Today, there is agreement among scholars that
Pointed Firs does in fact have a structure that gives it unity.
It is still seen as a piece of local-color writing, but critics now find
there is more to it.
The main reason for this change in critics' evaluation of the book is a new appreciation of the narrator as a character in her own right. Only as "recently" as 1962 has Richard Cary claimed that the narrator, whose name we do not know, is in fact not a passive and uninvolved story-teller who relates to us what she sees and hears, but that she is herself an important part of her story. In 1970, Paul D. Voelker published an essay in which he showed that the narrator is a complex and interesting personality who goes through different stages of growth and development (Durso 171). Voelker demanded that critics finally accord Pointed Firs the stature of a novel.
The problem with the narrator's psychological dimensions is that her story is not very obvious. It is rather a story underlying the episodes that stand out in the foreground. Her story is "charted so subtly" that we have to read carefully to understand it (Voelker 247).
To point out how Jewett went about supplying the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs with a lively, complex and interesting psychology that gives structure and unity to the text, this document offers information concerning the following questions:
I. Who is the character of the narrator as we find her at the beginning of the book? What facts can we gather about her from the narrative?
II. What do some of the stylistic devices used by the author tell us about what the story of the summer in Dunnet Landing means to the narrator?
III. How does the personality of the narrator grow and develop throughout the summer, and how is her growth reflected by narrative technique and style?
Part I - Who is the Narrator?
We do not know much about the narrator's life in Boston apart from the fact that she writes. We do not even know what she writes, but Paul Voelker ventures a guess as to what sort of writer the narrator may be: "One cannot help thinking that she is trying to write one of the many romantic historical novels of that period, the type [Matthiessen (110) calls] 'quiet and harmless, for it's thoroughly dead'" (241). If we believe that, we can conclude that she is generally in need of some sort of refreshment at the time she comes to Dunnet Landing.
The narrator is surely not identical to the author, so we should not call her "Miss Jewett," as critics did at the beginning of this century (Charles M. Thompson, writing in 1904, referred to the narrator by the author's name).
Chapter I presents her as "a lover of Dunnet Landing" arriving there "One evening in June" (par. 2). In chapter II, the narrative voice shifts and the narrator begins telling the story in her own voice. She has first visited the town "two or three summers before in the course of a yachting cruise," and she has chosen to come back to spend the summer.
The visitor has been dreaming of a place that is removed from the city and where there is a "childish certainty of being in the centre of civilization." She is a writer who has brought some work with her. To guarantee herself quiet space to work, she rents the schoolhouse where she can be alone, removed even from the small community of Dunnet Landing (ch. III).
However, she does not come to the small town with
only her work in mind. She only "remembers" her work some time in August
after she has spent over a month in Almira Todd's house (ch. II,
On the surface, of course, the narrator's intention is to spend her vacation in Dunnet Landing. But it helps to interpret her drive to take such a long vacation away from her usual surroundings, the city of Boston, more deeply.
It can be argued that she has come to Dunnet Landing
in order to learn about herself, to get some strings of her life together.
Patricia K. Durso argues that the pointed firs, the title image, are metaphorical
"index fingers" that point to the knowledge the narrator achieves about
life and herself (171).
Sivagami Subbaraman points out that the narrator's fascination with Captain Littlepage's story of a "waiting-place" (chapter 6) shows that she is relating that story to her own situation. In going to Dunnet Landing, she has moved to a kind of waiting-place herself, a place of waiting and growing before going back to her life in the city. Subbaraman even goes so far as to speak of the narrator as "apparently haunted by some spiritual ghost that she has come to exorcise in the quietness of this town" (65).
The most eminent structural element of The
Country of the Pointed Firs is its episodic arrangement of events.
