is best known for her short stories about provincial life in New England during the late nineteenth century. Her works are often discussed in conjunction with those of other contemporary local colorists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Rose Terry Cooke, and she is considered an important contributor to the development of the local color movement. Jewett was never an advocate for women's rights, but critics have noted that she presents portraits of strong, self-reliant, and optimistic women, most of whom are unmarried, and shows a concern for women's issues in her works. Feminist scholars have been particularly interested in exploring Jewett's unconventional portraits of women, her subversion of traditional patriarchal literary elements, and her subtle critique of male-dominated society.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Jewett was born September 3, 1849, in the rural port community of South Berwick, Maine, the daughter of Theodore H. Jewett, a wealthy and respected physician, and Caroline F. Perry. As a child she often accompanied her father on his daily rounds to patients' homes, where she met many of the New England characters she later recalled in her fiction. Jewett's youth was for the most part uneventful, secure, and happy. Her fathered tutored her in literature and local history, encouraging her to read from his vast library. Jewett began publishing short stories in 1867 under the pseudonyms A. C. Eliot, Alice Eliot, and Sarah O. Sweet. Her first notable success came just before her twentieth birthday when William Dean Howells accepted the short story "Mr. Bruce" for publication in the Atlantic Monthly. Guided by Howells's suggestions as well as her own understanding of life in New England, Jewett subsequently produced a number of successful local color stories for the Atlantic Monthly; at Howells's behest, she revised and collected these stories in 1877 in Deephaven. The success of Deephaven gained Jewett many literary admirers, and her close association with the Atlantic Monthly brought her frequently into contact with its editor, James T. Fields, and his wife, Annie, an esteemed philanthropist and literary hostess. Jewett was welcomed into the circle of eminent writers and editors who frequented the Fields's Charles Street salon in Boston. Following the deaths of Jewett's father in 1878 and Charles Fields in 1881, Jewett and Annie Fields cultivated a lifelong friendship. They traveled extensively, making several trips to Europe, during which Jewett met Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Christina Rossetti, and Rudyard Kipling. Although she thrived on such encounters, Jewett invariably returned to South Berwick every summer to write, believing her travels enabled her to focus more clearly on the unique aspects of her home community. In 1902, Jewett seriously injured her spine in a carriage accident, after which she never returned to writing. She spent her remaining years in leisure, visiting and corresponding with friends. She died from a stroke on June 24, 1909.

MAJOR WORKS

Deephaven, Jewett's first collection of stories, is woven around the observations of a young woman who arrives from the city to spend the summer in the village house of her companion's deceased aunt. In the tales, the narrator reports her impressions of New England country culture and its people to the reader. Jewett used this technique of the outsider-narrator in other works as well. Another important feature of her writing is the description of the natural environment. Her most famous story, "A White Heron," published in 1886 in A White Heron and Other Stories, examines the relationship between humanity and the natural world. The young protagonist of the story must choose between love of nature, represented by the heron, and human love, represented by an ornithologist who wants to capture the bird. While "A White Heron" is Jewett's most anthologized work, critics agree that The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) represents her highest achievement. The work has been classified variously as a novel, a series of sketches, and a collection of stories; some critics note that it is in a genre of its own. In the work, which is regarded as the culmination of the author's local color writing, Jewett once again uses the outsider-narrator as the frame. The narrator is a writer from the city who comes to the town of Dunnet Landing in search of a suitable place to work. She stays for the summer as the boarder of Mrs. Almira Todd, an herbalist. As with her other works, Jewett emphasizes setting rather than action, and she offers detailed descriptions of the natural environment and the (mostly female) characters that populate the small town in which the stories take place. In addition to her twelve collections of short stories, Jewett published three novels, juvenile fiction, and a volume of verse. Of these other writings, her novel A Country Doctor (1884), about a woman who chooses her career in medicine over marriage, is best known and was clearly influenced by Jewett's experiences growing up as a physician's daughter.

Although Jewett does not explicitly address feminist concerns in her work, much of her writing explores questions about women's roles in society. The 1882 story "Tom's Husband" deals with marriage and female emancipation, and stories such as "Mrs. Bonny" (1876) offer depictions of unconventional women who rely on themselves and are uncontaminated by the male-dominated world. "A White Heron" explores questions about the socialization of girls, gender relations, and the need for women to be true to themselves and to be useful to society. Virtually all of Jewett's fiction contains detailed character studies of unusual women; indeed, some critics have noted that few of her male characters are realistic at all while her descriptions of older females are vivid, sympathetic, and humorous. Jewett also writes extensively about relationships between women, and in The Country of the Pointed Firs female friendships form the primary link between the individual and society. Women in Jewett's stories are also depicted as the holders of cultural traditions, those who understand and are identified with the natural environment, and symbols of a receding past in the face of industrialization.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

After the publication of her first collection of short stories, Jewett was considered a writer of national importance. Howells praised her work, and in her preface to The Country of the Pointed Firs Willa Cather declared that she would name Jewett's book along with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as three American books that have the possibility of an enduring literary reputation. The popularity of Jewett's work declined after the 1920s, and although some of her stories, most notably "A White Heron," were read in survey courses of American literature, she was considered a minor figure and cited merely as an example of a local colorist. Since the 1970s, however, after feminist critics have reassessed her work, Jewett's reputation has grown and the universality of her writing has been affirmed. Critics have noted that Jewett's fiction rarely addresses questions about women's issues in an overtly political manner, but her work treats women's roles in a patriarchal society. Feminist critics have paid particular attention to the subtle manner in which Jewett critiques the patriarchal establishment with the use of original narrative techniques. They have also examined her depiction of unconventional women, discussed her characters' psychological journeys of self-revelation, and explored her ideas about nature, female heritage and tradition, and the effects of culture on women's psychological development.

"A White Heron"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4708

"A White Heron"

LYNN DOLBERG (ESSAY DATE JUNE 1998)

SOURCE: Dolberg, Lynn. "Unanswered Questions, Unquestioned Voices: Silence in 'A White Heron.'" Colby Quarterly 34, no. 2 (June 1998): 123-33.


In the following essay, Dolberg suggests that silence is used as an empowering narrative technique in "A White Heron."


Literary history and the present are dark with silences, some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden, some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all.

Olsen, Silences

Since the publication of Silences in 1965, "silence" has meant more than absence of speech or text. Tillie Olsen uncovers the various agencies behind things unspoken: how and why has silence come about? Who has silenced whom? Olsen's work makes "silence" a political term; giving voice to the previously muted is now standard practice in Women's Studies. In "Breaking Silence: The Woman Warrior," Shirley Nelson Garner outlines the feminist argument clearly:

It … occurs to me that silence or quietness has been just as unquestioned a virtue for women as chastity.…For women born into such a cultural tradition, speaking itself becomes an act of assertion. Speaking in public becomes a radical act.…To speak with anger relegates one to the realm of whores, witches and madwomen. It is no wonder … that feminist artists and writers talk about "breaking silence" as a crucial experience.

(117-18)

Silence is a "feminine" virtue; breaking silence is a feminist act. Olsen's work calls particular attention to the untapped potential of women who, for reasons as various as the women themselves, are unable to record their experiences, ideas, and beliefs. Sometimes, as Garner outlines above, the cultural pressure to remain "feminine" prevails; in other instances, silencing takes a much more concrete form: "Faulkner's 'real life' Dilsey lived and died [within] walking distance from the world-famous writer to whose books, language (and self) she contributed so much—never enabled to read a word he had written, let alone write; tell in her own powerful language, her own imaginings, reality" (Olsen 208). Here is a woman clearly inspirational. Her characteristics are well known to readers of American fiction. Has she any awareness of her fame? What if, as Olsen suggests, she had been able to tell her own story? What might readers learn from this woman's own voice? Literacy commands power and opportunity unavailable to "Dilsey."1

Enforced female illiteracy is a partial explanation for the fact that men have for centuries been the primary writers. This primacy leads to the understanding, so hotly contested among today's literary critics, that canonical literature is limited in its scope and, therefore, in its appeal. Jane Austen (one of a few women regularly included in the canon) understands this sentiment: "Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing" (236). Anne Elliot expresses dissatisfaction with books, her words part of Austen's work at transformation of a masculine literary heritage. This passage forecasts today's canon wars in its assertion that text has little meaning when its perspective is exclusive. What about those writers who prevailed in the face of cultural and societal pressures to remain silent? Do they not deserve some attention for these feats alone? Consistent throughout critical discourses concerning silence is the idea that, spoken or written, absent or present, speech is related to power.

Sarah Orne Jewett is one of many women writers recently reclaimed by feminist critics. Historically, analyses of Jewett held her within specific boundaries; customarily considered a regionalist, Jewett was often understood as limited in theme and focus.2 In contrast, feminist studies celebrate the woman-centered worlds within her works, finding within these communities a wealth of images, including the pastoral and the divine, and a wealth of dynamic characters, including spiritual and actual mothers, and powerful older women. In contrast to traditional feminist accounts that regard silence as merely oppressive and speech as inherently liberating, I wish to suggest here that an empowering and intimate silence is directly present in Jewett's work, where it represents a theme, a habit, and a narrative technique. Elaine Showalter has suggested that women's fiction speaks a "double-voiced discourse," containing a "dominant" and "muted" story (266). In Show-alter's terms I seek to amplify the muted through a reexamination of the dominant, in particular through a close reading of Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron." Here silence is present on two levels. The first occurs within the story world—when characters themselves are silent. Silence exists as well within what I will term Jewett's methodological world—within moments when either author or narrator (or both) are silent.

I will begin by simply pointing out some instances of silence in this story. To start within the story world, even Sylvia's cow understands the value of silence. She not only refuses to respond to Sylvia's calls, she also knows that if she remains "still," her bell will remain noiseless and enforce her solitude: "it was her greatest pleasure to hide herself away among the high huckleberry bushes, and though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring" (1). This scenario (silence in response to intrusive search) is of course parallel to Sylvia's own experience with the inquisitive stranger. When Sylvia encounters the "enemy," her initial responses to him are "almost" inaudible. He demands that she "speak up," and she barely manages a one-word response, answering only after he questions her repeatedly (5-6). Once they arrive at home Sylvia remains silent for the rest of the evening while her grandmother and the young intruder converse. Quiet, Sylvia is nonetheless listening carefully to her companions' conversation and is in fact so distracted by the mention of reward money that she uncharacteristically neglects a hop-toad's comfort. The creature is unable to gain access to his home because of their presence, but Sylvia is far too lost in thought to realize its dilemma: "No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy" (12). In fact, beyond her initial three words of direction to the stranger, we have access to only a single word uttered by Sylvia, her own—significant—name.3

On a methodological level, Jewett and her narrator are silent on several occasions. We are initially told that Sylvia is afraid of people. We are not, however, told why this is so. Has she had some frightening experience in that "noisy town" where she spent her earlier childhood? Does her fear have to do with the "red-faced boy" she is remembering at the moment she encounters the ornithologist? Or is it simply the result of shyness, not caused by any particular event but rather just part of her nature? The narrator is also silent on the subject of the ornithologist's name. His character is in this way generic—he is initially the "enemy," then "the stranger," the "young man," the "guest," the "ornithologist," the "young sportsman." When Sylvia brings him home, we are told that she "knew by instinct that her grandmother did not understand the gravity of the situation" (6). But we are not told what she believes the cause of this gravity is. Why is Sylvia so threatened?

These are just a few examples—there are many more—to offer evidence of the constancy of silence in this story. But what is this silence about? How is it employed and what is its influence? As I have mentioned, the stranger's initial presence frightens Sylvia, but by the next day she is enjoying his companionship. The language which describes their time together becomes increasingly romanticized:

As the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young foresters who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft-footed silent care. They stopped to listen to a bird's song; they pressed forward again eagerly, parting the branches,—speaking to each other rarely and in whispers.…

(12-13)

Some critics point to the underlying sexual tension in this passage; George Held has stressed the "romantic aura" created by Jewett's alliterative style (64). It is important, certainly, that Jewett herself understood "A White Heron" to be a romance. In a letter to Annie Fields, she writes, "Mr. Howells thinks that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more; but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all. It must be the fault of the writers that such writing is dull, but what shall I do with my 'White Heron' now she is written?" (59). The romance Jewett refers to is in "every-day life"; these lines do not necessitate a romance between Sylvia and her companion. "Every-day life" could describe the romance between child and nature, the romance of possible discovery, the romance that is almost a given within such pastoral surroundings. What is the setting and source of this romance? The couple tread with "soft-footed silent care," they stop to "listen to a bird's song," they speak "rarely" and then only "in whispers." The "premonition" of "that great power" these two experience clearly refers to the "dream of love" in the previous sentence.

But the great power present throughout this story is the power of silence. Perhaps the premonition is that one power (love) will be halted by the other (silence); or, perhaps for Sylvia, the two are somehow intricately connected. This moment is enjoyable to Sylvia only because she is able to exist within the silence she needs. The source of this need is not made explicit, but its urgency is without question. When silence is broken, Sylvia becomes terrified: "she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first. The sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her,—it was hard enough to answer yes or no when there was need of that" (13). Societal convention allows Sylvia to follow, not lead, to reject speech unless she is directly addressed. In this way she is able to avoid making a decision about whether or not to share her information about the white heron. On this first day of exploration together, Sylvia embraces silence because it offers her safety. Age and gender have determined her subservient position and Sylvia makes use of this subservience. Silence, described by Olsen and others as the result of oppression, is here turned into an instrument of empowerment. It enables Sylvia to retain her knowledge, save the white heron and, by extension, save herself.

The second portion of this passage also deserves attention: "the sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her." As Held points out, the meaning of this sentence is somewhat obscure (64). On what exactly does Sylvia's fear depend? Is it a fear of speaking unless she is questioned by her companion? Or does she fear speaking without questioning herself about her motives? The clearest interpretation of this line is the former, and yet the second meaning has import here as well. Is this obscurity typical of Jewett's writing? Jewett's critical and technical methods are never clearly laid out in a single essay but must instead be gleaned from her letters and diaries. With respect to her readership, one diary entry written in 1871 seems particularly apt:

Father said this one day "A story should be managed so that it should suggest interesting things to the reader instead of the author's doing all the thinking for him, and setting before him in black and white. The best compliment is for the reader to say 'Why didn't he put in "this" or "that."'"

(cited in Donovan 224, n. 19)

This entry suggests at least a couple of interesting resonances within the present discussion. Certainly in "A White Heron" Jewett adds gray to her "black and white" text. What is particularly significant is that at this moment describing Sylvia's "unquestioned voice," Jewett—herself determined to write things "as they are" (Letters [Cary] 52)—is not writing with exceptional clarity. Why does she stray from her stated method? The author is silent to her reader's questions about Sylvia's motivations. Although we know that Sylvia, at moments, hopes to spot the white heron, it is clear she is not at all ready to volunteer information. Jewett expands on the questioning process by making determinability about the girl's self-inquiry equally enigmatic. Sylvia fears her unquestioned voice; Jewett poses unanswerable questions. Both withhold information and retain control over their wooded and narrative landscapes.

