Main Contents
The Jewett Journal
 

A WOMAN'S VISION OF TRANSCENDENCE:
A NEW INTERPRETATION OF THE WORKS
OF SARAH ORNE JEWETT

Josephine Donovan
Copyright 1980 by the Massachusetts Review [www.massreview.org].


There is something transfiguring in the best of friendship.
     -- Letters(1)
 

Nobody must say that Martha is dull, it is only I.
     -- Letters, 113
 

MANY CRITICS HAVE REMARKED an elegaic mood in the work of Sarah Orne Jewett. They have attributed it to the fact that the world she was describing was one whose time of economic prosperity had passed. It is true that New England in the late nineteenth century was a world on the wane; nevertheless it is not sufficient to explain Jewett's elegy in this way. The reason lies deeper. It lies in the fact that Jewett, as a woman, identified with the world around her. The sense of lost or missed opportunity, the sense of unrealized dreams, the sense of isolation from the communal mainstream, which one finds in so much of her work, express a feeling with which she was quite familiar.

     Indeed, the moralistic urgings to make the best of one's lot that one finds in her early work -- especially "A Guest at Home" (1882) -- reveal most poignantly their author's struggle to transcend the boredom and isolation of rural life. If one had no other clue, the impassioned feminism of her semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, A Country Doctor (1884), would be enough to legitimate an assertion that Jewett was keenly aware of the limitations to woman's lot, and that she did not accept them gracefully. And, while she herself eventually participated in a rich and rewarding community of women, she must, nevertheless, in her early years have been aware of the emotional strait-jacket forced upon unmarried women.

     It is her sense of the absence or failure of community that makes Jewett's tone elegaic. She is lamenting not only the lack of economic opportunity her region suffered from, and not only her own lack of political and social opportunity; perhaps most of all she is lamenting the lack of emotional possibility which cursed the world she knew. In this sense she is a modern: her theme is alienation -- especially as it affected women.

     An authorial comment in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) illustrates this concern. It comes at the Bowden family reunion; the narrator is amazed at how Mrs. Todd has come to life in the community of her friends.

The excitement of an unexpectedly great occasion was a subtle stimulant to her disposition, and I could see that sometimes when Mrs. Todd had seemed limited and heavily domestic, she had simply grown sluggish for lack of proper surroundings…. It was not the first time that I was full of wonder at the waste of human ability in this world, as a botanist wonders at the wastefulness of nature, the thousand seeds that die, the unused provision of every sort…. -- a narrow set of circumstances had caged a fine able character and held it captive.(2)
     A central concern in Jewett's work issues, therefore, from her intimate awareness of the limited emotional and social condition of women; most of her stories deal with women's efforts to transcend their condition. One may identify several ways that Jewett's women do cope, the ways in which the theme of transcendence is handled.

     1) One is the way of the independent woman, or what today we would call the career-woman. These are women who are not afraid to take on a male role, if necessary, to survive. The majority of Jewett's stories deal with some aspect or other of this kind of woman.

    2) In mid-career, however (by the mid-'80s), Jewett begins to deal with women who live with other women or who are seeking to find a community. Several works are framed on a companionship between women; their conversations in themselves provide a kind of transcendence.

     3) What finally emerges as a theme of isolation vs. community reaches its culmination in Jewett's later works, especially The King of Folly Island and Other People (1888) and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).

     4) The ultimate transcendence which Jewett presents seems to lie in a kind of women's religion; one in which the herb-gatherer-healer functions as a beneficent witch and wherein community is sustained by women and their ethos of hospitality. It is a kind of matriarchal Christianity.
 

     Independent Women and Role Reversal

Critics have not been remiss in drawing attention to the purposeful, self-reliant women in Jewett's stories. Richard Cary in his Sarah Orne Jewett lists eighteen of them off the top of his head (there are many more), and entitles one major section of his critical study "Self-Reliant Women."(3) In general, these women cope by exerting their will over adverse circumstances. Often this simply means getting economic control over their lives. It means dealing with men who are either false ["A Lost Lover" (1878); "Marsh Rosemary" (1886)] or incompetent ["Tom's Husband" (1882); "Farmer Finch" (1885); "A Village Shop" (1888)]. In nearly all cases the women turn out to be shrewd businesswomen; one of the most delightful of these is "The Growtown 'Bugle´" (1888) wherein a woman who lives alone makes a fortune speculating out West by mail, outwitting con men at their own game.