It is useful to visualize how the episodes divide up the chapters into
|(Exposition, Mrs. Begg's funeral)||(1 - 4)|
|Captain Littlepage||5 - 7|
|Green Island / Mrs. Blackett||7 - 11|
|Mrs. Fosdick / Poor Joanna||12 - 15|
|The Bowden Reunion||16 - 19|
See our Local
Color page for a detailed discussion of the genre-issue.
More recent criticism has shown that there is in fact a development that pervades all of Pointed Firs and makes it more than a regionalist collage. The character of the narrator undergoes an important development and is probably the subject of the most sophisticated story of the book.
The narrator's development is reflected in the structure. Although episodes
take up the most space within the narrative, they are framed by non-episodic
sequences. These serve to introduce and end the narrator's situation. The choice of
titles for chapters 1 and 21 -- "The Return" and "The Backward
View" -- especially draws attention to the story of the narrator herself.
Comparing those two chapters, one is confronted with one obvious difference: the change of narrative voices. Chapter 1 is narrated from the perspective of an omniscient external narrator who speaks of the later narrator as "a lover of Dunnet Landing" (paragraph 2), whereas the last chapter -- like all intermediate chapters -- is rendered in the first-person voice of our anonymous narrator.
Such a change begs the question -- why Jewett included the unusual change of narrative voices after chapter 1.
Paul Voelker (247) suggests that the change serves to illustrate the growth and development of the narrator. In the beginning, an omniscient narrator is needed to give an overview of the possibilities of learning connected to the narrator's stay in Dunnet Landing.
Through the comparison in chapter 1 of the process of becoming acquainted with a town to that of friendship and love to a person, we, the readers, gain a perspective on the subsequent story of the narrator. The narrator cannot speak from such a perspective in chapter 1 because she is not yet conscious of the fact that she will learn in Dunnet Landing.
In chapter 21, the third-person narrator of chapter 1 does not return because the anonymous first-person narrator has advanced so much in her development that she herself has enough knowledge to conclude The Country of the Pointed Firs.
Another important means employed by Jewett to illustrate the growth of the narrator is the use of symbolism. As an example, Durso (172) describes the title image, the pointed firs, as "index fingers" which stand for knowledge and insight. Whenever the image of the pointed firs is used, it reflects a stage in the narrator's advancement.
For example, at the starting point of her development, right before Captain Littlepage calls on her in the schoolhouse, the narrator looks down on the town her way to the schoolhouse and sees, indifferently, "dark woods" (ch. 3, par. 2). The captain then shares his story of the "world beyond the ice," which initiates the narrator to her understanding of the town she is in and of its people.
The imagery reflects this advancement. Leaving the schoolhouse after the "session" with Littlepage, she describes the same view she had before in a whole different manner. Instead of "dark woods," there is now "a fine view of the harbor" with "its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark" (ch. 7, par. 12). Clearly, this shows the narrator's increased sensitivity to the possibilities of learning that lie ahead of her.
Special devices of characterization employed by Jewett in Pointed Firs are her frequent references to herbalism. By signaling the correlation of a character with a certain kind of herb, Jewett achieves a more detailed portrayal of that character. A close reading of the herb-imagery thus can also take us further in our understanding of the narrator's perception of other characters. Our Herbalism page discusses some of these issues.
To get an idea of how inventive Jewett was in
employing some of the devices mentioned above, it is useful to see her
in the context of the writers who influenced her and whom she influenced.
Our Influences page takes
a look at Jewett's place in literary history.
It is now necessary to consider some of the areas in which the narrator actually does develop. What is her story?
Part III - What does the Narrator Learn?
I have stressed the importance of the narrator's growth and development as a means of giving structural unity to The Country of the Pointed Firs. But what exactly does she learn during her stay in Dunnet Landing?
The holiday for her is probably a time for introspection, a period of self-discovery. For the narrator, Dunnet Landing is a kind of "waiting-place between this world an' the next," which she realizes when Captain Littlepage tells her his story of the land beyond the ice (ch. 6, par. 12).