Sylvia's early morning expedition to determine the heron's exact whereabouts, and to view the ocean for the first time, involves more moments of silence and listening, and a deepening of the parallel between this woodland creature and her natural habitat. As she steals away to begin her search, this parallel is made explicit: "Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!" (15). The harmony of this relationship is contingent upon things unspoken. Further examples support this contingency. Sylvia finds the heron because she knows to hide, motionless and quiet, in a tree; the heron departs "when a company of shouting cat-birds comes … vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness" (19). Noise is momentarily equivalent to crime. Upon her return, Sylvia brings her knowledge home but elects to keep her secret unspoken. On this day, however, Sylvia is no longer unquestioned. Jewett gives this moment greater emphasis, for it is one of three instances where the narrative shifts to the present tense; we are told, "the grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door together and question her" (20). On this day, Sylvia is forced into the position of activist. She cannot simply exist in the silence she prefers; she has to refuse the questions and ignore inquiry actively.

The story's final paragraph leaves the reader with more unanswered questions. The paragraph begins with an address: "Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in that day" (21). "Dear loyalty"—is this loyalty to the lost companion, the ornithologist who has left disappointed? Is this loyalty "dear" because it has cost Sylvia companionship? Or does the term of endearment refer to Sylvia's true love, the natural world she has defended? The narrator asks, "Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell?" The story ends without response to this inquiry, only a directive that the "woodlands and summertime" "remember" and bring treasures and secrets to "this lonely country child" (22).

One reading of this story suggests that Sylvia remains loyal to herself, retains her "nature" and lives independent of male-dominated society like many of Jewett's characters and, indeed, like Jewett herself. That Sylvia is lonely, however, suggests some questioning as to whether or not this isolation is the best choice. Significantly, this loneliness is the result of the intrusion by the stranger. Prior to this visit, Sylvia is content. In the opening section of the story we are told that she whispers, not to any person but to a content, solitary cat, "this [is] a beautiful place to live in, and [I] never should wish to go home" (4). Prior to the hunter's visit Sylvia exists silently in a feminized world, feminized in that it is inhabited only by a woman and a girl (and a female cow) but also in that a conventional feminine role (subservient silent companion) offers protection here. During the stranger's visit there is a moment of romanticized contentment, but it exists conditionally, only within a safe, unquestioned and unquestioning place. After the visit, however, something has changed. Silence (meaning both Sylvia's surroundings and her choice to keep her secret to herself) no longer offers her complete happiness. She is lonely—her rules and her world have been somehow altered by this experience. Jewett's ending to this story lacks conclusion.

Although Sylvia has saved the white heron and retained her nature and her world, she is no longer content. Equivalently, Jewett herself is not content with keeping secrets from her readers by writing enigmatically. She is not merely secretive; she follows her father's advice and offers a series of questions for the reader to contemplate. Perhaps Jewett chooses to remain silent because she does not have the definitive answer, or perhaps she (like her young heroine) elects to keep her knowledge to herself. Perhaps she is not, as yet, fully satisfied with her method; perhaps it is still in process. Jewett does not, however, remain a passive reporter of facts here. Asking questions and not providing responses forces us to respond on some level. Jewett takes a position and incites readerly participation.

Scholars have for years noted Jewett's characters' reluctance to speak and the regularity with which climactic moments hinge on the unspoken, but this notice is usually treated only parenthetically within a larger topic. For example, in "'Tact is a Kind of Mind-Reading': Empathic Style in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs," Marcia McClintock Folsom notes an attention to "hints and unspoken conversation" as part of a larger discussion of Jewett's unsentimental, realistic style (78). Alternatively, in "Archives of Female Friendship and the 'Way' Jewett Wrote," Marjorie Pryse discusses what she describes as the "intertwining of friendship and fiction, of listening and telling": "The process through which the narrator learns how to turn friendship into a 'lifelong affair' becomes the 'plot' of The Country of the Pointed Firs. What makes this process possible, and what Jewett equates with the narrator's moral and professional development, is her discovery that listening is as important as telling for the growth of both 'true friendship' and fiction" (64-65). Part of being a good listener, of course, involves a measure of the ability to be silent.

In fact, Jewett's characters often resort to silence and there is no single cause for this practice. Most often, quiet is indicative of deep emotion, as in A Country Doctor when Mrs. Thacher is at a loss to express her sadness about the continued absence of her daughter, Adeline: "the good woman could say no more, while her guests understood readily enough the sorrow that had found no words" (6). Jewett also creates moments of contentment when words are disruptions and silence, peace. For example, in Deephaven, Kate and Helen often enjoy moments of quiet together: "Sometimes in the evening we waited out at sea for the moonrise, and then we would take the oars again and go slowly in, once in a while singing or talking but oftenest silent" (40). While in these examples within the story world silence typically reflects emotion, we see elsewhere a commitment to silence at the methodological level as well. In The Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, Jewett is silent with respect to her narrator. The teller of this tale (a writer) is without a name and in fact, as Sarah Way Sherman has pointed out, initially without the first-person pronoun (203). She is present to us in the observations she makes about her surroundings; in other words, she is present more as the writer of that story, and less as a character in her own right. In fact, this character becomes most alive to us through the lessons that other characters such as William teach her. She learns the value of being a good listener and improves this ability through an appreciation of what silence makes possible. The few details we do gain about the narrator, her relationship to the people of Dunnet Landing, and the place itself become all the more important because they are what sets this narrator apart from the other writer involved here, Jewett herself.

I believe that Jewett's constant attention to this issue of silence is conscious. On one level, certainly, her characters are silent because the writer wishes to depict New England reticence. Of Jewett's mimetic practice, Josephine Donovan observes: "One of the central elements in Jewett's literary credo was that the artist should transmit reality with as little interference and doctoring up as possible." But Jewett is also clearly aware that silence inspires thought, and she wants her readers to think. She wants to teach us something about the nature of silence and does so by using it to shape her content and her purpose. Donovan goes on to discuss Jewett's form: "Implicit in this thesis is the idea that form follows function (that is, content and purpose), rather than the other way around" (212, 213). If we accept Donovan's understanding that Jewett's form follows her function, her form is indebted to silence. The writer is not providing answers but inviting, soliciting and encouraging response. She does not dominate, does not tell her readers how to respond, but she suggests that we participate in a process of discussion (see Oakes).

In this spirit of discussion I turn to one of the more important recent essays on Jewett's work. Richard Brodhead devotes a chapter to Jewett in his Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Brodhead's discussion focuses on cultural structures within nineteenth-century conceptions of regionalism. Engaging The Country of the Pointed Firs in particular, Brodhead argues that Jewett's regionalism is "produced … in the culture of a quite specific late nineteenth-century upper class" (149) and that Jewett (and her characters) should be situated squarely within the nineteenth-century leisure class: "If … we were to focus Jewett on the background not of women's culture but of a nineteenth-century leisure-class culture 'struggling to find expression' we would find for her writing a more concretely specified social home" (144). Brodhead's argument works well with the majority of Jewett's writing; "A White Heron," however, provides an exception. Sylvia and her grandmother do not fit comfortably into the leisure-class mold; they are not vacationing tourists like Kate and Helen in Deephaven, nor are they visiting writers observing a coastal community. In short, Sylvia's concerns (for example, rounding up wayward cows) are not those of the leisure class. "A White Heron" also offers an exception to Brodhead's assertions about expression. In much of Jewett's work her characters are indeed struggling to express themselves. Sylvia, however, decides against using her knowledge; the expression she chooses is autonomous silence.

Brodhead also pays attention to Jewett's contributions to nineteenth-century aesthetic understandings of "art" and "artist": "[Jewett] became more dedicated to her art at the price of having that art give up larger functions of social edification and political address embraced by the less 'artistic' domestic-sentimental generation" (173). The Country of the Pointed Firs did not and will never have the social and political impact of a work such as Uncle Tom's Cabin. But Jewett does not rescind all social and political consideration; commentary—about women's roles in a patriarchal world, about community, about romance—is contained quietly within her form. "Political address" is part of her narrative; "social edification" may indeed be an unstated (silent) goal. As study of "A White Heron" suggests, this goal is achieved by her engagement of the reader in creating meaning in response to the troublesome questions, particularly about gender and women's roles, that her silences elicit.

Jewett uses silence as a literary tool. When and how she wields this tool (within the story world and within her method) are indicative of her beliefs. Jewett's independence and love of woman-kind are everywhere evident in her work, but these beliefs are never more political than in her articulations of silence. She is aware of the gendered relationship between language and power so forcefully articulated by contemporary feminists; indeed, this relationship is often part of her subject matter. The critical discourse which began Jewett studies—by such men as F. O. Matthiessen and Henry James—regularly described her work with diminutive ("feminine") adjectives: "quaint," "little," "innocent," "childlike." These descriptives are all far from threatening and make Jewett's work appear easily kept within its place, easily controlled. But the silence within her work, multilayered, evocative, and as yet unquestioned, is revolutionary.

Notes

  1. In a specifically American literary tradition, the slave narrative, literacy is directly connected to freedom. See, for example, the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.
  2. For example, Jewett's first biographer, F. O. Matthiessen, feels the need to protect his subject from charges that her subject matter is minor: "Nowhere except in America and at the present time would it be necessary to defend a writer for handling pathos and humour instead of the stronger chords of passion" (150).
  3. It is possible, of course, to gain further access to Sylvia by studying Jewett and making connections to the author's own experiences. F. O. Matthiessen calls attention to Jewett's love of the woods surrounding her home and her horror at their gradual destruction: "The increasing destruction of her world gave her a hunted feeling like the last wild thing left in the woods" (23). Sylvia's defense of her home may well stem from Jewett's loyalty to and love of her natural surroundings.

Works Cited

AMMONS, ELIZABETH. "The Shape of Violence in Jewett's 'A White Heron.'" Colby Library Quarterly 22 (1986): 6-15.

ARAC, JONATHAN, and HARRIET RITVO, eds. Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

AUSTEN, JANE. Persuasion. 1818. Rpt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

BADER, JULIA. "The Dissolving Vision: Realism in Jewett, Freeman, and Gilman." In American Realism: New Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 176-98.

BLANCHARD, PAULA. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her Life and Her Work. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

BRODHEAD, RICHARD H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

CARY, RICHARD, ed. "Jewett on Writing Short Stories." Colby Library Quarterly 6 (1964): 425-40.

——. "The Rise, Decline, and Rise of Sarah Orne Jewett." Colby Library Quarterly 9 (1972): 450-63.

——, ed. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: 29 Interpretive Essays. Waterville, ME: Colby College P, 1973.

DONOVAN, JOSEPHINE. "Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes Toward a Feminine Literary Mode." Colby Library Quarterly 18 (1982): 212-25.

FETTERLEY, JUDITH, and MARJORIE PRYSE, eds. American Women Regionalists, 1850-1910. New York: Norton, 1992.

FIELDS, ANNIE, ed. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett. Cambridge: Riverside P, 1911.

FOLSOM, MARCIA MCCLINTOCK. "'Tact Is a Kind of Mind-Reading': Empathic Style in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs." Colby Library Quarterly 18 (1982): 66-78.

GARNER, SHIRLEY NELSON. "Breaking Silence: The Woman Warrior. "In The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

HELD, GEORGE. "Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at 'A White Heron.'" In Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. 58-68.

HOVET, THEODORE R. "'Once Upon a Time': Sarah Orne Jewett's 'A White Heron' as a Fairy Tale." Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978): 63-68.

JEWETT, SARAH ORNE. A Country Doctor. New York: Meridian, 1986.

——. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. 1896. Rpt. New York: Anchor, Doubleday, 1989.

——. Deephaven. 1877. Rpt. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889.

——. Letters. Revised and enlarged. Ed. Richard Cary. Waterville, ME: Colby College P, 1967.

——. "A White Heron" and Other Stories. 1886. Rpt. Cambridge: Riverside P, 1892.

MATTHIESSEN, FRANCIS OTTO. Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

NAGEL, GWEN L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

OAKES [KILCUP], KAREN. "'All that lay deepest in her heart': Reflections on Jewett, Gender, and Genre." Colby Quarterly 26 (1990): 152-60.

OLSEN, TILLIE. Silences. New York: Dell, 1978.

PRYSE, MARJORIE. "Archives of Female Friendship and the 'Way' Jewett Wrote." The New England Quarterly 66 (1993): 47-66.

RENZA, LOUIS A. "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984.

ROMAN, JUDITH A. Annie Adams Fields: The Spirit of Charles Street. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

ROMAN, MARGARET. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1992.

SHERMAN, SARAH WAY. Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone. Hanover: UP of New England, 1989.

SHOWALTER, ELAINE, ed. The New Feminist Criticism. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

SILVERSTONE, ELIZABETH. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer's Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook P, 1993.

SMITH-ROSENBERG, CARROLL. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

SUTHERLAND, JOHN H., ed. Papers from the Jewett Conference at Westbrook College. Colby Library Quarterly 22 (March 1986).

Marilyn E. Mobley (Essay Date March 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3093

SOURCE: Mobley, Marilyn E. "Rituals of Flight and Return: The Ironic Journeys of Sarah Orne Jewett's Female Characters." Colby Library Quarterly 21, no. 1 (March 1986): 36-42.


In the following essay, Mobley examines Jewett's use of flight imagery to describe her female characters, claiming that this imagery demonstrates her admiration for "self-reliant women."

In light of Sarah Orne Jewett's expressed affection for the rural villages of Maine, it might seem inconsistent that she so often uses flight imagery to describe the real and imaginative journeys of her female characters. Though seemingly contradictory, this characteristic imagery belies an ambivalence toward her native region,1 and demonstrates an unflinching admiration for its self-reliant women. Challenging the notion that range is masculine and that confinement is feminine,2 Jewett portrays women who continually contemplate and/or embark on journeys outside the confines of their rural domestic communities. While a different form of flight predominates in each text, certain patterns emerge in her numerous references to birds, holidays and excursions that signify Jewett's attempt to acquaint her readers with the range of experience available to her New England women.3 The most significant of these patterns—the flight from one's environment to the outside world and the inevitable return home—has the mythic characteristics of ritual and reveals Jewett's complex response to this region, to its women and to her own role as a regional writer. Although inevitable, the return is not a resignation to limitations or failure, but a heroic expression of the desire to remain connected to one's cultural roots; thus, like flight, it is an act of self-affirmation.

With the exception of The Country of the Pointed Firs, "A White Heron"4 presents the most dramatic example of Jewett's flight motifs. Sylvia's initiatory journey occurs simultaneously on three levels: physically, as an actual adventure, imaginatively, as a "voyage" of discovery, and symbolically, as a passage from ignorance to knowledge. Although the story begins with a description of her as content and secure within her rural setting, Sylvia craves more space than her grandmother's home provides. Consistent with the pastoral resonances in her name is her grandmother's description of her as a "great wand'rer" (164) with whom wild creatures and birds easily identify.5 Therefore, more significant than the "dream of love" (167) that the ornithologist arouses is the "spirit of adventure" that his inquiries about the white heron inspire.