     Occasionally, women take on a male role. The theme of role reversal reaches its culmination in A Country Doctor (1884), but it is a theme Jewett returned to throughout her career. Indeed, one of her earliest published stories, "Hallowell's Pretty Sister" (1880) is a farcical piece about what would today be called a fraternity prank wherein one of the boys dresses up as a girl, Hallowell's "sister." "She" sets out to seduce one of Hallowell's friends who falls for "her," much to the amusement of Hallowell and the others.

    The theme is picked up quite a bit more seriously in "Tom's Husband" (1882). In this story Tom's wife, Mary Dunn, decides that she would be better at running the factory and he better at running their home. They decide to try reversing the roles and do so, with considerable success. Mary makes a go of the factory and Tom becomes absorbed in the details of being a housewife. Jewett reverses the expected conventions throughout: Mary, for example, becomes the tired businessman, coming home too exhausted to listen to Tom's housewifely complaints about the daily trivia. Finally, he grows exasperated with his role and demands that they give up the experiment, which they do.

     Cary has read this as an "anti-feminist" ending;(4) however, I believe it should be read rather as an example of Jewett's awareness of the tedium of housework and of how no man would endure it -- a decidedly feminist point. Tom in fact develops

…an uneasy suspicion that she could get along pretty well without him…. He seemed to himself to have merged his life in his wife's…he felt himself fast growing rusty and behind the times, and to have somehow missed a good deal in life…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 than it was to women themselves.(5)
     "Farmer Finch" (1885) is another story that deals quite consciously with role reversal. In this case a young woman takes over the farm management because her father is ill and otherwise incompetent. She makes a great success of her venture, much to the surprise of all concerned. We find a similar theme in "The Stage Tavern" (1900), wherein a recent Radcliffe graduate works competently as a tavern manager.

     Jewett's own ambivalence between the "unnaturalness" of a woman pursuing a career versus the boredom and restrictions of the traditional role may be seen most clearly in "A Guest at Home" (1882) and A Country Doctor (1884). Both are semi-autobiographical. The story involves the return of a young girl, Annie Hollis, to her parents who live on a bare, isolated farm. She has come home from the city where she was being educated, primarily in painting. Annie is dismal at having to leave the refinement, luxuries, and excitement of the city but determines to make the best of it at home -- which she does by continuing to paint, using local subjects, and by selling her paintings to a dealer in New York. Jewett's somewhat heavy-handed moral to the story is: "…where there is a will there is a way, and there is certainly a great difference between making life and taking it." (6)

     A Country Doctor is ideologically feminist, indeed is so informed with feminist fervor -- the work is really a series of feminist declamations -- that it could be made into a feminist opera. Jewett once replied that it was perhaps her favorite work, possibly because it was so unorthodox a plot and so close to her own youth.

     The plot involves the education and coming to womanhood of Nan Prince. Nan, an orphan, is raised by Dr. John Leslie. He being her only role-model, she not surprisingly decides to become a physician. The plot is built upon a series of challenges to Nan's unorthodox project. The last of these is a suitor, George Gerry, whom apparently she loves, but eventually rejects so as to carry out her life dream. Dr. Leslie encourages her to stick to her ambition. His defenses of her plan, like hers, read like feminist speeches. In rejecting her suitor, for example, she declaims, "still standing, and looking taller than ever":

