The Jewett Journal
"The King of Folly Island"
The Necessity of Balance for the Prevention of Folly
Sharon K. Sedlacek
Coe College, April 2004
Sarah Orne Jewett admired John Campbell Shairp's idea that, "We are in the world for our spiritual education and every thing is planned for that isn't it? - and success is not a thing of chance but a thing of choice with us" (Blanchard 69). In "The King of Folly Island" (1886), Jewett weaves a story that ultimately shows us how the choices we make determine our moral behavior and affect our spiritual growth. She also shows us that in order to achieve spiritual growth and reach our greatest human potential, we have to understand the necessity of balance between masculine and feminine qualities, and we have to realize the importance of community, with a balance between self and others.
"The King of Folly Island" focuses on males; it is unlike most of Jewett's other stories, which center on self-reliant women and the spirituality of feminine community. Why does Jewett write a story about strong, independent males who willfully abandon society, and a passive, sickly, dependent female who is isolated from community? To answer this question we first have to notice what John Frankfort and George Quint are lacking, despite their apparent strength. Jewett's combination of characters and images allows the reader to see that what the males in this story need is to realize the dangers of adhering to conventional patriarchal values, the main cause of their spiritual isolation as well as Phebe's physical and spiritual isolation. Jewett subtly emphasizes a need for these men to move toward the passive, receptive, and giving qualities most associated with feminine behavior. At the same time, she raises the question of individual responsibility - why didn't Phebe leave the island? Josephine Donovan credits Jewett with communicating images that "open seed" and blossom in the reader's mind into what lies at the heart of a story ("Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory" 4). In "The King of Folly Island," Jewett's images convey a message that living without balance between conventional masculinity and femininity and between self and community makes one's life a folly, a costly undertaking with an absurd or ruinous outcome.
The way Jewett structures "The King of Folly Island" is significant, because it points to her main theme. She provides George Quint and John Frankfort, two willfully active male protagonists and creators of their own fate, and contrasts them with the passively dependent Phebe, a female resigned to her fate.
There are two male communities in this story. Frankfort is part of an urban business community, which he eventually returns to. Quint sticks to his self-centered principles, and though he never steps ashore on the island, he still interacts with the men on John's Island, and he is a part of the male community of fishermen. The only women in this story, in addition to Phebe, appear in the brief, yet powerful images of silent women in isolation from community. And the only woman going on a journey is the dead woman, whose funeral Phebe views through the telescope.
"The King of Folly Island" opens with John Frankfort, a middle-aged businessman, "not unprosperous, but hardly satisfied," who is on a quest to escape dissatisfaction with his life (Jewett 1). But not even he "could have told himself why he was going to John's Island" (2). Jewett gives us a conflicted, unbalanced male protagonist who derives his greatest pleasures from work, yet his total absorption in the very thing that gives him the most pleasure no longer satisfies him. Frankfort, as an independent and financially successful businessman, fulfills the male gender expectations of society. Yet he is unsure of his own expectations of himself, and the role he plays in society has left him unfulfilled. While he realizes that he is rich enough to provide gifts for the John's-Islanders, "a wave of defeat seemed to chill his desire," as he also realizes that "the gift without the giver were dumb" (2). Something he cannot define for himself is missing, and he cannot give himself to others.
As Frankfort approaches St. John's Island from the bay, "At the landing there was at first no human being to be seen, unless one had sharp eyes enough to detect the sallow, unhappy countenance of the postmaster's wife," who was sitting in the kitchen looking out the window (Jewett 2). This image portrays a confined, unhappy, sickly-looking woman, who almost escapes our notice. When Frankfort encounters Phebe for the first time, she looks much older than her years, she is sick, and she will die before winter's end. Like the tyrannical Jabez's wife, the woman in the window, Phebe seems cut off from social intercourse, confined in a small space. Yet Phebe's father, Quint, will not become part of a community because of his own selfish principles: "I ain't stepped foot on any man's land but my own these twenty-six years. Ef anybody wants to deal with me, he must come to the water's edge" (6). Quint, the "king" of Folly Island, while kind and loving towards his daughter, promotes his own interests at the expense of Phebe, and at the expense of his own spiritual growth. He is the reigning patriarchal, tyrannical father or king, with his dead wife as his first subject, and another subject in his dependent loyal daughter.
The fates of "his women" are in his hands; Quint says, "we've been better off here, as I view it" (6). He acknowledges that his wife, now dead and laying in a little corner of the field, "was wuth her weight in gold" (9). Explaining to Frankfort his reasons for moving to Folly Island, he says:
"She never fought me, nor argued the p'int again after she found I was sot, but, it aged her, fetchin' of her away from all her folks, an' out of where she was wonted. I didn't foresee it at the time." (9)
This is a telling paragraph about a patriarchal view of society; it shows Quint's dominant power and his wife's acceptance of it. Phebe, too, suffers within this structure of male dominance and societal approval of an obedient woman, for she also has neither fought nor argued the point. Phebe takes care of her father, yet she is totally dominated by his will. Phebe pines for her mother, from whom she inherited her position and the values that sustain it. She has become incapacitated by her love for her father and her dependence on him, the only relationship she has in her life, and she is resigned to dying on the island. The imbalance between masculine and feminine societal roles is detrimental to Phebe's physical and spiritual well-being.