If the "dream of love" is short-lived, it is because her greater desire is to reach the vantage point where she could "see all the world" (167). Thus, Sylvia does not consider the journey up the tree as a dangerous physical feat, but as a rewarding flight to a greater range of experience, knowledge and freedom. In language customarily attributed to male characters and male quests, we learn of Sylvia's "utmost bravery" in undertaking such a "great enterprise" (168-69). Her journey culminates in two epiphanies: first—the feeling that, like the birds, "she too could go flying" (169), and second—her discovery of the heron's secret nest (169-70). Thus, the portrayal of Sylvia is not only heroic but triumphant.

The nature of her triumph—successfully making the solitary passage from ignorance to knowledge of the world—rehearses the traditional metaphor for the initiatory experience in American literature. If we understand initiation as the first existential ordeal, crisis or encounter with experience in the life of a youth, or more simply as a "viable mode of confronting adult realities,"6 then we might say Sylvia undergoes an initiation. Yet the traditional pattern of the initiatory journey—that of separation or departure, trial, communication of communal secrets, and return to the community7—is not what we have in this story. Although Sylvia returns to her home, her departure has been both real and imaginative, both complete and abortive. In realistic terms, she moves upward but not outward. Only figuratively and psychically does her journey broaden her horizons.

Indeed, if we were to focus solely on the flight or departure itself, it might seem that we have simply another character who attempts to "transcend"8 the conditions of her rural life. Instead, in Sylvia's return and refusal to reveal communal secrets is a departure from the traditional initiation pattern. Sylvia's refusal to reveal the location of the heron's nest confirms that the journey not only gives her knowledge of the outside world but also courage to reject that world and protect her own. Thus, just as her journey has been a heroic act, so is her decision to deny "the great world … for a bird's sake" (170-71). It is a liberating experience that empowers Sylvia to protect the "essential human values"9 and her harmonious relationship with nature that the hunter threatens. Her ritual of flight and return is not so much a "coming of age" as it is a growing into consciousness.10

Despite the realities and the triumphs of Sylvia's ordeal, "A White Heron" remains a highly symbolic, almost metaphysical story. Consequently, Jewett's preoccupation with the need to know the world and the village,11 and the city and the country appears in oblique terms. In "The Hiltons' Holiday" and "The Flight of Betsey Lane," this same preoccupation is apparent, but it takes on less symbolic, and more explicit, realistic hues. The journeys are therefore horizontal rather than vertical, emphasizing the complimentary needs for self-affirmation and connection to others. For example, the Hilton girls' father suggests their excursion into town as a "treat" or opportunity to "know the world" and "see how other folks do things" (292-93), while their mother advocates the virtues of the country. Her less than enthusiastic response to the proposed trip is emphasized by her stasis in the rocking chair and her questioning "why folks want … to go trapesin' off to strange places when such things is happenin' right about 'em" (294). Her words invoke Jewett's own ambivalence toward this region's concomitant self-sufficiency and deprivation.12

The characterization of the Hilton girls illustrates how the journey can actually blur the distinctions between town and country. Before the journey, the depiction of the two sisters represents the traditional dichotomy between the female who readily accepts the confines of hearth and home and the one who does not.13 While Susan Ellen is described as a "complete little housekeeper" (291), Katy is described as one who ventures "out o' doors" to "hark … [to] bird[s]" (292). Ironically, the "holiday" trip to town transforms both girls. When they return, their mother perceives that both "children looked different … as if they belonged to the town as much as to the country" (304). Their transformation suggests that a woman need not deny one to enjoy the other, but that she could affirm both. But it is not that the journey itself transforms the girls, but rather that the journey as an excursion into the past changes them. It is in town that the girls learn their family history, listen to the memories of the town's elderly and have their picture taken with their father. Thus, the journey is into the past as a valuable investment in the "riches of association and remembrance" (304) from which they would continually draw on the road to self-discovery.

In short, flight and return are not mutually exclusive experiences, but are the affirmation of desire in Jewett's women. The circularity of the journey does not signify the impoverishment that some have suggested;14 instead, it signifies the ritualistic pattern of desire, expectation, fulfillment and desire that characterizes the cycle of human experience. In this sense, Jewett is very modern.15 But as a woman writer, she illustrates that the desire that accompanies a woman's return is not to subdue objects to her own purpose as a man does, but to reconnect and share with the community from which she departed.16 Accordingly, the Hilton girls, whose lives have been enriched by the day's excursion, share their experiences with their mother, and by so doing, enrich her life as well.

This leads us to "The Flight of Betsey Lane," for the expedition of this elderly spinster is somewhat similar to the excursion of the Hilton girls. But unlike their trip to town, initiated by their father's invitation, Betsey Lane's journey to Philadelphia is inspired by a long hoped for opportunity to "see something of the world before she died" (174). The By-fleet Poor-house, where she resides, has ironic undertones of being both a prison and a haven. Its inhabitants, referred to as "inmates," do not lament their situation, but actually like "the change and excitement" that their winter "residence" provides (172). Yet, as the youngest of the three spinsters, Betsey Lane seeks greater excitement than the poor-house offers. The opportunity to realize her dream comes in the form of one hundred dollars, a sum which furnishes her with a "sense of her own consequence" (179) that is much like the urgent "wish for wings" that Nina Auerbach contends is characteristic of the spinster as hero.17 Thus, we are prepared for her disappearance to be described as a discovery that she "had flown" (182), and for her departure to be termed a "flitting" (183) and an "escape" (185). In other words, flight has connotations of independent choice, unlimited potential and birdlike freedom from captivity.

While the journey of her friends to search for her is termed a "fruitless expedition" (192), her journey is thoroughly productive. In strictly personal terms, it provides her with much-desired escape from narrow circumstances, with knowledge of the world (almost literally, in that the Centennial she attends is the equivalent of the World's Fair), and with a sense of rejuvenation and fulfillment. Yet her return points to another sense in which her excursion has been productive. When she informs her friends that she has brought each of them a "little somethin'" (192), her words signify more than the material tokens of friendship she gives them. These words also suggest the greater gifts of spiritual renewal she wishes to offer by sharing her journey with them. Again, the female hero's return is characterized by the urgent desire to share and reaffirm communal ties that is almost as urgent as the previous desire to take flight. In sum, Betsey Lane's return also has powers of transformation: it transforms the three friends from mere bean-pickers into a "small elderly company … [of] triumphant" women (193). Enriched vicariously through their friend's journey, these women find it easier to endure the realities of their meager existence.

Motifs of flight and return take on their greatest complexity in The Country of the Pointed Firs. From the merging of the narrator's story with that of the other characters comes a depiction of Dunnet Landing as both "prison" and "paradise" (37). Men, such as Captain Littlepage, indict this region for its insularity and narrowness (25). But the women see it as "a complete and tiny continent and home" (40). They also provide the flux and vitality that allows the village to survive.18 Whether it is the daily expeditions of Mrs. Todd, the excursion of Mrs. Blackett to the family reunion, or the flight of Joanna Todd from the community to her self-imposed exile, the ironic journeys of these women sustain the life of this "female landscape."19 Of all the characters, however, Mrs. Todd and the narrator best illustrate the thematic and structural significances of flight and return.

Mrs. Todd embodies the spirit of the land. While others have been occupationally displaced from the land by industrialization, she survives as a folk herbalist who not only thrives on the soil for her livelihood but moves among her neighbors as one who, like them, "grew out of the soil."20 Because of her multiple roles as "land-lady, herb gatherer and rustic philosopher" (35), she is more mobile than any of her neighbors. While her trips to gather herbs resemble flight as the freedom of mobility and independence, the journeys to the homes of friends and relatives seem to be flight as escape from solitude or as an excursion from routine. Yet regardless of how often she travels or how much she enjoys administering to the needs of others, she religiously returns to her solitary residence. Thus, while she is depicted as resourceful, heroic and self-reliant, she nevertheless seems tragically alone and imprisoned in "a narrow set of circumstances [which] had caged [her] … and held [her] captive" (95). On the other hand, she unselfishly shares with others as if, the narrator observes, she had "been set on this lonely island … to keep the balance true, and make up to all her … neighbors for other things which they may have lacked" (47). In that she seems to keep some mythic balance between past and present "… as if some force of Nature … gave her cousinship to … ancient deities" (137), Mrs. Todd seems larger than life. When she reminisces about her husband, she retreats into herself and seems tragically human and heroic at the same time. In fact, her grandeur inspires the narrator to compare her to "Antigone" and to view her as a "renewal of some historic soul" (49).

The existential leap from old-fashioned, rustic simplicity to the grandeur and complexity of myth is a crucial one. Myth, an inherently complex narrative that fuses the natural with the supernatural, recalls the value of ritual to give expression to unconscious desires and to affirm our faith in human potential.21 In the parallel to Antigone is the suggestion that Mrs. Todd heroically affirms this potential at the same time that she must tragically concede to the existence of forces she cannot control. The allusions to classical texts direct us to the universality and complexity of country people and commonplace experience that the narrator grows to comprehend and respect.

The female character who gives unifying perspective and aesthetic complexity to Pointed Firs is the narrator. In her mutual roles as visitor/observer and resident/participant, she comes to know the "world" and the "village" in the fullest sense. Her visit is actually a "Return"—as the title of the first chapter informs us—to a rural haven of simplicity or an "unspoiled place"; yet, it is also a flight from an urban prison of complexity and "unsatisfactory normality."22 In her role as visitor, she journeys from detached ignorance and superiority to involved acceptance and finally to enlightened understanding. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Bowden reunion where she shifts from first person singular "I" to first person plural "we" (90) to describe that communal celebration. In her role as narrator, she becomes the unifying device that gives thematic and structural continuity to the novel. Her recognition that she cannot remain at Dunnet Landing but must return to Boston, conveys, as does the final chapter title, "A Backward View," that the ultimate reward for the journey out is the opportunity for growth and fulfillment of desire; concurrently, the reward for the journey back is the reservoir of remembrance, self-discovery and renewed desire. Neither journey precludes the significance of the other. The narrator's writing aesthetically affirms both the journey of flight and the journey to return, and thus, preserves what Henry James refers to as "the palpable present."23 In other words, art can continually shape and recreate the journey.

In the fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett we have just that—art continually recreating the journey. By using the rituals of flight and return in carefully devised circular narrative structures,24 she exposes the ironies that characterized the lives of many rural women in her time. On her own literary journey, Jewett discovered that she need not be limited by the local color medium; instead she could transform it through her essentially affirmative vision.25 Indeed, she journeyed beyond the artistic confines of local color into the comprehensive landscape we associate with myth. The achievement of her fiction is that she does not deny the contradictions that emerge, but seeks instead to hold them in balance before us.

Notes

  1. Rebecca Wall Nail, "'Where Every Prospect Pleases': Sarah Orne Jewett, South Berwick, and the Importance of Place," in Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Gwen L. Nagel (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), pp. 185-98.
  2. Mary Ellmann, Thinking About Women (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1968), p. 87.
  3. Annie Fields, Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 228.
  4. Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1956). All parenthetical references in the text to "A White Heron," "The Hiltons' Holiday," "The Flight of Betsey Lane" and Pointed Firs are to this reprint edition.
  5. Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope, Who Am I This Time? Female Portraits of British and American Literature (New York: McGraw Hill, 1976), pp. 4-5.
  6. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 41.
  7. Virginia Sue Brown Machann, "American Perspectives on Women's Initiations: The Mythic and Realistic Coming to Consciousness," Dissertation Abstracts International, XL (Sept. 1979), 1470A.
  8. Josephine Donovan, "A Woman's View of Transcendence: A New Interpretation of the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett," Massachusetts Review, XXI (1980), 366.
  9. A. M. Buchan, Our Dear Sarah: An Essay on Sarah Orne Jewett (St. Louis: Committee on Publications at Washington University, 1942), p. 45.
  10. Machann, p. 1470A.
  11. Willa Cather, Not Under Forty (New York: Knopf, 1936), p. 83.
  12. Sarah Orne Jewett, "Preface to the 1883 Edition," in Deephaven and Other Stories, ed. Richard Cary (New Haven: College and University Press, 1966), p. 31.
  13. Donovan, New England Local Color: A Women's Tradition (New York: Ungar, 1983), pp. 1-10.
  14. Ann Douglas Wood, "The Literature of Impoverishment: The Women Local Colorists in America 1865-1914," Women's Studies, I (1972), 3-45.
  15. Steven Shaviro, "'That Which Is Always Beginning': Steven's Poetry of Affirmation," PMLA, C (March 1985), 220-33.
  16. Buchan, p. 45.
  17. Nina Auerbach, "Old Maids and the Wish for Wings," in Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 111-12.
  18. Elmer Pry, "Folk-Literary Aesthetics in The Country of the Pointed Firs," Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, XLIV (March 1978), 9.
  19. Robin Magowan, "Pastoral and the Art of Landscape in The Country of the Pointed Firs," New England Quarterly, XXXII (June 1963), 232.
  20. Cather, "Preface," The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, p. 4.
  21. William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, eds., A Handbook of Literature (New York: Odyssey, 1960), pp. 298-99. See also Richard Chase, The Quest for Myth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1949), p. 78.
  22. Hyatt H. Waggoner, "The Unity of The Country of the Pointed Firs, "in The World of Dunnet Landing: Sarah Orne Jewett Collection, ed. David Bonnell Green (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1962), p. 374.
  23. Ferman Bishop, "Henry James Criticizes The Tory Lover," American Literature, XXVII (May 1955), 264, as cited in Richard Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Twayne, 1962), p. 152.
  24. Elizabeth Ammons, "Going in Circles: The Female Geography of Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs," Studies in the Literary Imagination, XVI (Fall 1983), 83-92.
  25. Louis A. Renza, "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984), p. 196.

Karen Oakes (Essay Date September 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5196

SOURCE: Oakes, Karen. "'All that lay deepest in her heart': Reflections on Jewett, Gender, and Genre." Colby Quarterly 26, no. 3 (September 1990): 152-60.


In the following essay, Oakes explores some of the major issues in Jewett's works and discusses how The Country of the Pointed Firs blurs the boundaries of culture, race, and gender.


In the beginning (or in 1941), God (later known as F. O. Matthiessen) created the American Renaissance.1 Emerson and Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne and Whitman he created them. And he saw that it was good.

I give this rather whimsical introduction to my thoughts on Sarah Orne Jewett by way of suggesting how circuitous my route to her has been. Nineteenth-century American literature has, until very recently, focused primarily if not exclusively on the magnetic figures gathered around mid-century. My own education, at an excellent women's college, and later, at a radical university, foregrounded Emerson and company to the obliteration of "lesser" deities. I experienced the pleasure of Jewett—appropriately, it turns out—through the mediation of a friend, who said simply, as if of peach pie, "I think you'll like her."