It is not easy to turn away from him…It is something that I have found it hard to fight, but it is not my whole self longing for his love and companionship. If I heard he had gone to the other side of the world for years and years, I should be glad and not sorry. I know all tradition fights on his side; but I can look forward and see something a thousand times better than being his wife, and living here in Dunport keeping his house, and trying to forget all that nature fitted me to do.(7)
     Earlier Dr. Leslie had explained his reasons for encouraging her in her "unnatural" plan:
Nan is not the sort of girl who will be likely to marry. When a man or woman has that sort of self-dependence and unnatural self-reliance, it shows itself very early. I believe that it is a mistake for such a woman to marry. Nan's feeling toward her boy-playmates is exactly the same as toward the girls she knows. (137)
     And he continues:
if…the law of her nature is that she must live alone and work alone, I shall help her to keep it instead of break it, by providing something else than the business of housekeeping and what is called a woman's natural work, for her activity and capacity to spend itself upon. (137)
     Her schoolchums think her ideas interesting, if different. They note, however, that she has shown "no sign" of being "mannish" or one who would "forsake her natural vocation for a profession." (160) Her only unusual traits are "a strange tenacity of purpose" and "a lack of pretension."

     In one of Dr. Leslie's discussions a friend points out that women are often endowed with genius, contrary to popular opinion. Indeed, he cites Buckle's work(8) to the effect that "the feminine intellect is the higher, and …the great geniuses of the world have possessed it." (112)

     Once Nan is in medical school she finds that she faces constant discrimination.

If a young man plans the same course, everything conspires to help him and forward him…But in the days of Nan's student life it was just the reverse. Though she had been directed toward such a purpose entirely by her singular talent, instead of by the motives of expediency which rule the decisions of a large proportion of the young men who study medicine, she found little encouragement either from the quality of the school, or the interest of society in general. (192-93)
     Nevertheless, in spite of all the opposition, Nan succeeds, and the novel ends with her wandering in the country, communing with nature.
…suddenly she reached her hands upward in an ecstasy of life and strength and gladness. "Oh God," she said, "I thank Thee for my future." (351)
 
Jewett's Feminist Criticism

Jewett's feminist awareness may be seen as well in some of her critical comments, which show her to be especially cognizant of the problems of the woman artist. In her discussion of the artistic chemistry in the mind of the writer, Jewett notes how important it is that irrelevant distractions not be allowed to intrude.

     As an example of a case where they did interfere, she cites Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Pearl of Orr's Island. Jewett laments that the author has been unable to sustain the original "noble key of simplicity and harmony" through to the end. "A poor writer," she notes, "is at the mercy of much unconscious opposition." (Letters, 47.) A writer must, she continues, "throw everything and everybody away at times, but a woman made like Mrs. Stowe cannot bring herself to that cold selfishness of the moment for one's work's sake."

In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf made similar observations about the problems of the woman writer maintaining artistic integrity. Anger, for example, seems to have "tampered" with the "integrity of Charlotte Brontë." Woolf lauds those women who were able to give their "whole devotion" to their art, marvelling at

what genius, what integrity it must have required in the face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking.(9)
     It must be said that Harriet Beecher Stowe's "integrity" was violated by the presence of seven children and by her own poor health. Nevertheless, it is significant how aware Jewett was of the necessity for the woman writer to sustain a "cold selfishness…for one's work's sake."

     Jewett's feminist awareness is evident in some of her other critical observations. Of Wordsworth she says, "How much that we call Wordsworth was Dorothy to begin with." (Letters, 77.) And of Ouïda, who she maintains is a "great writer": "perhaps were she not a woman, we should hear much more of [her]! particularly of her 'Village Commune.'" (Letters, 209.)

     Some of Jewett's most interesting and significant critical remarks were made to Willa Cather, who became a fast friend and devoted admirer in the last years of Jewett's life.(10) In my opinion, indeed, the influence of Jewett on Cather cannot be overestimated.(11)

     In 1908 Jewett gave Cather three major pieces of advice: one was, not surprisingly, that she should absent herself from the newspaper world in order to devote her full attention to her art. "You don't have time and quiet to perfect your work…you must find a quiet place…your own quiet centre of life, and write from that…" (Letters, 248-49.)