The narrator can be seen as someone who is in the process of defining herself. The characters she meets thus become important character models; she either admires and learns from them or rejects them. For example, she looks up to Mrs. Todd's knowledge, strength, and determination or to Mrs. Blackett's warmheartedness. Possibly, she will try to live after their examples in her later life. Captain Littlepage's somberness and rejection of society, on the other hand, are no good examples to her, much as she appreciates his friendliness toward her.
Of all the characters the narrator encounters,
she is mostly fascinated with females. The major characters Mrs. Todd,
Mrs. Blackett, Mrs. Fosdick and other minor female characters receive her
whole-hearted admiration. There is only one example of a female character
she pities, poor Joanna; all others are models of strength and knowledge
of life. The few male characters she talks about are depicted as whiny,
suspended, and a little dull - consider Littlepage, William Blackett, and
Elijah Tilley. The narrator does have sympathy and understanding for them,
but does not allow them to be models for her. The implicit discussion of
gender roles for the narrator thus becomes an important aspect of her summer
on the coast.
While in Dunnet Landing the narrator also develops her social self. As her relationship with the community of the little town changes in the course of the book, she becomes more socially competent. Paul Voelker graphs this development. At the beginning, he describes the narrator as an "underdeveloped" (240) person who stands helplessly in the shadow of her mentor, Mrs. Todd. At the end of the book she has performed a quantum leap on the scale of social skills.
The reason for Voelker's calling the narrator "underdeveloped" when she arrives is her condescending attitude toward the community. In chapter 1, paragraph 2 we learn that she attributes to the community of Dunnet Landing "a childish certainty of being the centre of civilization" -- not "childlike," but the derogatory "childish." She lacks yet the sensitivity for the genuine humanity and truthfulness of the community that she will gradually, by means of her experiences and with the help of Mrs. Todd, come to perceive.
Steps on the path of her social development become clear when charting the narrator's choices between solitude and company. At the beginning of the course of her development, she seeks seclusion in the schoolhouse (but the fact that it is a schoolhouse already signalizes that she is embarking on a learning experience). She then starts making encounters with the characters of Dunnet Landing, first under the guidance of Mrs. Todd. As the narrator becomes more sensitive to the stories of the people she meets, Mrs. Todd withdraws as an instructor, and the narrator can make excursions on her own. The first step is visiting Joanna Todd's Shell-heap Island. Joanna is dead and the island is just an island, so the narrator's social integration is not immediately furthered by this trip, but it is important for her to discover her own interest in the community and detach herself from Mrs. Todd.
A subsequent important step is the narrator's being symbolically accepted into the community at the Bowden Reunion. When a pie is distributed among the guests, Mrs. Todd helps the narrator "generously to the whole word Bowden, and consumed Reunion herself" (ch. 19, par. 1).
This development is completed when the narrator dares set out on an excursion all by herself in the chapter entitled "Along Shore." This time, she does not visit an uninhabited island, but Elijah Tilley, a living person with a real and moving story who lives on the shore within the community.
Our Community page
contains some further discussion of related questions.
Richard Cary (ed.). Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett. 29 Interpretive Essays. Waterville, Maine: Colby CP 1973.
Terry Heller. Introduction. In Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs. vii-xxv.
Sarah Orne Jewett. The Country of the Pointed Firs. Oxford, New York: Oxford UP 1996.
Francis Otto Matthiessen. Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston, 1929.
Sivagami Subbaraman. Rites of Passage: Narratorial Plurality as Structure in Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs. The Centennial Review 33.1 (Winter 1989), 60-74.
Charles Miner Thompson. The Art of Miss Jewett. In Cary, Appreciation, 32-48 (reprinted from Atlantic Monthly 94 (1904), 485-97).
Paul D. Voelker. The Country of the Pointed
Firs. A Novel by Sarah Orne Jewett. In Cary, Appreciation, 238-248
(reprinted from Colby Literary Quarterly, IX (December 1970), 201-213).