And I did. The setting of her work conjured the New England of my childhood, her characters and their voices, the members of my extended family. But if my first response to reading The Country of the Pointed Firs was pure delight, my second was pure rage. I was staggered that I had never heard her name even once in the course of my elite "formal" education, though I thought I understood why. Jewett's writing has over the years been the source of much critical discord. Is The Country of the Pointed Firs a (failed) novel, a set of loosely related sketches, or something else entirely? The flurry of recent interest in her work at times evinces the same jittery quality. Those who love her often prove determined to show how she meets the standards set by American Renaissance writers—or, perhaps more accurately, by Matthiessen and his cohorts—and hence other questions arise such as how to define her main character (which of course assumes that there must be a main character) or how to describe her development (which presumes a progressive rather than an accretive model). A recent essay in the feminist journal Signs attempts to locate the book within a "new" genre, "narrative of community."2 But before I focus more specifically on The Country of the Pointed Firs, I'd like to rehearse some of the larger issues to which Jewett's work speaks, hoping that you will be patient with my game of hopscotch and will accept my assurance that all the jumps will lead to "home."

Genre, to be sure, is a convenient concept not only for contemporary critics, a peg on which to hang our hats, but also for professors of literature. How else might we lasso the rambunctious variety of texts which we teach? Hence, we imagine courses in "Twentieth-Century American Women's Poetry" and "Nineteenth-Century Women's Fiction," to cite two of the courses I've taught in recent years. Indeed, genre is not only convenient, but, as one contemporary critic argues, "Few concepts of literary criticism are quite as 'literary' as the concept of genre."3 Genre study is as old as Plato and Aristotle and as new as a course a friend teaches, "The Contemporary Mystery Novel." Of course, the most sophisticated genre criticism explores the overlap of genres within individual works and attempts constantly to recognize or invent new terms.

If genre figures prominently in discussion of Jewett's work, canonical texts have hardly been immune to debate. Is The Scarlet Letter a novel or a romance (I think it's a sermon, but that's another paper)? Nor has the debate been only a recent concern, for mid-nineteenth-century reviewers constantly interrogated Whitman's work according to the touchstone of lyric poetry; was Leaves of Grass, they asked, poetry, prose, or, as tastemaker Rufus Griswold asserted, trash? Even writers whose work has seemed generically reliable have encountered scrutiny; at a recent conference, one meeting I attended focused on Dickinson's poems as letters and her letters as poems.4

Because of the traditional, even self-defining, quality of genre in literary studies, much influential feminist criticism has explored women's relation to genre. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss in The Madwoman in the Attic the affinity of narrative to women's lives and the problematics of lyric poetry, just as Virginia Woolf before them had done.5 Such critics, female and male, have for some time questioned the hegemony of the traditional literary genres of fiction, poetry, and drama, and we can see the concrete consequences of this questioning in revised syllabi and in new anthologies. For example, many in American literature would now consider texts like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "journal," The Yellow Wall-Paper, or Harriet Jacobs' autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to be canonical; and the new Heath Anthology of American Literature includes such "non-canonical" works as Afro-American folk tales. But the larger question these transformations raise is the essentiality of genre as a lens for discussion.

Jewett, I believe, questions radically the notion of genre if we understand that concept to resonate beyond the categories of fiction, poetry, and drama to include the larger matter of boundaries. Her current reputation (or lack thereof) reflects her corseting by critics into forms and attitudes which she refuses to occupy.6 One of her best readers, Elizabeth Ammons, discusses the image of the circle as a metaphor for the structure of The Country of the Pointed Firs, and in so doing she de-emphasizes the norms of development, climax, and denouement which have haunted her critical predecessors, not to mention poor high-school students across the country.7 We do well to follow Ammons' lead and step outside the boundaries of literary theory into psychological and cultural theory. The work of sociologist Nancy Chodorow is useful here; Chodorow argues that masculine and feminine identity are differently defined, the former by an emphasis on individuation and a need for separateness and the latter by a need for relation and connection with others. Feminine identity, to use her terms, evinces "flexible or permeable ego boundaries." In spite of her focus only on white, middle-class, heterosexual individuals, Chodorow provides a helpful metaphor in connection to the matter of Jewett and genre.8

Indeed, the problem of genre is as intimately linked with the matter of gender in Western literature as ham and eggs. Sandra Gilbert suggests this connection in her recent article, "The American Sexual Politics of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson," which is grounded in Chodorow's theory. In brief, Gilbert argues that both Whitman and Dickinson wrote something she calls "not-poetry"; but she contrasts the reliance of each on traditional genres. Whitman's poetry ultimately rehearses familiar poetic forms, suggesting a masculine impulse toward individuation, while Dickinson's elides those boundaries, suggesting a feminine impulse toward fluidity and providing a paradigm for the female artist.9 In a masculine-minded culture, such a model for consciousness, for artistic creation, and even for critical discourse may receive little credence. (I recall here D. H. Lawrence's abhorrence of Whitman: "Always wanting to merge himself into the womb of something or other.")10

For Jewett, the impulse to erase boundaries could not have been unambivalent. The popularity and respect accorded to her by her contemporaries was no doubt in some measure due to her apparent acceptance of some traditional boundaries. Literature, for example, should possess a reverence for the past, and The Country of the Pointed Firs gestures toward the past in several ways. The city-dwelling narrator's escape to the Maine coastal town of Dunnet Landing echoes the anxiety of an increasingly industrialized country and its desire for a simpler life. The narrator's landlady, Mrs. Todd, is a practitioner of traditional herbal medicine who initiates the former into a tradition of community and family relations. Jewett connects Mrs. Todd not only with the New England past and the American past, however, but also with the Western tradition, as in the central scene where the two characters gather pennyroyal:

She looked away from me, and presently rose and went on by herself. There was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape. She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain. It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this country-woman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.11

Jewett's allusions to myth confirm her membership in literary history, yet she simultaneously incorporates herself into a "modern" realistic tradition in her attentiveness to the important issue of humans' alienation from nature. The tone of this passage is unmistakably elegiac, with its emphasis on "places of great grief and silence," on Mrs. Todd's "lonely and solitary figure," and her "absolute, archaic grief."

If paradise is lost, it is also regained and conserved in Jewett's own writing, which she metaphorizes in the narrator's efforts at herb-gathering:

I was not incompetent at herb-gathering, and after a while, when I had sat long enough waking myself to new thoughts, and reading a page of remembrance with new pleasure, I gathered some bunches, as I was bound to do, and at last we met again higher up the shore, in the plain every-day world we had left behind when we went down to the pennyroyal plot.

(49-50)

A kind of waking dream, writing, like its sister act of reading, accomplishes a conservation of the self and its history. My interest here, however, is not to discuss how Jewett confirms some of the boundaries of her time—among them the idea that women should focus more on the domestic and private than on the public and political realms—but to suggest some of the ways in which she breaks "generic" boundaries, boundaries of kind, of definition, and in so doing commits a radical act for Western culture.12

Paula Gunn Allen's work provides an avenue from which we might meet Jewett. In her Introduction to Spider Woman's Granddaughters, a collection of short pieces by Native American women, Allen discusses literary convention with a particular emphasis on the convention that specifies the segregation of (for example) "long stories from short, traditional stories from contemporary." Allen's reflections on boundaries is so intense and interesting that I quote it here at length:

The dogmatism of the Western literary position has consequences that go well beyond the world of literature, which include the Western abhorrence of mixing races, classes, or genders (which is why homosexuality and lesbianism are so distressing to many Western minds). Similarly, the mixing of levels of diction, like the mixing of spiritual beliefs and attitudes, is disdained if not prohibited. This rigid need for impermeable classificatory boundaries is reflected in turn in the existence of numerous institutional, psychological, and social barriers designed to prevent mixtures from occurring. Western literary and social traditionalists are deeply purist, and today, millennia after Aristotle described the features that characterized Greek literature, his descendents proclaim and enforce purism's rules in thousands of ways large and small.

Allen goes on to assert, "Intellectual apartheid of this nature helps create and maintain political apartheid."13 The impulse for this apartheid, she makes quite clear, is the Western value of purity, a value which circumscribed women of Jewett's era in the dominant culture in precise and well-documented ways, from the sexual to the literary.14 It seems to me that Jewett's blurring of boundaries, both substantive and structural, in The Country of the Pointed Firs represents a dialogue with the notion of purity and a gesture toward the tribal sensibility which Allen describes. Or perhaps, in other terms, we can construct an analogy between the tribal and the psychological feminine.

My route to Jewett has so far been intentionally circuitous since one of my goals is to rehearse the writer's own freedom. Nonlinear, accretive, process-oriented, The Country of the Pointed Firs eludes interpretive certainties, refusing to stand still for dissection, yet inviting pleasure. I offer my observations up to this point and those to come less as a map for reading Jewett and more as a meditation on her world.

One important fence which Jewett dismantles is that between culture and nature. Historian Ann Leighton tells us that in early New England, one of women's jobs was to tend the gardens, a source of food and medicine; Jewett's Mrs. Todd occupies this traditional role, growing herbs and dispensing nostrums.15 But Mrs. Todd's role exceeds its boundaries, for Jewett tells us that "Mrs. Todd was an ardent lover of herbs, both wild and tame." Furthermore, the garden itself supersedes its margins, as wild and tame converge inside the pale. Easily identifiable are the "balm and sage and borage and mint, wormwood and southernwood," in contrast to another corner:

At one side of this herb plot were other growths of a rustic pharmacopoeia, great treasures and rarities among the commoner herbs. There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past. Some of these might once have belonged to sacred and mystic rites, and have had some occult knowledge handed with them down the centuries; but now they pertained only to humble compounds brewed at intervals with molasses or vinegar or spirits in a small cauldron on Mrs. Todd's kitchen stove.

(3-4)

Jewett indicates the cultural status not only of the garden itself but of its botanical inhabitants, for to the familiar and domesticated herbs she assigns names, while others more mysterious than and antecedent to the tame ones remain unspecified. Mrs. Todd distills "wild" herbs into what were once primordial elixirs but are now only "humble compounds."

Nevertheless, the residue of wildness remains in the description as we discover that Mrs. Todd dispenses her concoctions "to suffering neighbors, who usually came at night as if by stealth, bringing their own ancient-looking vials to be filled." One, however, is more significant than all the rest: "One nostrum was called the Indian remedy, and its price was but fifteen cents; the whispered directions could be heard as customers passed the windows" (4). This "Indian remedy," which elicits Mrs. Todd's connection with untamed nature, is most likely a medium of woman's freedom from her cultural role as mother—namely, an abortifacient; her favorite pennyroyal has been esteemed for the same purpose since at least the mid-seventeenth century. Most of her herbs, in fact, respond to female reproductive needs; a veritable women's health center is Mrs. Todd, whose "garden" is the world.16

The mention of the Indian remedy in connection with Mrs. Todd raises an adjacent problem of purity, namely, racial and cultural purity. In an era in which the problems of Native Americans were receiving fresh attention, when Standing Bear had come to Boston to speak on the displacement of the Poncas, when missionary women headed west and the United States government was establishing boarding schools to "help" Native Americans "assimilate," when Jewett's contemporary Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman) had written a novel published in the same year as The Country of the Pointed Firs, Madelon (1896), whose female protagonist possessed Iroquois blood, and Helen Hunt Jackson had completed A Century of Dishonor (1881) and Ramona (1885), it would have been impossible for Jewett not to be aware of and, however subliminally, to respond to the notion of ethnic purity.17 Mrs. Todd, she implies, figures a person whose heritage is (at least metaphorically) mixed-blood, for she possesses the herbal skill not only of her colonial counterparts but of her Indian predecessors. Furthermore, we learn in another story, "The Foreigner," that Mrs. Todd has acquired much of her insight from a woman who parallels the figure of the Indian outsider, a French woman from Jamaica, who significantly cannot speak "Maine" and who horrifies her sober and asexual counterparts by singing and dancing in the meetinghouse vestry in a shockingly "natural" manner (170, 167). This "foreigner's" subsequent social exclusion surely speaks to the women's fears of the loss of purity.

If racial or cultural boundaries are an important, if covert, issue in The Country of the Pointed Firs and Jewett's work generally, another set of boundaries that the writer rattles is that of gender. Mrs. Todd, while she figures the community's loving mother in her position as herbal doctor, is equally capable of assuming traditional masculine power. When she and the narrator embark to visit Mrs. Todd's mother, Mrs. Todd directs their progress in images which evoke the shape and movement of the book itself: "'You better let her drift; we'll get there 'bout as quick; the tide 'll take her right out from under these old buildin's; there's plenty wind outside'" (32). As paradoxical "lawgiver," Mrs. Todd occupies the seat of power, as we see in the exchange which follows. An onlooker feels compelled to criticize her management, concluding, as some critics have of the book, "'She's lo'ded bad, your bo't is—she's heavy behind's she is now!'" but Mrs. Todd does not relinquish her captaincy: "'That you, Asa? Goodmornin',' she said politely. 'I al'ays liked the starn seat best. When'd you get back from up country?'" (33). Her verbal wit in response to this landlubber indicates her ability to assume masculine power not only in the realm of seamanship but also in the realm which defines all masculine power, language itself (Gilbert and Gubar, 3-92).

This blurring of gender boundaries emerges in any number of characters, from Mrs. Todd's shy brother William to Captain Elijah Tilley, who receives the narrator into his home with his knitting, "a blue yarn stocking," in hand (120). The narrator observes, "There was something delightful in the grasp of his hand, warm and clean, as if it never touched anything but the comfortable woolen yarn, instead of cold sea water and slippery fish" (120). After the death of his wife, Elijah has become domesticated so that his year is shared by feminine and masculine endeavors:

"No, I take stiddy to my knitting after January sets in," said the old seafarer.… "The young fellows braves it out, some on 'em; but, for me, I lay in my winter's yarn an' set here where 'tis warm, an' knit an' take my comfort. Mother learnt me once whenIwasalad.… They say our Dunnet stock-in's is gettin' to be celebrated up to Boston—good quality o' wool an' even knittin' or somethin'. I've always been called a pretty hand to do nettin', but seines is master cheap to what they used to be when they was all hand worked. I change off to nettin' long towards spring.…"

(125-26)

What strikes me most about this passage is the convergence of knitting, a traditionally feminine task, with netting, a traditionally masculine one. Even netting possesses feminine overtones in its other meaning of lace-making. Domestic and public realms mesh here in the synthesis of these activities by a single individual and even in the contiguity of the very sounds of the words. Their performer embodies their texture in his doubly-gendered self-creation.