     Second, she advised Cather to write about material that she knew intimately -- her "Nebraska life," for example. Third, and perhaps most significant, she criticized the use of a male persona in one of Cather's early stories.(12)

The lover is as well done as he could be when a woman writes in the man's character, -- it must always, I believe, be something of a masquerade. I think it is safer to write about him as you did about the others and not try to be he! And you could almost have done it yourself -- a woman could even care enough to wish to take her away from such a life, by some means or other. (Letters, 246-47.)
     Cather eventually followed the first two pieces of advice but not the third. And yet, albeit unheeded, this was a very significant moment in women's criticism. For perhaps the first time a woman writer is being advised to write directly on the theme of "Chloe likes Olivia" (as Woolf later put it in A Room). It remains a matter of speculation why Cather continued to use male personae throughout her career while Jewett rarely did, for both Cather's and Jewett's primary relationships in life were with women.(13)
 

Relationships Between Women

Jewett herself had treated relationships between women in her fiction from the beginning [see discussion of Deephaven (1877) below], but with more frequency by the mid-'80s. Perhaps A Country Doctor was a kind of turning point; or perhaps Jewett's own growing involvement with Annie Fields (and other women artists) is reflected in her fiction.

     Two of the stories in A White Heron and Other Stories (1886) deal with women couples. One is a comic masterpiece, "The Dulham Ladies" (1886), and the other, "Mary and Martha" (1885), deals with the resourcefulness of two women in establishing their economic security.

    Another story published at this time, but never collected, is "A Garden Story" (1886), a somewhat sentimental piece about an older woman who lives alone in the country and who is joined by a young orphan girl from the city through a social welfare program, and the growing intensity of their attachment. This theme is picked up later in "A Village Shop" (1888) wherein the younger woman eventually marries the brother of the older woman, much to the misery and jealousy of the latter.

     In "Fair Day" (1888), a relatively unnoticed story, Jewett brings the theme of sisterhood to a level of significance not seen in earlier stories. It involves the re-establishment of a connection between two women in-laws who had been alienated for forty years due to a quarrel. The central episode is their decision to patch things up between them. This is a most positive step in Jewett's world, for community is a central value and women are its prime sustainers.

     Several of Jewett's stories deal with pilgrimages made by women in quest of community and/or significance. These include "Miss Becky's Pilgrimage" (1881), "Going to Shrewsbury" (1889), "The Flight of Betsey Lane" (1893), and the pilgrimage of Mrs. Todd and her mother to a family reunion in The Country of the Pointed Firs.

     While stories featuring women couples continue, including "Miss Tempy's Watchers" (1888), "The Town Poor" (1890), "The Guests of Mrs. Timms" (1894), and "The Green Bowl" (1901), the theme of woman love reaches its culmination in one of Jewett's greatest stories, "Martha's Lady" (1897). This piece, somewhat reminiscent of Flaubert's "Un Coeur simple," involves a servant woman Martha, who develops an intense attachment to a young woman visitor who is kind to her. Promising soon to return, the visitor leaves and proceeds through life, not coming back for twenty years. Throughout this period Martha worshipfully follows the events of her life, thinks of nothing but her, dreaming of her return. Finally, the woman does return and in a joyous moment of reunion realizes the devotion and love that Martha has bestowed upon her from afar through the years. Again, the tone is markedly elegaic for the waste of human emotion potential.

     It is in stories like this that Jewett leaves the company of good storytellers like Daudet and Maupassant and enters the ranks of Flaubert, Turgenev and Tolstoi. Oddly enough, Jewett worried about the "dullness" of this story and revealingly commented that Martha was Jewett herself.
 

Isolation versus Community

     In her next collection after A White Heron, The King of Folly Island and Other People (1888), the theme of isolation versus community assumes major significance. Two of the stories in this work deal with male-dominated households wherein women are held in hermetic isolation from their friends.

     In the title story the "king" is George Quint, a recluse who has "reigned" over a remote barren island, allegorically named Folly Island, for many years. His only "subjects" have been his wife, now dead, of emotional starvation effectively, and his daughter, who is dying of consumption. Her father refuses to return to the mainland for reasons of ego (he had vowed years before that he would never leave the island alive) and thus she is denied medical care.

