Last Updated September 5, 2023.
As she often does, Jewett focuses this story on single women. In the late nineteenth century, single women were seen as anomalies, as people who did not fit in a social world that expected women to marry and have children. As Bridget Hill expresses it in her book Women Alone, "women who did not marry were regarded as at best 'failed women' to be pitied or derided, at worst 'ruined women' who presence 'contaminated society.'"
While Hill writes about England, and while the situation in the United States was not as acute as in Europe, single women were marginalized in the states as well, as the story shows, especially if they were poor. The never married Bray sisters, who make the decision to rely on the town as a whole for charity after the death of their father leaves them impoverished, are literally put out of sight in a cold room in an isolated farmhouse.
Because of the negative ways spinsters were often depicted, Jewett goes out of her way to depict the Bray sisters and Miss Wright sympathetically. They are the deserving, poor, women of character who suffer their poverty cheerfully, ask for very little, and are grateful for what they have. In depicting them this way, Jewett casts a positive light on an often invisible or ridiculed segment of society. Because of how Mrs. Trimble, a well-to-do widow, models generous giving, Jewett also suggests that it is women of means who need to step forward to help other women.
Jewett uses sentiment to raise emotions of pity, identification, and positive feelings towards poor single women. She idealizes the marginalized, but doesn't exaggerate their virtues. In this way, she is part of a stream that includes writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens—and shows herself to be part of a society that did not scorn but valued sentimentality as way to change hearts and minds. Novels and stories of sentiment were wildly popular in this period.
Jewett, in this 1890 story, also depicts the realities of a pre-New Deal society, in which no federal programs existed to aid people who fell on hard times. The Bray sisters clearly don't have enough to eat and lack the fuel to keep warm. Jewett shows the cruelty of a town that will force the sisters to auction almost everything they own to offset the cost of their maintenance, then send them off to live with the lowest bidder. The aim of charity in this period is not to meet basic needs, but to keep the costs of maintaining the poor as low as possible.
The Bray sisters are fortunate that they have an almost magical savior in the form of Mrs. Trimble, but the story raises the uncomfortable suggestion that "Miss Brays" are hidden in other places on the margins of a society that would like to forget them and with no one to help them.