We can meditate at length on Jewett's other deconstructions of boundaries—such as those between humans and nature (Mrs. Todd talks of a tree as if it's a person), between the individual and the community (the narrator and the Bowdens), between life and death (Captain Littlepage's story and Joanna's synchronic presence)—but it seems most important to me to suggest briefly the loosening of the boundaries between the reader and the story itself, between life and art. While all narrative implicitly asks for some measure of our participation or identification, Jewett's hospitality to our presence and our creativity is much more intense than that of other familiar texts.18 Take, for example, the two books with which Cather grouped Country in her estimation of the most enduring works of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter. Both Twain and Hawthorne inscribe their simultaneous narrative presence and absence, Twain with his famous opening injunctions against interpretation and Hawthorne with his insistence that his narrator/alter ego will "keep the inmost Me behind the veil."19

In contrast, Jewett's generosity toward the reader, her feminine fluidity, is quite striking, though our acceptance of it may not be immediate. This generosity emerges in the multiple roles of the narrator and Mrs. Todd, for each is in some sense both writer and reader, artist and interpreter; and Jewett invites the book's reader to participate in these roles as well, suggesting not only their convergence but their interconnection. I haven't space to construct this argument in detail, but let me end my reflections on The Country of the Pointed Firs with an incident that is illuminating. On her arrival, the narrator quickly falls into the rhythms of Dunnet Landing and of Mrs. Todd, alternately accompanying her on her gathering forays and "acting as business partner" (6). She says:

I found the July days fly fast, and it was not until I felt myself confronted with too great pride and pleasure in the display, one night, of two dollars and twenty-seven cents which I had taken in during the day, that I remembered a long piece of writing, sadly belated now, which I was bound to do. To have been patted kindly on the shoulder and called "darlin'," to have been offered a surprise of early mushrooms for supper, to have had all the glory of making two dollars and twenty-seven cents in a single day, and then to renounce it all and withdraw from these pleasant successes, needed much resolution.

(6-7)

In spite of an undertone of irony, pleasure figures largely in the narrator's self-forgetfulness, as it does in my own reading of the book; and the effect of this passage is to render self-consciousness vivid. Yet Mrs. Todd's response is respectful of the other's needs and generous with praise; it is an intimate moment which moves toward publicity, as she affirms, "'I ain't had such a season for years, but I have never had nobody I could so trust. All you lack is a few qualities, but with time you'd gain judgment an' experience, an' be very able in the business.'" She concludes, "'I'd stand right here and say it to anybody'" (7). In spite of the narrator's masculine movement toward "withdrawal," Mrs. Todd's generosity forestalls the possibility of their "separat[ion]" or "estrange[ment]," and the narrator tells us, "on the contrary, a deeper intimacy seemed to begin" (7). It is as if, by affirming her uniqueness, the narrator (and the reader), receiving Mrs. Todd's (Jewett's) reassurance, can relinquish the boundaries of the self:

I do not know what herb of the night it was that sometimes used to send out a penetrating odor late in the evening, after the dew had fallen, and the moon was high, and the cool air came up from the sea. Then Mrs. Todd would feel that she must talk to somebody, and I was only too glad to listen. We both fell under the spell, and she either stood outside the window, or made an errand to my sittingroom, and told, it might be very commonplace news of the day, or, as happened one misty summer night, all that lay deepest in her heart. (7)

This sharing of the "deepest" confidence occurs only seven pages into the story, and it figures the connection that Jewett imagines not only between the narrator and Mrs. Todd, but between the reader and Jewett herself—a connection modeled after Jewett's own "real-life" intimacy with Annie Adams Fields.

Jewett makes me worry about the convenience of genre, like the convenience of all boundaries. Such boundaries—whether those of ethnicity, gender, class, race, age, or sexual orientation—are like convenience food. Not only do they exclude texts, writers, voices, nuances which can't be packaged into a shiny container, they also reify texts, privileging product (interpretation) over process; they enable us to remove literary voices from their social and historical contexts and place them in the stainless steel refrigeration unit of formalist literary criticism, deskinned and deboned. On a still larger scale, these boundaries enable the compartmentalization of the academy into those convenient and competing units, departments. In contrast, Jewett imagines for us the interconnection, multiplicity, and intangibility of knowledge. As one of my students once said after reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, "I can't tell you what this book means to me."

Notes

  1. F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1941).
  2. Sandra A. Zagarell, "Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13 (1988): 498-527. Other recent criticism of Jewett includes: Jennifer Bailey, "Female Nature and the Nature of the Female: a Re-vision of Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs," Revue Française d'Études Américaines 8.17 (1983): 283-94; Marcia McClintock Folsom, "'Tact is a Kind of Mind-Reading': Empathic Style in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs," Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Gwen L. Nagel (Boston: Hall, 1984), 76-98; Josephine Donovan, "Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes toward a Feminine Literary Mode" in Nagel, 212-25; Elizabeth Ammons, "Jewett's Witches" in Nagel, 165-84; John C. Hirsh, "The Non-Narrative Structure of The Country of the Pointed Firs," American Literary Realism 14 (1981): 286-88; Richard G. Carson, "Nature and the Circles of Initiation in The Country of the Pointed Firs," Colby Library Quarterly 21 (1985): 154-60; Sarah W. Sherman, "Victorians and the Matriarchal Mythology: A Source for Mrs. Todd," Colby Library Quarterly 22 (1986): 63-74; Marilyn E. Mobley, "Rituals of Flight and Return: The Ironic Journeys of Sarah Orne Jewett's Female Characters," Colby Library Quarterly 22 (1986): 36-42; Laurie Crum-packer, "The Art of the Healer: Women in the Fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett," Colby Library Quarterly 19 (1983): 155-66; Gwen L. Nagel, "'The prim corner of land where she was queen': Sarah Orne Jewett's New England Gardens," Colby Library Quarterly 22 (1986): 43-62; Josephine Donovan, "A Woman's Vision of Transcendence: A New Interpretation of the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett," Massachusetts Review 21 (1980): 365-80.
  3. Paul Hernadi, Beyond Genre: New Directions in Literary Classification (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1972), 1.
  4. Martha Nell Smith, Chair, "Reading Dickinson's Poems in Letters, Letters in Poems," Div. on Emily Dickinson, NEMLA Convention, 7 Apr. 1990.
  5. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 539-80; Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), 43-81.
  6. Jewett herself may have internalized the standards of the critical community; in a famous letter to Horace Scudder she writes, "But I don't believe I could write a long story.…In the first place, I have no dramatic talent. The story would have no plot. I should have to fill it out with descriptions of character and meditations. It seems to me I can furnish the theatre, and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there is never any play!" Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, ed. Richard Cary (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1967), 29.
  7. Elizabeth Ammons, "Going in Circles: The Female Geography of Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs," Studies in the Literary Imagination 16.2 (1983): 83-92.
  8. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978), 169. Chodorow's theory is resolutely cultural in its definitions, insisting that "feminine" and "masculine" are not limited by biological sex; hence, the reader should be aware that when I use these terms, I mean psychologically feminine and masculine, unless I specify otherwise.

    Adrienne Rich, among others, has pointed out some of the limitations of Chodorow's theory. Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (New York: Norton, 1986), 23-75.

  9. Sandra M. Gilbert, "The American Sexual Politics of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson," Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), 123-54.
  10. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951), 180.
  11. Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs, ed. Mary Ellen Chase (New York: Norton, 1981), 49. All subsequent references to Jewett's work cite this edition.
  12. Two contemporary feminists who discuss boundary-breaking from distinctive theological perspectives are: Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self (Boston: Beacon, 1986), and Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (Boston: Beacon, 1986).
  13. Paula Gunn Allen, Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (Boston: Beacon, 1989), 2, 3.
  14. See, for example, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America," Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985), 53-76; Gilbert and Gubar, 568; Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Morrow, 1981), 145-294; John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 55-221.
  15. Ann Leighton, Early American Gardens: "For Meate or Medicine" (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1986).
  16. See Ammons, "Jewett's Witches," 175; Crumpacker, 158; Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper's Color Herbal, ed. David Potterton (New York: Sterling, 1983), 142.
  17. Jewett's explicit attitude toward racial mixing is less affirmative than we might wish. See Ferman Bishop, "Sarah Orne Jewett's Ideas of Race," New England Quarterly 30 (1957): 243-49.
  18. Walter J. Ong, "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction," PMLA 90 (1975): 9-21.
  19. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Washington Square, 1973), n. pag.; Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, ed. Sculley Bradley et al., 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 6-7.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

Deephaven (short stories) 1877

Play Days: A Book of Stories for Children (juvenilia and poetry) 1878

Old Friends and New (short stories) 1879

Country By-Ways (short stories) 1881

A Country Doctor (novel) 1884

A Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore (short stories) 1884

A Marsh Island (novel) 1885

A White Heron and Other Stories (short stories) 1886

The Story of the Normans, Told Chiefly in Relation to Their Conquest of England (juvenilia) 1887

The King of Folly Island and Other People (short stories) 1888

Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls (juvenilia) 1890

Strangers and Wayfarers (short stories) 1890

A Native of Winby and Other Tales (short stories) 1893

Betty Leicester's English Xmas: A New Chapter of an Old Story (juvenilia) 1894; republished as Betty Leicester's Christmas, 1899

The Life of Nancy (short stories) 1895

The Country of the Pointed Firs (short stories) 1896

The Queen's Twin and Other Stories (short stories) 1899

The Tory Lover (novel) 1901

Stories and Tales. 7 vols. (novel and short stories) 1910

Verses (poetry) 1916

The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. 2 vols. (short stories) 1925

Sarah Orne Jewett Letters [edited by Richard Cary] (letters) 1967

The Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett [edited by Richard Cary] (short stories) 1971

The Country of the Pointed Firs

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4154

GEORGE SMITH (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1994)

SOURCE: Smith, George. "Jewett's Unspeakable Un-spoken: Retracing the Female Body Through The Country of the Pointed Firs." Modern Language Studies 24, no. 2 (spring 1994): 11-19.


In the following essay, Smith claims that in The Country of the Pointed Firs Jewett articulates a covert radical feminism as she subverts dominant patriarchal elements of romance and realism in her stories.


"Misogyny and the idealization of women are constituted in the same impulse: they are two sides to a single sheet of paper."

John Duvall

If we look at the question of regionalism from an intertextual viewpoint, Sarah Orne Jewett comes out as one of the least heard and most radical voices in nineteenth-century American literature. This is to say that while Jewett articulates a covert feminist realism in a quaint Down East voice, her narrative representation of coastal Maine village life speaks also to big name nineteenth-century American novelists through a close dialogical exchange with their phallocentric fictions. Indeed, Jewett carries on several dialogues at once. Picking bones with Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville about the phallic claims of American romance, she argues at the same time with the 'chief exemplars' of the new realism that had replaced romance as the conventional discourse of American patriarchy.1

Having said as much we should place Jewett's regional voice within its wider cultural framework. In the mid to late nineteenth century the New Woman arose against the American male hegemony. As the conflict intensified, there ensued a hard fought struggle for control over the female body. Most fiercely contested were issues centered on abortion and lesbianism (Smith-Rosenberg). In the 1850s, '60s, and '70s, abortion rates had reached "disturbing" numbers; in the '80s and '90s, female homosexuality was "discovered" by the sexologists. As with abortion, these "perversions" posed a grave threat to bourgeois patriarchy. Accordingly, the A.M.A. led efforts to rein in the female body, largely through backing anti-abortion legislation and raising the alarm against "Mannish lesbians" and "Genteel, educated women, thoroughly feminine in appearance, thought, and behavior, [who] […] might well be active lesbians" (102). These repressive misogynies went hand in hand with the literary commodification of the female body and the larger realist enterprise that emerged out of and replaced the American romance and its discourse of idealization. In her subversion of romance and realism, Jewett represents, as we shall see, an autonomous female body in terms of abortion and lesbianism.

Jewett's subversive voice speaks these terms from within a regional culture dominated by a patriarchal hegemony that staked its claims to authority on Yankee blue blood. And of course that blood had deep connections with European aristocracy. Thus in The Country of the Pointed Firs Jewett links the patriarchal strain of American romance to its origins in the chivalric tradition. In this tradition the romance plays out a variety of themes centering on the fisher king, whose illness—usually involving or suggesting impotence—is reflected in a barren kingdom. As the story goes, the questing hero returns virility to the king and fertility to the land. But the moral lies in the devastating consequence of the king's prior impotence, which semiotically encodes the colossal power and necessity of the life giving patriarchal phallus. To say the least, the affirmed sign here, the doxa represented, is none other than the transcendental signifier. In this regard Laurie Finke has recently suggested that the various courtly romances of the Middle Ages "served as a vehicle for the expression and mystification of masculine desire" (109). Using Chretien de Troyes as example, she argues that "In their sophisticated deployment of strategies designed to promote the politics of patrilinear order, Chretien's romances provided a means for articulating and solidifying the hierarchical relationships among men at a time when older feudal ties were being undermined by new social, economic, and political developments" (109-10).

As mid nineteenth-century America shifted from a quasi-feudal Jeffersonian agrarian political economy to that of industrial capitalism, the American romance—particularly as represented in Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville—constructed a cultural discourse similar to the patriarchal strategies Finke has described in Chretien de Troyes. As example of the way Jewett subverts this intertextual alliance, let me mention briefly and schematically the fisher king typology of the old and impotent Bowden alcoholic. In his "patrilineal" role as the habitual impersonator of an officer of the United States Army, he heads the Bowden family reunion procession into the vaulted banquet hall of standing pines. Underscoring these chivalric ironies is the likelihood that the Bowden forebears "sat in the great hall of some old French house in the Middle Ages, when battles and sieges and processions and feasts were familiar things" (105).2 The parody here hits close to Poe, the alcoholic who so often situates his romance hero (always descended from chivalric lines and usually addicted) within the dark chambers of a feudal manner. There is also, I want to add, much promise in considering the dialogical exchange between Captain Littlepage's tale of "The Waiting Place" and Melville's romance of the sea, such as Benito Cerino. In this case the noble phallic power so mysteriously threatened and at the last breath rescued and triumphant in Melville's homo-social romance is replied to and restylized, in Jewett's text, by an impotent old man's hallucinatory nostalgia.

But these are schematic generalizations. Let me draw more specific attention to Elijah Tilley's tale. A sentimentalized patriarchal romance, this episode is dialogically linked with Hawthorne (say, Aylmer's 'absolute' perfection of Georgiana in "The Birthmark") and perhaps more closely with Poe, for whom, as the saying goes, 'the only good woman is a dead woman'. Thus Elijah, "sore stricken and unconsoled at the death of his wife" (118), has for eight years sat alone thinking "it all over," and "some days it feels as if poor dear might step right back into this kitchen" (121). The narrator relates how

The visible tribute of his careful housekeeping, and the clean bright room which had once enshrined his wife, and now enshrined her memory, was very moving to me; he had no thought for anyone else or for any other place. I began to see her myself in her home,—a delicate-looking faded little woman, who leaned upon his rough strength and affectionate heart, who was always watching for his boat out of this very window, and who always opened the door and welcomed him when he came home.