     It is clear to the narrator visiting the island that the girl has really been kept a prisoner by her father; at one point the girl wistfully watches a funeral procession on a neighboring island through spyglasses, longing to participate in community affairs. This story is a dramatic example of what Edward Garnett called the "isolated masculine understanding" tyrannizing over, and ultimately killing, the women who long for a social support system, for community.(14) It illustrates what is becoming a central Jewett theme -- the yearning (by women) for a transcending community and the sense of loss at its lack.

     In "The Landscape Chamber" (1887), also in this collection, we find a similar situation. Here a miserly father has kept friends at bay for years, forcing his daughter to live in solitude and poverty with him. When the shocked narrator, a young woman who has happened upon their farm during a trip, realizes the situation, she exclaims,

     "You surely have friends?"
     "Only at a distance," said she, sadly. "I fear they are no longer friends. I have you," she added, turning to me quickly, in a pathetic way that made me wish to put my arms about her. "I have been longing for a friendly face. Yes, it is very hard," and she went drearily out of the door.…(15)
     In an earlier story, "A White Heron" (1886), Jewett had also dealt with the clash between women's loyalty to community versus the male will to destroy and isolate. In this story a young country girl, who is intimately familiar with her natural environment, is visited by a young man who hunts animals and birds for trophies. He realizes her knowledge and asks her to lead him to the bird that has succeeded in eluding him, a white heron. At first she is flattered, as she finds him romantically appealing, but in the end, though she knows exactly where the heron is, she keeps silent, refusing to betray her natural companion. Here, as in A Country Doctor, the young woman rejects a potential suitor in the name of loyalty to the sanctity of the natural community to which she belongs.

    Sandwiched between the two stories of isolation in The King of Folly Island we find a joyous tale, "The Courting of Sister Wisby" (1887), that implicitly provides an alternative sense of community. As in Deephaven (1877), Jewett's first published collection, and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), the story is framed upon the relationship between two women. In Deephaven the women were young tourists spending the summer together in a family home on the Maine coast. The "plot" involves their encounters with various seacoast "characters" who tell them their "stories." In The Country of the Pointed Firs, the frame relationship is between the narrator, an author who has come to the area for the summer to write, and Mrs. Todd, her landlady. In "The Courting of Sister Wisby" the narrator is, as usual, a thinly disguised persona for Jewett, and her companion is Mrs. Goodsoe, an herb-gatherer who prefigures Mrs. Todd in The Country of the Pointed Firs. Mrs. Goodsoe tells the narrator the story of Sister Wisby, a marvelously comic tale about a woman with a mind of her own.

    The relationship, however, between the narrator and Mrs. Goodsoe is quite developed; indeed, it takes up more than half the story. The strength and joy of their conversation while gathering herbs stands as a stark contrast to the miserable isolation depicted in the stories that surround it, and provides as well a contrasting sense of community.

     The theme of isolation versus community reaches its culmination in The Country of the Pointed Firs. This work presents a series of solitaries who are seen as lonely, shipwrecked souls who long for companionship and communion. These include William, Joanna, and Captain Littlepage. On the other hand, the work also provides high emotional points and these come when people are engaged in relationship, in visits, in conversations, at reunions, in social rituals. These are the only thing that give human life significance, that enable a measure of transcendence.

     The final parting between the narrator and Mrs. Todd fittingly summarizes the theme of the preciousness and transitoriness of relationships -- the fragility of community -- and exemplifies Jewett's elegy at its most poignant.

With this last word Mrs. Todd turned and left me as if with sudden thought of something she had forgotten, so that I felt sure she was coming back, but presently I heard her go out of the kitchen door and walk down the path toward the gate. I could not part so; I ran after her to say good-by, but she shook her head and waved her hand without looking back… So we die before our own eyes; so we see some chapters of our lives come to their natural end. (210)
     Significantly, by this time, Jewett had begun to see her own role as a writer as one who brings diverse persons together. In her 1893 Preface to Deephaven she cited "a noble saying of Plato that the best thing that can be done for the people of a state is to make them acquainted with one another."(16) This, she notes, she had attempted to do in her work.
 