(122)

In a word, Jewett is constructing in this little vignette a classic patriarchal romance. Thus we should stress the perfect silence and otherness of Elijah's idealized wife. Through Elijah's romance, she undergoes an other world transcendence, and there joins Ligeia, Madeline Usher, and all such heroines, to become what Gilbert and Gubar refer to as the "nineteenth-century angel woman [who] becomes not just a momento of otherness but actually […] an 'Angel of Death'" (24).

But the question remains, was Mrs. Tilley ever alive to begin with? From Elijah's viewpoint, she appears the epitome of the "spiritualized Victorian woman who, having died to her own desires, her own self, her own life, leads a posthumous existence in her own lifetime" (Gilbert and Gubar 25). Within the structure of Elijah's patriarchal romance she has played to perfection the role of one of those "slim, pale, passive beings whose 'charms' eerily recalled the snowy porcelain immobility of the dead" (Gilbert and Gubar 25). Indeed, this "porcelain immobility of the dead" becomes after death the symbol through which Elijah enshrines Mrs. Tilley in his little makeshift tabernacle. To quote: "'[…] I'm going to show you her best tea things she thought so much of,' said the master of the house, opening the door to the shallow cupboard. 'That's real chiny, all of it on those two shelves […] I bought it myself, when we was first married, in the port of Bordeaux'" (124). As Northrop Frye notes, "The precious objects brought back from the quest, or seen or obtained as a result of it, sometimes combine the ritual and the psychological associations." Here he argues that "The Holy Grail […] is connected with Christian Eucharist symbolism; it is related to or descended from a miraculous food provider like the cornucopia, and, like other cups and hollow vessels, it has female sexual affinities […]" (193-94). With Elijah's exaltation of his wife's precious virginity in terms of her china and its symbolic relation to the Christian Eucharist, Jewett tropes courtly love as it often functions within the feudal romance. The significance of this trope is perhaps best explained by Lacan's well-known observation concerning phallic jouissance and the courtly love tradition: "For the man, whose lady was entirely, in the servile sense of the term, his female subject, courtly love is the only way of coming off elegantly from the absence of sexual relation" (Lacan 141; qtd. in Finke 109). Added to this is the fact that Elijah's courtly romance belies a crack in its phallic structure:

There never was one single piece of it broken until—Well, I used to say, long as she lived, there never was a piece broke, but long last I noticed she'd look kind 'o distressed, and I thought 'twas 'count 'o me boastin'. When they asked if they should use it when folks was here to supper, time 'o her funeral, I knew she'd want everything nice, and I said 'certain'. Some o' the women they come runnin' to me an' called me, while they was taken' of the chiny down, an' showed me there was one o' the cups broke an' the pieces wropped in paper and pushed way back here, corner o' the shelf.… I guess wa'n't no other secret ever lay between us.

(124-25)

In his disavowal of reality, in his refusal, that is, to read in the broken cup the emblem of his wife's carnal knowledge, Elijah's life adds up to a prolonged imaginary dramatization of the American patriarchal romance. In this Mrs. Tilley plays, before and after death, the perfectly idealized, other worldly, silent "angel woman" whose "contemplative purity" was for Mr. Tilley a "living memento of the otherness of the divine." Thusly Elijah enshrines his wife's memory. In her actual life, however, Mrs. Tilley was, as we see, a material being who spoke and did things unspeakable against the strictures of patriarchal law. If nothing else, her unseen and silent sexual reality frames Elijah's lived patriarchal romance within the ideology that Althusser defines as "a 'representation' of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (162). Furthermore, insofar as Elijah's representation of the imaginary parodies Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, his text exposes their discursive tactics.

As already suggested, Jewett's text also takes on the realism that, largely through Howells, replaces romance as the hegemonic voice of American fiction. Whereas romance idealized the female body as a "mystification of masculine desire," Howells readily appropriates the female body to the discursive construction of middle class marriage. Silas Lapham, for instance, proudly names his top of the line paint "THE PERSIS BRAND," after his wife, and the label on every "pretty" can metonymically represents the female as object of exchange in a patriarchal economy. As commodity object we see the sign of woman in its relation to "business as sacrament," which Weber describes as the aura of holiness that suffused post-Civil War capitalism. And of course, though Howells operates in this subtler mode, later naturalists, such as Norris, Dreiser, and Crane, dramatize a gross and brutal relationship between capital and the female body.

It will be objected though, that not only did Jewett welcome Howells's intervention against the sorry state of sentimentalism into which the once robust tradition of American romance had finally collapsed, but that she admired his critical realism and brought it to bear on her own style (Carter 120). But to say as much and leave it at that silences the claims Jewett brings against the realist commodification of the female body. Along these lines let me argue to begin with that Mrs. Tilley is not the only angel-woman with an other, real, unspeakable life. Joanna, the "nun or hermit" of Shell-heap Island, was "Crossed in love." From all indications her crimes of the body, though not of The Scarlet Letter variety, drive her into absolute silence and self-imposed ostracism. But of course Joanna's Hawthornesque exile to the other world of Shell-heap Island, like Mrs. Tilley's broken cup 'otherness of the divine', has its realist overtones, and as such it is meant as a minor variation on the major chord that sounds through the silent discourse of "puzzling and queer Mrs. Todd." Dispensing brews, potions, and elixirs to the sick of body and heart, surely Mrs. Todd would seem to represent the archetypal nineteenth-century angel woman.

But in reality Almira Todd contradicts the idealized woman enshrined in the doxa out of which Jewett has constructed the patriarchal side—Elijah Tilley's side—of the dialogical enterprise thus far described. She too keeps hidden the unspeakable secret of the female body, silenced in the hard flat Puritanism of Dunnet Landing. Remembering back to her one real heterosexual love, she confides, "When we was young together his mother … done everything she could to part us; and folks thought we both married well, but't wa'n't what either one of us wanted most; an' now we're left alone again, an' might have had each other all the time" (7-8). This lover, with whom she explored the body of her youth, beyond and against the law and covenant of marriage, has now long since disappeared, and no doubt "[…] he's forgot our youthful feelin's […] but a woman's heart is different; them feelin's come back when you think you've done with 'em, as sure as spring comes with the year" (8). "The feelin's come back" later on in the novel, in that privileged and mysterious moment on Green Island, when Mrs. Todd reveals to her companion of "deeper intimacy" the secret source of her pennyroyal teas:

"There, dear, I never showed nobody else but mother where to find this place; 'tis kind of sainted to me. Nathan, my husband, an' I used to love this place when we was courtin', and"—she hesitated, and then spoke softly—"when he was lost, 'twas just off shore tryin' to get in by the short channel there between Squaw Islands, right in sight o' this headland where we'd set an' made our plans all summer long."

As the dialogue continues, we learn something more:

"T'was but a dream with us," Mrs. Todd said. "I knew it when he was gone. I knew it"—and she whispered as if she were at confession—"I knew afore he started to go to sea. My heart was gone out o' my keepin' before I ever saw Nathan; but he loved me well, and he made me real happy, and he died before he ever knew what he'd had to know if we'd lived together. 'Tis very strange about love. No, Nathan never found out, but my heart was troubled when I knew him at first. There's more women likes to be loved than there is of those that loves. I spent some happy hours right here. I always liked Nathan, and he never knew. But this pennyroyal always reminded me, as I'd sit and gather it and hear him talkin'—it always would remind me of—the other one."

(49)

We needn't overstrain ourselves in the exercise of close reading to get this right: Nathan's ship went down before he and Almira consummated their marriage. Nathan died without knowing that, like Mrs. Tilley, Mrs. Todd had committed her body to an unspeakable knowledge. And like Elijah, what marriage Nathan knew was lived in the Althusserian imaginary of patriarchal romance.

As for the widow Mrs. Todd: "She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain […] An absolute archaic grief possessed this country-woman […]" (49). If the comparison to Antigone standing alone in the desert locates Mrs. Todd in a wasteland, that wasteland is surely Dunnet Landing. Such a claim seems a far cry from the early promise of the novel, sounded in those first sentences giving airy whiteness to the honesty and spiritual health of the old New England coastal village at which we, along with the narrator, had just arrived. One sentence in particular bears repeating: "The tide was high, there was a fine crowd of spectators, and the younger portion of the company followed … with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white clap-boarded little town" (2). Aside from Mrs. Todd's nephew, Johnny Bowden, there is no 'younger portion' of Dunnet Landing. While the impotent old-timers repair their nets and fish close in on the bay for a small catch here & there, the aging town, "like its disabled schooners," rots to the water line. And indeed it is the shipping and the fishing that's gone to wrack in these barren times. Critics usually cite the rise of industrialism as the cause of the decline. If we apply the conventions of the grail, however, the decline is clearly for want of youth as well. Why, though, is there no offspring from earlier years, when the wives and husbands of Dunnet Landing were young and presumably fertile? Have they all but Johnny Bowden fled to the cities in pursuit of industrial revolution?

Whatever the reason, Dunnet Landing's infertility and the consequences thereof speak plainly to the phallocentric discourse represented in the fisher king legend as its strands weave through the dialogical tapestry of Jewett's text. Because no questing hero has come to restore patriarchy and fertility to the land, the town rots away, year after year. And yet this scenario doesn't add up. In the first place, instead of a questing knight who would bring potency to the phallus and fertility to the land, we do in fact get an errant woman, whose (phallic) power resides in her pen; and secondly, as we have seen, Jewett's women break the patriarchal law that binds the structure of romance: they break the hymen outside of marriage. Through that rupture they give form to their own realist text.

Which brings us to the very real question of procreation. If, in their 'illegitimate' liaisons, Mrs. Tilley, or Joanna, or Mrs. Todd got pregnant—not to mention all the other presumably childless women of Dunnet Landing—what has become of all the pregnancies? The answer lies hidden in the pungency of Mrs. Todd's favorite herb, penny-royal. Emitting the fragrance of romance and intertextually engaged as well with the sacramental aura of Lapham's Persis Brand paint, all through The Country of the Pointed Firs pennyroyal appears as something of a metonymic representation of Mrs. Todd's character and imbues with ambiguous aromas her "deeper intimacy" with the younger woman who narrates her story: "Among the green grass grew such pennyroyal as the rest of the world could not provide. There was a fine fragrance in the air as we gathered it sprig by sprig and stepped along carefully, and Mrs. Todd pressed her aromatic nosegay between her hands and offered it to me again and again" (48). What Mrs. Todd is offering here is not just a simple bouquet symbolizing complicated love. It is that too, but it is also a gesture of solidarity and political praxis. Mrs. Todd is passing on the secret of pennyroyal, so that her beloved, in her travels beyond Dunnet Landing, might be, like her mentor, a dispenser of pennyroyal potions and teas. In Mrs. Todd's time and place, pennyroyal was a common home-remedy abortifacient.3

Now we better understand Mrs. Todd's remark that "pennyr'yal always reminded me, as I'd sit and gather it and hear [Nathan] talkin'—it always reminded me of—the other one." Aborting the progeny of their resistance to patriarchal domination, most forcibly exacted in nineteenth-century America through the institution of marriage, the women in Jewett's feminist text—not the fisher king, not the patriarchal law or the post-Puritan middle-class white male hegemony—give cause to the very real decline of Dunnet Landing. And, it follows, in Jewett's female resides the power to restore the town to health and plenty.4 According to Sartre, "revolution takes place when a change in institutions is accompanied by a profound modification in the property system" (224). In the representation of abortion, Jewett's multivoiced text articulates not only the liberation of the female body in terms of its sexual autonomy; it also articulates the exercise of that autonomy in the termination of pregnancy, which, obviously, negates all institutional claims of patrilineal ownership. As already suggested, these patrilineal lines are threatened again in the "deeper intimacy" shared between Mrs. Todd and the narrator. While Mrs. Todd's domineering "height and massiveness" of "great determined shape" fits the A.M.A's description of the "mannish lesbian," the narrator is a "Genteel, educated woman, thoroughly feminine in appearance, thought and behavior, [and] […] might well be [an] active lesbian []." As Jewett's story represents the praxis of abortion and (the proximity of) lesbianism, it stakes out the regional site wherein a dialogical voice contradicts phallic American romance. At the same time, Jewett's materialist realism engenders a narrative discourse that speaks to and against Howells, Norris, Crane, Dreiser, Hemingway, and so many other realists for whom the commodification of the female body 'maintains and reproduces' the ideology of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century middle-class American patriarchy.

Notes

  1. For recent feminist critiques of Jewett's fiction, see especially Singley, Pratt, and Sherman. While Singley argues that Jewett's fiction advances "a rejection of patriarchal norms" (76), Pratt sees Jewett's fiction as a discursive appropriation of the male Bildungsroman. Sherman applies Chodorow's theory of matriarchy to the Persephone-Demeter myth as a way of intertextualizing Jewett's feminist strategies. See also Donovan, who argues that Jewett's text constructs "an escape from a masculine time of history into transcending feminine space" (223). Given these analyses it is tempting to approach The Country of the Pointed Firs as a feminist utopian novel. Certainly Jewett's text informs and dialogically engages later feminist utopian fiction, particularly Gilman's Herland. However, Ann Lane argues that Mary E. Bradley Lane's Mizora (1890) "is the only self-consciously feminist utopia published before Herland" (Gilman xix), and in my view The Country of the Pointed Firs is best understood as a discourse of resistance, whereby phallocentric narrative constructs are undermined through inversion.
  2. This and all further quotations from The Country of the Pointed Firs are taken from The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, Ed. Mary Ellen Chase. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.
  3. Pennyroyal is defined as an abortifacient in Jacob Bigelow's American Dictionary of Medicine (1835), a standard text used widely by American physicians throughout the nineteenth-century and in all likelihood included in Dr. Jewett's medical library. For a discussion of pennyroyal as it was used for abortions in the nineteenth-century American Northeast, see Malcolm Potts. While it is true that pennyroyal was also used along the Maine coast as a mosquito repellent, Jewett leaves no doubt as to whether this is the particular use she has in mind with regard to Mrs. Todd's herbal ministrations. In "William's Wedding" Mrs. Todd recounts how for years she "besmeared" William's face with pennyroyal ointment "under the pretext" of protecting him against mosquitoes on his way to secret rendezvous with Esther (220).
  4. Once Jewett's questing hero has fulfilled the ritual of her inverted romance, there is a return to fertility, represented in William's marriage to Esther. No longer will Mrs. Todd smother William's face with penny-royal ointment, and during the marriage celebration Esther carries a lamb, signifying birth and renewal.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Carter, Everett. Howells and the Age of Realism. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1950.

Donovan, Josephine. "Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes Toward a Feminine Literary Mode." in Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Gwen Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Duvall, John N. "Murder in the Communities: Ideology In and Around Light in August." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 20 (Winter 1987):101-22.

Finke, Laurie. "Towards a Cultural Poetics of Romance." Genre XXII (Summer 1989): 109-27.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Mad Woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New York: Yale UP, 1979.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. Ed. Mary Ellen Chase. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Lacan, Jacques. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne. Eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacquiline Rose. New York, London: U of Nebraska P, 1982.