A Woman's Religion

The ultimate significance of the theme of women's communion emerges in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). It is prefigured in "The Courting of Sister Wisby" (1887), and continued in "The Foreigner," a story published in 1900 but never reprinted. In these works we find that the connections between women form a kind of secret society, that womanly lore is handed down from mother to daughter in a continuing matrilineal tradition of healing and hospitality. It is the woman's function to be a loving center of community. This is the ultimate transcendence Jewett presents: a kind of matriarchal Christianity; a woman's religion.

     In "The Courting of Sister Wisby," we find in Mrs. Goodsoe a person similar to Mrs. Todd of The Country of the Pointed Firs. Both are herb-gatherers and medicine-makers. Both have an esoteric knowledge that has been handed down by women for centuries. Mrs. Goodsoe learned her knowledge of herbs from her mother, and Mrs. Todd learned hers primarily from a foreign woman (as reported in "The Foreigner").

     Both women have, if not open feelings of contempt toward men, at least an opinion of their general incompetence. Mrs. Goodsoe is presented as being wiser than most doctors, who, though they be "bilin' over with book-larnin'…is truly ignorant of what to do for the sick.…" "Book-fools I call 'em," she adds.(17) She, on the other hand, with her subtle knowledge of the art of herb-healing is "truly" able to cure the sick.

     Mrs. Todd expresses a similarly dim view of men in general, although she harbors a certain nostalgia for her own dead husband. Her attitude comes across most clearly when she is preparing to journey over to the island where her mother lives. Significantly, she wishes to make the voyage with no male companion.

…we don't want to carry no men folks havin' to be considered every minute an' takin' up all our time. No, you let me do; we'll just slip out an' see mother by ourselves. (49-50)
     Both Mrs. Goodsoe and Mrs. Todd have an extensive knowledge of the doings of their community and its history. Both pass on this information to the narrator who in turn sets down this oral history in writing. It is Mrs. Todd, however, who is presented as a figure of nearly legendary proportions, and it is really in The Country of the Pointed Firs where the concept of a woman's religion begins to emerge.

     Mrs. Todd is one of Jewett's most enduring characters, anticipating in many respects Cather's Ántonia. She is compared continually to great figures of ancient Greece. She had "the look of a huge sybil." (10) She "stood there grand and architectural, like a caryatide." (46) "She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain." (78)

     The narrator sees her as a kind of priestess of some ancient cult, "an enchantress" (47), expressed in her vast knowledge of herbs. She is the town healer; she is a beneficent witch. In her herb garden

there were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past. Some of these might have belonged to sacred and mystic rites, and have had some occult knowledge handed with them down the centuries. (4)
     The central person in Mrs. Todd's life is her mother. Indeed, two of the central episodes in The Country revolve around the mother: one is a visit the narrator and Mrs. Todd make, out to the island where her mother lives; the other is a family reunion over which Mrs. Brackett, the mother, reigns. ("'Mother's always the queen,' said Mrs. Todd.") (161)

     Significantly, her mother, when first presented in the narrative, is associated with transcendence.

Mrs. Todd was looking off across the bay with a face full of affection and interest. The sunburst upon that outermost island made it seem like a sudden revelation of the world beyond this which some believe to be so near.
     "That's where mother lives," said Mrs. Todd. (45)
     The mother is an angel of hospitality and has not only the gift of sympathy but the "highest gift of heaven, a perfect self-forgetfulness." (73) Like Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse she seems to be the essential center of the community; when she arrives for the gathering
a look of delight came to the faces of those who recognized the plain, dear old figure beside me; one revelation after another was made of the constant interest and intercourse that had linked the far island and these scattered farms into a golden chain of love and dependence. (147)
     The reunion itself takes on religious significance.
Such a day as this has transfiguring powers, and easily makes friends of those who have been cold-hearted, and gives to those who are dumb their chance to speak, and lends some beauty to the plainest face. (156)
     And it is women like Mrs. Todd and her mother who effect this transfiguration. It is in this sense that they take on the function of magicians or beneficent witches. They seem to have the power to help people to overcome isolation and poverty.
…it seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking plants in Mrs. Todd's garden. (5)
     "The Foreigner" is the story of a woman Mrs. Todd had known in her youth, forty years earlier, who had taught her much herbal lore and who at her death had bequeathed all her earthly belongings to Mrs. Todd. In this piece the matrilineal connection and the hospitality theme are quite pronounced. When she first arrives in Dunnet Landing, the woman is a bride of Captain Tolland. She does not speak English, is from "the French islands" and generally feels like a "stranger in a strange land."(18)

     Mrs. Todd's mother recognizes the obligation of hospitality.

What consequence…is your comfort or mine, beside letting a foreign person an' a stranger feel so desolate; she's done the best a woman could do in her lonesome place, and she asks nothing of anybody except a little common kindness. (314)
     Thus begins a bond among the women.

     On the night of Mrs. Tolland's death occur mysterious happenings that can only suggest once again the dim outlines of a matriarchal religion. Mrs. Todd is sitting with Mrs. Tolland as she is dying. Suddenly a ghost of Mrs. Tolland's mother appears; both Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Tolland see her.

"You saw her, didn't you," she said the second time, an' I says, "Yes, dear, I did; you ain't never goin' to feel strange an' lonesome no more." (323)
     Then Mrs. Tolland died.

     Jewett had dealt with the supernatural in earlier stories. In "Lady Ferry" (1879), she treated the "wandering Jew" theme. The woman of the title seemed to be blessed/cursed with immortality. In "Miss Tempy's Watchers" (1888), Jewett dealt with the haunting presence of a corpse at a wake. While the fascination with the supernatural is characteristically New England, Jewett's interest seems finally to go beyond the level of the ghost story. Rather, as seen in her final works, it points in the direction of a woman's religion of healing, hospitality and community.

     In her life Jewett found "transfiguration" through friendship. One of the central themes of her work is the quest for such "transfiguration." The resolution of this seeking lies in Jewett's intuition of a woman's religion. This is the personal vision -- the "heart" -- of her most serious work.
 



 

     Editorial Notes

     This essay, written in 1976, first appeared in Massachusetts Review 21:2 (Summer 1980): 365-80. It is reprinted here by permission of the Massachusetts Review and Josephine Donovan. This article may not be reprinted without the permission of the Massachusetts Review.

     Josephine Donovan is the author of Sarah Orne Jewett (1980; rev. ed., 2001), New England Local Color Literature (1983), and other books and articles. A complete list of her publications is available on her web site: http://nasa.umeres.maine.edu/~Josephine.Donovan. She is Emerita Professor of English, University of Maine. Donovan made a few minor corrections and additions for the online publication of this text.
 