Pratt, Annis. "Women and Nature in Modern Fiction." Contemporary Literature 13 (Autumn 1972):476-90.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Literary and Philosophical Essays. Trans. Annette Michelson. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett: American Persephone. Hanover, London: UP of New England, 1989.

Singley, Carol. "Reaching Lonely Heights: Sarah Orne Jewett, Emily Dickinson, and Female Initiation." Colby Library Quarterly 22:1(March 1986):75-82.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Body Politic." Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics. Ed. Elizabeth Weed. New York, London: Routledge, 1989. 101-21.

Primary Sources

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5771

SOURCE: Jewett, Sarah Orne. "Tom's Husband." LEGACY 7 (spring 1990): 30-7.


In the following short story, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1882, Jewett addresses the question of female liberation in marriage.

I shall not dwell long upon the circumstances that led to the marriage of my hero and heroine; though their courtship was, to them, the only one that has ever noticeably approached the ideal, it had many aspects in which it was entirely commonplace in other people's eyes. While the world in general smiles at lovers with kindly approval and sympathy, it refuses to be aware of the unprecedented delight which is amazing to the lovers themselves.

But, as has been true in many other cases, when they were at last married, the most ideal of situations was found to have been changed to the most practical. Instead of having shared their original duties, and, as school-boys would say, going halves, they discovered that the cares of life had been doubled. This led to some distressing moments for both our friends; they understood suddenly that instead of dwelling in heaven they were still upon earth, and had made themselves slaves to new laws and limitations. Instead of being freer and happier than ever before, they had assumed new responsibilities; they had established a new household, and must fulfill in some way or another the obligations of it. They looked back with affection to their engagement; they had been longing to have each other to themselves, apart from the world, but it seemed that they never felt so keenly that they were still units in modern society. Since Adam and Eve were in Paradise, before the devil joined them, nobody has had a chance to imitate that unlucky couple. In some respects they told the truth when, twenty times a day, they said that life had never been so pleasant before; but there were mental reservations on either side which might have subjected them to the accusation of lying. Somehow, there was a little feeling of disappointment, and they caught themselves wondering—though they would have died sooner than confess it—whether they were quite so happy as they had expected. The truth was, they were much happier than people usually are, for they had an uncommon capacity for enjoyment. For a little while they were like a sailboat that is beating and has to drift a few minutes before it can catch the wind and start off on the other tack. And they had the same feeling, too, that any one is likely to have who has been long pursuing some object of his ambition or desire. Whether it is a coin, or a picture, or a stray volume of some old edition of Shakespeare, or whether it is an office under government or a lover, when it is fairly in one's grasp there is a loss of the eagerness that was felt in pursuit. Satisfaction, even after one has dined well, is not so interesting and eager a feeling as hunger.

My hero and heroine were reasonably well established to begin with: they each had some money, though Mr. Wilson had most. His father had at one time been a rich man, but with the decline, a few years before, of manufacturing interests, he had become, mostly through the fault of others, somewhat involved; and at the time of his death his affairs were in such a condition that it was still a question whether a very large sum or a moderately large one would represent his estate. Mrs. Wilson, Tom's step-mother, was somewhat of an invalid; she suffered severely at times with asthma, but she was almost entirely relieved by living in another part of the country. While her husband lived, she had accepted her illness as inevitable, and had rarely left home; but during the last few years she had lived in Philadelphia with her own people, making short and wheezing visits only from time to time, and had not undergone a voluntary period of suffering since the occasion of Tom's marriage, which she had entirely approved. She had a sufficient property of her own, and she and Tom were independent of each other in that way. Her only other step-child was a daughter, who had married a navy officer, and had at this time gone out to spend three years (or less) with her husband, who had been ordered to Japan.

It is not unfrequently noticed that in many marriages one of the persons who choose each other as partners for life is said to have thrown himself or herself away, and the relatives and friends look on with dismal forebodings and ill-concealed submission. In this case it was the wife who might have done so much better, according to public opinion. She did not think so herself, luckily, either before marriage or afterward, and I do not think it occurred to her to picture to herself the sort of career which would have been her alternative. She had been an only child, and had usually taken her own way. Some one once said that it was a great pity that she had not been obliged to work for her living, for she had inherited a most uncommon business talent, and, without being disreputably keen at a bargain, her insight into the practical working of affairs was very clear and far-reaching. Her father, who had also been a manufacturer, like Tom's, had often said it had been a mistake that she was a girl instead of a boy. Such executive ability as hers is often wasted in the more contracted sphere of women, and is apt to be more a disadvantage than a help. She was too independent and self-reliant for a wife; it would seem at first thought that she needed a wife herself more than she did a husband. Most men like best the women whose natures cling and appeal to theirs for protection. But Tom Wilson, while he did not wish to be protected himself, liked these very qualities in his wife which would have displeased some other men; to tell the truth, he was very much in love with his wife just as she was. He was a successful collector of almost everything but money, and during a great part of his life he had been an invalid, and he had grown, as he laughingly confessed, very old-womanish. He had been badly lamed, when a boy, by being caught in some machinery in his father's mill, near which he was idling one afternoon, and though he had almost entirely outgrown the effect of his injury, it had not been until after many years. He had been in college, but his eyes had given out there, and he had been obliged to leave in the middle of his junior year, though he had kept up a pleasant intercourse with the members of his class, with whom he had been a great favorite. He was a good deal of an idler in the world. I do not think his ambition, except in the case of securing Mary Dunn for his wife, had ever been distinct; he seemed to make the most he could of each day as it came, without making all his days' works tend toward some grand result, and go toward the up-building of some grand plan and purpose. He consequently gave no promise of being either distinguished or great. When his eyes would allow, he was an indefatigable reader; and although he would have said that he read only for amusement, yet he amused himself with books that were well worth the time he spent over them.

The house where he lived nominally belonged to his step-mother, but she had taken for granted that Tom would bring his wife home to it, and assured him that it should be to all intents and purposes his. Tom was deeply attached to the old place, which was altogether the pleasantest in town. He had kept bachelor's hall there most of the time since his father's death, and he had taken great pleasure, before his marriage, in refitting it to some extent, though it was already comfortable and furnished in remarkably good taste. People said of him that if it had not been for his illnesses, and if he had been a poor boy, he probably would have made something of himself. As it was, he was not very well known by the towns-people, being somewhat reserved, and not taking much interest in their every-day subjects of conversation. Nobody liked him so well as they liked his wife, yet there was no reason why he should be disliked enough to have much said about it.

After our friends had been married for some time, and had outlived the first strangeness of the new order of things, and had done their duty to their neighbors with so much apparent willingness and generosity that even Tom himself was liked a great deal better than he ever had been before, they were sitting together one stormy evening in the library, before the fire. Mrs. Wilson had been reading Tom the letters which had come to him by the night's mail. There was a long one from his sister in Nagasaki, which had been written with a good deal of ill-disguised reproach. She complained of the smallness of the income of her share in her father's estate, and said that she had been assured by American friends that the smaller mills were starting up everywhere, and beginning to do well again. Since so much of their money was invested in the factory, she had been surprised and sorry to find by Tom's last letters that he had seemed to have no idea of putting in a proper person as superintendent, and going to work again. Four per cent on her other property, instead of eight, which she had been told she must soon expect, would make a great difference to her. A navy captain in a foreign port was obliged to entertain a great deal, and Tom must know that it cost them much more to live than it did him, and ought to think of their interests. She hoped he would talk over what was best to be done with their mother (who had been made executor, with Tom, of his father's will).

Tom laughed a little, but looked disturbed. His wife had said something to the same effect, and his mother had spoken once or twice in her letters of the prospect of starting the mill again. He was not a bit of a business man, and he did not feel certain, with the theories which he had arrived at of the state of the country, that it was safe yet to spend the money which would have to be spent in putting the mill in order. "They think that the minute it is going again we shall be making money hand over hand, just as father did when we were children," he said. "It is going to cost us no end of money before we can make anything. Before father died he meant to put in a good deal of new machinery, I remember. I don't know anything about the business myself, and I would have sold out long ago if I had had an offer that came anywhere near the value. The larger mills are the only ones that are good for anything now, and we should have to bring a crowd of French Canadians here; the day is past for the people who live in this part of the country to go into the factory again. Even the Irish all go West when they come into the country, and don't come to places like this any more."

"But there are a good many of the old work-people down in the village," said Mrs. Wilson. "Jake Towne asked me the other day if you were n't going to start up in the spring."

Tom moved uneasily in his chair. "I'll put you in for superintendent, if you like," he said, half angrily, whereupon Mary threw the newspaper at him; but by the time he had thrown it back he was in good humor again.

"Do you know, Tom," she said, with amazing seriousness, "that I believe I should like nothing in the world so much as to be the head of a large business? I hate keeping house,—I always did; and I never did so much of it in all my life put together as I have since I have been married. I suppose it is n't womanly to say so, but if I could escape from the whole thing I believe I should be perfectly happy. If you get rich when the mill is going again, I shall beg for a housekeeper, and shirk everything. I give you fair warning. I don't believe I keep this house half so well as you did before I came here."

Tom's eyes twinkled. "I am going to have that glory,—I don't think you do, Polly; but you can't say that I have not been forbearing. I certainly have not told you more than twice how we used to have things cooked. I'm not going to be your kitchen-colonel."

"Of course it seemed the proper thing to do," said his wife, meditatively; "but I think we should have been even happier than we have if I had been spared it. I have had some days of wretchedness that I shudder to think of. I never know what to have for breakfast; and I ought not to say it, but I don't mind the sight of dust. I look upon housekeeping as my life's great discipline;" and at this pathetic confession they both laughed heartily.

"I've a great mind to take it off your hands," said Tom. "I always rather liked it, to tell the truth, and I ought to be a better housekeeper,—I have been at it for five years; though housekeeping for one is different from what it is for two, and one of them a woman. You see you have brought a different element into my family. Luckily, the servants are pretty well drilled. I do think you upset them a good deal at first!"

Mary Wilson smiled as if she only half heard what he was saying. She drummed with her foot on the floor and looked intently at the fire, and presently gave it a vigorous poking. "Well?" said Tom, after he had waited patiently as long as he could.

"Tom! I'm going to propose something to you. I wish you would really do as you said, and take all the home affairs under your care, and let me start the mill. I am certain I could manage it. Of course I should get people who understood the thing to teach me. I believe I was made for it; I should like it above all things. And this is what I will do: I will bear the cost of starting it, myself,—I think I have money enough, or can get it; and if I have not put affairs in the right trim at the end of a year I will stop, and you may make some other arrangement. If I have, you and your mother and sister can pay me back."

"So I am going to be the wife, and you the husband," said Tom, a little indignantly; "at least, that is what people will say. It's a regular Darby and Joan affair, and you think you can do more work in a day than I can do in three. Do you know that you must go to town to buy cotton? And do you know there are a thousand things about it that you don't know?"

"And never will?" said Mary, with perfect good humor. "Why, Tom, I can learn as well as you, and a good deal better, for I like business, and you don't. You forget that I was always father's right-hand man after I was a dozen years old, and that you have let me invest my money and some of your own, and I have n't made a blunder yet."

Tom thought that his wife had never looked so handsome or so happy. "I don't care, I should rather like the fun of knowing what people will say. It is a new departure, at any rate. Women think they can do everything better than men in these days, but I'm the first man, apparently, who has wished he were a woman."

"Of course people will laugh," said Mary, "but they will say that it's just like me, and think I am fortunate to have married a man who will let me do as I choose. I don't see why it is n't sensible: you will be living exactly as you were before you married, as to home affairs; and since it was a good thing for you to know something about housekeeping then, I can't imagine why you should n't go on with it now, since it makes me miserable, and I am wasting a fine business talent while I do it. What do we care for people's talking about it?"

"It seems to me that it is something like women's smoking: it is n't wicked, but it is n't the custom of the country. And I don't like the idea of your going among business men. Of course I should be above going with you, and having people think I must be an idiot; they would say that you married a manufacturing interest, and I was thrown in. I can foresee that my pride is going to be humbled to the dust in every way," Tom declared in mournful tones, and began to shake with laughter. "It is one of your lovely castles in the air, dear Polly, but an old brick mill needs a better foundation than the clouds. No, I'll look around, and get an honest man with a few select brains for agent. I suppose it's the best thing we can do, for the machinery ought not to lie still any longer; but I mean to sell the factory as soon as I can. I devoutly wish it would take fire, for the insurance would be the best price we are likely to get. That is a famous letter from Alice! I am afraid the captain has been growling over his pay, or they have been giving too many little dinners on board ship. If we were rid of the mill, you and I might go out there this winter. It would be capital fun."

Mary smiled again in an absent-minded way. Tom had an uneasy feeling that he had not heard the end of it yet, but nothing more was said for a day or two. When Mrs. Tom Wilson announced, with no apparent thought of being contradicted, that she had entirely made up her mind, and she meant to see those men who had been overseers of the different departments, who still lived in the village, and have the mill put in order at once, Tom looked disturbed, but made no opposition; and soon after breakfast his wife formally presented him with a handful of keys, and told him there was meat enough in the house for dinner; and presently he heard the wheels of her little phaeton rattling off down the road. I should be untruthful if I tried to persuade any one that he was not provoked; he thought she would at least have waited for his formal permission, and at first he meant to take another horse, and chase her, and bring her back in disgrace, and put a stop to the whole thing. But something assured him that she knew what she was about, and he determined to let her have her own way. If she failed, it might do no harm, and this was the only ungallant thought he gave her. He was sure that she would do nothing unladylike, or be unmindful of his dignity; and he believed it would be looked upon as one of her odd, independent freaks, which always had won respect in the end, however much they had been laughed at in the beginning. "Susan," said he, as that estimable person went by the door with the dust-pan, "you may tell Catherine to come to me for orders about the house, and you may do so yourself. I am going to take charge again, as I did before I was married. It is no trouble to me, and Mrs. Wilson dislikes it. Besides, she is going into business, and will have a great deal else to think of."

"Yes, sir; very well, sir," said Susan, who was suddenly moved to ask so many questions that she was utterly silent. But her master looked very happy; there was evidently no disapproval of his wife; and she went on up the stairs, and began to sweep them down, knocking the dustbrush about excitedly, as if she were trying to kill a descending colony of insects.

Tom went out to the stable and mounted his horse, which had been waiting for him to take his customary after-breakfast ride to the post-office, and he galloped down the road in quest of the phaeton. He saw Mary talking with Jack Towne, who had been an overseer and a valued workman of his father's. He was looking much surprised and pleased.

"I was n't caring so much about getting work, myself," he explained; "I've got what will carry me and my wife through; but it'll be better for the young folks about here to work near home. My nephews are wanting something to do; they were going to Lynn next week. I don't say but I should like to be to work in the old place again. I've sort of missed it, since we shut down."