    Author's Notes

1. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Annie Fields (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 126. Throughout, I note only the first reference to a work; subsequent references are given in the text of my article.
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2.  The Country of the Pointed Firs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896), p. 174. In this analysis I am using the 1896 edition. The stories Jewett chose for inclusion in this original edition focus on the theme discussed in this essay, namely isolation versus community. Three pieces ("A Dunnet Shepherdess," "The Queen's Twin," and "William's Wedding") were interpolated in the 1910 edition between what had been the penultimate and the final chapters ("Along Shore" and "Backward View"). In my opinion the interpolated stories interfere with the integrity of the work for they are slightly different in tone. Oddly enough, critics continue, however, to use the 1910 (posthumously edited) version.
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3.  Richard Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Twayne, 1962), pp. 39, 103-10.
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4.  Cary, p. 126. Cary seems somewhat ambivalent about Jewett's feminism. He notes a "feminist bias" (157) in her history The Story of the Normans (1887) and notes the relevance of this bias to her fiction, but he excises a lengthy discussion of the status of women from Marie Thérèse Blanc's review of A Country Doctor as being "not immediately relevant to a consideration of Miss Jewett's accomplishment as a novelist." [in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Cary (Waterville, Me.: Colby College Press, 1973), p. 3].
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5.  "Tom's Husband," The Mate of the Daylight and Friends Ashore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), p. 232.
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6. "A Guest at Home," The Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Richard Cary (Waterville, Me.: Colby College Press, 1971), p. 58. This story shows that Jewett was not a fatalist; indeed she forcefully rejects Calvinistic determinism in a later story, "A Landscape Chamber" (1887), ardently exalting instead freedom and joy as proper alternatives to grim resignation.
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7.  A Country Doctor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), pp. 320-21.
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8. Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862), an English historian who promoted a number of unorthodox theories. In an address before the Royal Institution, "The Influence of Woman on the Progress of Knowledge" (April 1858), Buckle theorized that a women's thinking tends to be deductive and men's inductive; since science, he claimed, progresses via deductive thinking, "the feminine intellect" has therefore much to contribute to the advancement of science. "[W]omen are more deductive than men, because they think quicker . . . . [However,] the remarkable rapidity with which women think is obscured by that miserable, that contemptible, that preposterous system, called their education, in which valuable things are carefully kept from them, and trifling things carefully taught to them, until their fine and nimble minds are too often irretrievably injured." The address appears in Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works. (Thanks to Terry Heller for gleaning most of this information.)
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9. A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt, 1927; rpt. 1957), p. 77.
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10. For an interesting account of their meetings, see Willa Cather, "148 Charles Street" and "Miss Jewett" in Not Under Forty (New York: Knopf, 1936; rpt. 1953), pp. 52-95.
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11. Several critics have discussed this influence. See especially A. M. Buchan, "'Our Dear Sarah': An Essay on Sarah Orne Jewett," and Eleanor M. Smith, "The Literary Relationship of Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Sibert Cather," both in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett, pp. 85-111 and 112-27, respectively. Also James Woodress, Willa Cather (New York: Pegasus, 1970). Cary's recent article, "The Sculptor and the Spinster: Jewett's 'Influence' on Cather," Colby Library Quarterly, 10 (Sept. 1973), 168-78, does not, in my opinion, cast serious doubt on the intensity of that influence.
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12.  Probably "On the Gull's Road" published Dec., 1908 in McClure's Magazine. See Woodress, pp. 132, 176, for a discussion of Cather's use of male personae despite Jewett's good advice.
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13. As an adult, Jewett was part of a coterie of (primarily) women, many of whom were either writers or involved in publishing. From recent sociological research we are coming to realize that this was a fairly common pattern in nineteenth-century America. William R. Taylor and Christopher Lasch identified this ,pattern of homosocial support groups in "Two 'Kindred Spirits': Sorority and Family in New England, 1839-1846," New England Quarterly, 36, No. 1 (March 1963), 23-41. More recently it has been explored by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, in "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America," SIGNS, 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), 1-29. Both articles maintain that because of rigidly defined gender roles there existed a kind of "emotional segregation" between the sexes in the nineteenth century. As a response, homosocial support-networks developed, wherein women had their primary emotional relationships with other women.
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14.  Edward Garnett, "Miss Sarah Orne Jewett's Tales," Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett, p. 23. Garnett had observed, "…the reader has a sense in her pages that should the curtain be dropped on the feminine understanding, the most interesting side of life would become a mere darkened chaos to the isolated masculine understanding." Jewett had read Garnett's essay and approved of it, saying it gave her "great pleasure." [Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, enl. rev., ed. Richard Cary (Waterville, Me.: Colby College Press, 1967), p. 156].
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15.  "The Landscape Chamber," The King of Folly Island and Other People (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), p. 101.
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16.  The exact quote is "for there is no greater good in a state than that the citizens should be known to one another" ("Laws," Book V), in The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett (New York: Random House, 1920), vol. 2, p. 505.
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17.  "The Courting of Sister Wisby," The King of Folly Island, pp. 57-58. Here as in A Country Doctor we may note a contempt for the medical profession. This seems incongruous, given Jewett's own strong attachment to her father, who was a physician. One can only conclude that either she harbored a certain hostility for her father which is here expressed, or that she and her father shared a certain contempt for the profession as it was generally practiced.
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18. "The Foreigner," The Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, p. 314.
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