"I'm sorry I was so long in overtaking you," said Tom, politely, to his wife. "Well, Jack, did Mrs. Wilson tell you she's going to start the mill? You must give her all the help you can."

"'Deed I will," said Mr. Towne, gallantly, without a bit of astonishment.

"I don't know much about the business yet," said Mrs. Wilson, who had been a little overcome at Jack Towne's lingo of the different rooms and machinery, and who felt an overpowering sense of having a great deal before her in the next few weeks. "By the time the mill is ready, I will be ready, too," she said, taking heart a little; and Tom, who was quick to understand her moods, could not help laughing, as he rode alongside. "We want a new barrel of flour, Tom, dear," she said, by way of punishment for his untimely mirth.

If she lost courage in the long delay, or was disheartened at the steady call for funds, she made no sign, and after a while the mill started up, and her cares were lightened, so that she told Tom that before next pay day she would like to go to Boston for a few days, and go to the theatre, and have a frolic and a rest. She really looked pale and thin, and she said she never worked so hard in all her life; but nobody knew how happy she was, and she was so glad she had married Tom, for some men would have laughed at it.

"I laughed at it," said Tom, meekly. "All is, if I don't cry by and by, because I am a beggar, I shall be lucky." But Mary looked fearlessly serene, and said that there was no danger at present.

It would have been ridiculous to expect a dividend the first year, though the Nagasaki people were pacified with difficulty. All the business letters came to Tom's address, and everybody who was not directly concerned thought that he was the motive power of the re-awakened enterprise. Sometimes business people came to the mill, and were amazed at having to confer with Mrs. Wilson, but they soon had to respect her talents and her success. She was helped by the old clerk, who had been promptly recalled and reinstated, and she certainly did capitally well. She was laughed at, as she had expected to be, and people said they should think Tom would be ashamed of himself; but it soon appeared that he was not to blame, and what reproach was offered was on the score of his wife's oddity. There was nothing about the mill that she did not understand before very long, and at the end of the second year she declared a small dividend with great pride and triumph. And she was congratulated on her success, and every one thought of her project in a different way from the way they had thought of it in the beginning. She had singularly good fortune: at the end of the third year she was making money for herself and her friends faster than most people were, and approving letters began to come from Nagasaki. The Ashtons had been ordered to stay in that region, and it was evident that they were continually being obliged to entertain more instead of less. Their children were growing fast too, and constantly becoming more expensive. The captain and his wife had already begun to congratulate themselves secretly that their two sons would in all probability come into possession, one day, of their uncle Tom's handsome property.

For a good while Tom enjoyed life, and went on his quiet way serenely. He was anxious at first, for he thought that Mary was going to make ducks and drakes of his money and her own. And then he did not exactly like the looks of the thing, either; he feared that his wife was growing successful as a business person at the risk of losing her womanliness. But as time went on, and he found there was no fear of that, he accepted the situation philosophically. He gave up his collection of engravings, having become more interested in one of coins and medals, which took up most of his leisure time. He often went to the city in pursuit of such treasures, and gained much renown in certain quarters as a numismatologist of great skill and experience. But at last his house (which had almost kept itself, had given him little to do beside ordering the dinners, while faithful old Catherine and her niece Susan were his aids) suddenly became a great care to him. Catherine, who had been the main-stay of the family for many years, died after a short illness, and Susan must needs choose that time, of all others, for being married to one of the second hands in the mill. There followed a long and dismal season of experimenting, and for a time there was a procession of incapable creatures going in at one kitchen door and out of the other. His wife would not have liked to say so, but it seemed to her that Tom was growing fussy about the house affairs, and took more notice of those minor details than he used. She wished more than once, when she was tired, that he would not talk so much about the housekeeping; he seemed sometimes to have no other thought.

In the first of Mrs. Wilson's connection with manufacturing, she had made it a rule to consult Tom on every subject of importance; but it had speedily proved to be a formality. He tried manfully to show a deep interest which he did not feel, and his wife gave up, little by little, telling him much about her affairs. She said that she liked to drop business when she came home in the evening; and at last she fell into the habit of taking a nap on the library sofa, while Tom, who could not use his eyes much by lamp-light, sat smoking or in utter idleness before the fire. When they were first married his wife had made it a rule that she should always read him the evening papers, and afterward they had always gone on with some book of history or philosophy, in which they were both interested. These evenings of their early married life had been charming to both of them, and from time to time one would say to the other that they ought to take up again the habit of reading together. Mary was so unaffectedly tired in the evening that Tom never liked to propose a walk; for, though he was not a man of peculiarly social nature, he had always been accustomed to pay an occasional evening visit to his neighbors in the village. And though he had little interest in the business world, and still less knowledge of it, after a while he wished that his wife would have more to say about what she was planning and doing, or how things were getting on. He thought that her chief aid, old Mr. Jackson, was far more in her thoughts than he. She was forever quoting Jackson's opinions. He did not like to find that she took it for granted that he was not interested in the welfare of his own property; it made him feel like a sort of pensioner and dependent, though, when they had guests at the house, which was by no means seldom, there was nothing in her manner that would imply that she thought herself in any way the head of the family. It was hard work to find fault with his wife in any way, though, to give him his due, he rarely tried.

But, this being a wholly unnatural state of things, the reader must expect to hear of its change at last, and the first blow from the enemy was dealt by an old woman, who lived near by, and who called to Tom one morning, as he was driving down to the village in a great hurry (to post a letter, which ordered his agent to secure a long-wished-for ancient copper coin, at any price), to ask him if they had made yeast that week, and if she could borrow a cupful, as her own had met with some misfortune. Tom was instantly in a rage, and he mentally condemned her to some undeserved fate, but told her aloud to go and see the cook. This slight delay, besides being killing to his dignity, caused him to lose the mail, and in the end his much-desired copper coin. It was a hard day for him, altogether; it was Wednesday, and the first days of the week having been stormy the washing was very late. And Mary came home to dinner provokingly good-natured. She had met an old school-mate and her husband driving home from the mountains, and had first taken them over her factory, to their great amusement and delight, and then had brought them home to dinner. Tom greeted them cordially, and manifested his usual graceful hospitality; but the minute he saw his wife alone he said in a plaintive tone of rebuke, "I should think you might have remembered that the girls are unusually busy to-day. I do wish you would take a little interest in things at home. The girls have been washing, and I'm sure I don't know what sort of a dinner we can give your friends. I wish you had thought to bring home some steak. I have been busy myself, and couldn't go down to the village. I thought we would only have a lunch."

Mary was hungry, but she said nothing, except that it would be all right,—she did n't mind; and perhaps they could have some canned soup.

She often went to town to buy or look at cotton, or to see some improvement in machinery, and she brought home beautiful bits of furniture and new pictures for the house, and showed a touching thoughtfulness in remembering Tom's fancies; but somehow he had an uneasy suspicion that she could get along pretty well without him when it came to the deeper wishes and hopes of her life, and that her most important concerns were all matters in which he had no share. He seemed to himself to have merged his life in his wife's; he lost his interest in things outside the house and grounds; he felt himself fast growing rusty and behind the times, and to have somehow missed a good deal in life; he felt that he was a failure. One day the thought rushed over him that his had been almost exactly the experience of most women, and he wondered if it really was any more disappointing and ignominious to him that it was to women themselves. "Some of them may be contented with it," he said to himself, soberly. "People think women are designed for such careers by nature, but I don't know why I ever made such a fool of myself."

Having once seen his situation in life from such a stand-point, he felt it day by day to be more degrading, and he wondered what he should do about it; and once, drawn by a new, strange sympathy, he went to the little family burying-ground. It was one of the mild, dim days that come sometimes in early November, when the pale sunlight is like the pathetic smile of a sad face, and he sat for a long time on the limp, frostbitten grass beside his mother's grave.

But when he went home in the twilight his step-mother, who just then was making them a little visit, mentioned that she had been looking through some boxes of hers that had been packed long before and stowed away in the garret. "Everything looks very nice up there," she said, in her wheezing voice (which, worse than usual that day, always made him nervous); and added, without any intentional slight to his feelings, "I do think you have always been a most excellent housekeeper."

"I'm tired of such nonsense!" he exclaimed, with surprising indignation. "Mary, I wish you to arrange your affairs so that you can leave them for six months at least. I am going to spend this winter in Europe."

"Why, Tom, dear!" said his wife, appealingly. "I could n't leave my business any way in the"—

But she caught sight of a look on his usually placid countenance that was something more than decision, and refrained from saying anything more.

And three weeks from that day they sailed.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126

Bibliographies

Frost, John Eldridge. "Sarah Orne Jewett Bibliography: 1949-1963." Colby Library Quarterly 10 (June 1964): 405-17.

Offers a survey of criticism on Jewett published between 1949 and 1963.

Weber, Clara Carter, and Carl J. Weber. A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Sarah Orne Jewett. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1965, 105 p.

Contains a bibliography of Jewett's published writings.

Biographies

Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. New York: Perseus, 2002, 416 p.

Utilizes a feminist framework to review Jewett's life and work.

Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962, 175 p.

Provides a critical biography by a prominent Jewett scholar.

Matthiessen, Francis Otto. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929, 159 p.

Presents the first critical biography of Jewett.

Criticism

Anderson, Donald. "Jewett's 'Foreigner' in the Estranged Land of Almira Todd." Colby Quarterly 38, no. 4 (December 2002): 390-402.

Discusses the character and psychological state of the narrator in "The Foreigner."

Bishop, Ferman. "Sarah Orne Jewett's Ideas of Race." The New England Quarterly 30, no. 2 (June 1957): 243-49.

Contends that Jewett believed in the supremacy of the Nordic race.

Brown, Bill. "Regional Artifacts (The Life of Things in the Work of Sarah Orne Jewett)." American Literary History 14, no. 2 (summer 2002): 195-226.

Explores how objects are assigned a cultural value in Jewett's fiction.

Cary, Richard, ed. Introduction to Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, pp. 3-8. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1967.

Introduces Jewett's letters and examines what they reveal about her literary tastes.

——, ed. Sarah Orne Jewett: 29 Interpretive Essays. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973, 305 p.

Collection of critical essays on Jewett's works.

Cather, Willa. "Miss Jewett." In Not Under Forty, pp. 76-95. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936.

Offers a character sketch in which Cather praises Jewett's literary style and notes that Jewett's writing conveys an intensely personal experience of life.

Church, Joseph. "Transgressive Daughters in Sarah Orne Jewett's Deephaven." Essays in Literature 20, no. 2 (fall 1993): 231-50.

Asserts that the stories in Deephaven are about women's psychological journeys of self-revelation.

——. "A Woman's Psychological Journey in 'The King of Folly Island.'" Essays in Literature 23, no. 2 (fall 1996): 234-50.

Contends that "The King of Folly Island" is an example of Jewett working toward greater understanding of the way in which culture and psychology contribute to a women's development.

——. "The Healing Arts of Jewett's A Country Doctor." Colby Quarterly 34, no. 2 (June 1998): 99-122.

Provides a psychological analysis of A Country Doctor in which Church argues that the novel mirrors Jewett's development as a writer.

Donovan, Josephine. "A Woman's Vision of Transcendence: A New Interpretation of the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett." The Massachusetts Review 21, no. 2 (summer 1980): 365-81.

Presents a new interpretation of several subjects, themes, and characteristics prominent in Jewett's fiction.

——. "Silence or Capitulation: Prepatriarchal 'Mothers' Gardens in Jewett and Freeman." Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 1 (winter 1986): 43-8.

Offers a contemporary feminist reading of Jewett's "A White Heron" and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's "Evalina's Garden."

——. "Jewett on Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Imperialism." Colby Quarterly 38, no. 4 (December 2002): 403-16.

Refutes claims that Jewett's writing is racist, fascist, classicist, and proto-imperialist.

Hohmann, Marti. "Sarah Orne Jewett to Lillian M. Munger: Twenty-Three Letters." Colby Quarterly 22, no. 1 (March 1986): 28-35.

Examines Jewett's encouraging letters to a young woman from 1876 to 1882.

Howard, June, ed. New Essays on The Country of the Pointed Firs. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 123 p.

Contains a collection of previously unpublished essays on Jewett's best-known work.

Leder, Priscilla. "Living Ghosts and Women's Religion in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs. "In Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, pp. 26-40. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Analyzes how Jewett appropriates the "male" ghost story and adventure narrative and uses them to her own purposes.

Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984, 254 p.

Collection of critical essays, including an introduction with a detailed bibliographic survey of Jewett's scholarship, early reviews of Jewett's work, and seventeen full-length critical analyses, many dealing with feminist issues.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. "A New Spiritual Biography: Domesticity and Sorority in the Fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett." Studies in American Fiction 18, no. 2 (autumn 1990): 193-206.

Examines Jewett's use of the theme of sisterhood in her stories as a means of stressing female heritage and tradition over patriarchal institutions.

Powell, Betty J. "Speaking to One Another: Narrative Unity in Sarah Orne Jewett's Old Friends and New." Colby Quarterly 34, no. 2 (June 1998): 150-71.

Explores the circuitous narrative strategy in Old Friends and New.

Pryse, Marjorie. "Women 'At Sea'; Feminist Realism in Sarah Orne Jewett's 'The Foreigner.'" American Literary Realism 15, no. 2 (autumn 1982): 244-52.

Identifies "foreigners" and "foreign" experiences in Jewett's story "The Foreigner."

——. "Archives of Female Friendship and the 'Way' Jewett Wrote." The New England Quarterly 66, no. 1 (March 1993): 47-66.

Examines Jewett's diaries and an unpublished holograph to understand how Jewett created fiction out of friendship.

Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992, 245 p.

Argues that nearly all Jewett's work reveals her attempts to break free from patriarchal traditions and its dual norms for men and women.

Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett, An American Persephone. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989, 333 p.

Traces the literary and religious tradition that Jewett used as a source in her fiction, focusing on the symbol of the Greek goddess Persephone.

Stevenson, Catherine Barnes. "The Double Consciousness of the Narrator in Sarah Orne Jewett's Fiction." Colby Library Quarterly 11, no. 1 (March 1975): 1-12.

Analyzes perceptions of Jewett's narrators in Deephaven, "A White Heron," and The Country of the Pointed Firs.

Swartz, Patti Capel. "We Do Not All Go Two by Two; or, Abandoning the Ark." In Jewett and Her Contemporaries: Reshaping the Canon, edited by Karen L. Kilcup and Thomas S. Edwards, pp. 265-76. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

Discusses the ways in which Jewett explored connections between people in her fiction; maintains that her work offers a map for those treasuring solitude despite also needing deep physical and spiritual relationships with others.

Westbrook, Perry D. "Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)." In Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, edited by Denise D. Knight, pp. 270-80. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Provides an overview of Jewett's life, her major works and themes, and the critical response to her writing.

OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:

Additional coverage of Jewett's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 108, 127; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 71; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 74, 221; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 15; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 6, 44; Something about the Author, Vol. 15; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 22.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Sarah Orne Jewett Long Fiction Analysis