One short, poignant passage illustrates how the lack of female companionship and community impacts Phebe. Phebe's discovery that Frankfort's book of Wordsworth's poems belonged to his mother, whose name was Phoebe, brings her great happiness. It signifies a connection to another woman. That the silent "o" is left out of her name suggests how Phebe is silenced or left out of a supportive world, being deprived of female community. Phebe says to Frankfort, "I used to like to read, but I found it made me lonesome. I used to wish I could go ashore and do all the things that folks in books did. But now I don't care" (10).
Jewett has Frankfort turning to his mother's book for comfort when he is troubled with haunting thoughts, that "he had lost his power of enjoyment, and there might be no remedy" (10). Both Phebe and Frankfort feel separated from a sustaining community that they associate with their mothers, and both turn to reading books in order to make contact with the absent, or for spiritual comfort. Yet books are not enough to fill their needs; books are not satisfactory substitutes for actual human relations. Phebe's consistent denial of her own needs to conform to her father's will starves her emotionally. Phebe possesses the nurturing, inner spiritual grace to give to a community, but at the same time she is aware of an absence in her life. The absence of community and the imbalance between self and others are factors in Phebe's inevitable, untimely death.
Was Quint's tyrannical, selfish behavior the only cause for Phebe's isolation and eventual death? He left St. John's Island because of persecution from the tyrant postmaster, Jabez, while the other islanders stayed on and put up with his tyranny; "Even the John's-Islanders need a fearless patriot to lead them to liberty" (Jewett 4). Jewett seems to be suggesting that it was Phebe's choice to stay and put up with her father's patriarchal tyranny, and that perhaps it was time for women to rise up fearlessly against it and to take responsibility in actively shaping their own lives. Jewett sees that both men and women need to change, to seek greater balance between masculine and feminine qualities. Men should become more passive and receptive to the needs of others, and women need to become more active and aggressive in choosing how they want to live their lives.
Though Phebe's fate proves inescapable, Frankfort's stay with the Quints slowly changes him. In the middle of the story, Phebe and Frankfort observe a woman's funeral through Phebe's telescope, foreshadowing Phebe's premature death. This image points toward Phebe's eventual spiritual influence on Frankfort, and is related to the spiritual influence that Theophilus Parsons had on Jewett, as he too "lent her a spyglass so that she could watch a passing yacht. Afterwards she found the gesture prophetic, for she came to feel he had dramatically extended her spiritual vision" (Blanchard 75). Sharing Phebe's telescope and realizing that in doing so, he has deprived her of part of her treasured, minimal contact with the outside world, Frankfort's vision also is extended.
Frankfort's encounter with Quint and Phebe opens him to a perception of the imbalance between male and female roles in society, and to an imbalance of masculine and feminine traits within himself. Frankfort's observation of Quint's selfishness and Phebe's nurturing and forgiving nature makes him realize his own selfish nature and eventually leads to his spiritual enlightenment. What Frankfort needed to learn, and Quint never learned, was that to simply accept as right a system of thought that makes his own will incontestable made him thoughtless toward others and unable to enter into their interests. One effect of willfully cutting himself and his family off from any community is to limit, perhaps end, Quint's own spiritual growth. Another effect is to cause his family to suffer, also cut off from communal contact that they, in fact, value and desire. Giving to others and enjoying with them are central components of the spirit of community. Quint's assertion of his prideful self against the petty John's-Islanders and Frankfort's too busy questing after material gain are similar in their individualistic, active, self-focused characteristics. Neither approach to life is conducive to spiritual growth. Frankfort's willful busy-ness renders him incapable of seeing those he works and lives with as fellow human beings. As Donovan points out, experiencing transcendence in Jewett's fiction requires entering a passive, receptive, traditionally female mode (Donovan 2). Frankfort's quest in the story's opening is an inarticulate protest against the emptiness of his current way of living; he is reaching out for something better.
Frankfort had to journey into Phebe's passive feminine space to open himself to an understanding of his folly and so to spiritual regeneration, and "like other Jewett travelers, his moral horizons have broadened" (Donovan 7). Phebe's influence on Frankfort could also be compared to that of Miss Tempy on the two women who watch at her house on the evening before her funeral. The women in "Miss Tempy's Watchers" (1888) "achieve spiritual growth and experience a connection with the transcendent through the effect of Tempy's spiritů the spirit of charity in which she lived her life" (Donovan 7). It is interesting that it took a dead woman to help bring about this spiritual growth and sense of female community for them. Likewise, Phebe's unselfishness and her isolation and impending death move Frankfort outside of his own isolated, selfish world, and help him begin to view the world through more giving eyes. The idea that the "gift without the giver were dumb" is something that Frankfort is aware of in the beginning of the story (Jewett 2). But the realization of what true giving is comes with Phebe's gift of the meeting-house, a spiritual image suggesting directly what Frankfort needs for his own spiritual growth into a better human being.
Jewett uses the meeting-house as a symbol of spiritual growth or transformation, because of its association with a spiritual community, a place to seek spiritual nourishment from God with and through community. The office boy is so moved by Phebe's gift and Frankfort's embarrassment over it that he speaks out "with unexpected forbearance and sympathy" (12). This in turn moves Frankfort to see the boy as a fellow human being for the first time. "At that moment a whole new future of human interests spread out before his eyes, from which a veil had suddenly been withdrawn, and Frankfort felt like another man, or as if there had been a revivifying of his old, uninterested, self-occupied nature" (12).
Jewett viewed life with an optimistic realism, a sympathetic and forgiving view of human nature, and was committed to the betterment of human behavior by helping readers to see communal values in her works (Blanchard 68). Her use of the meeting-house indicates the spiritual transformation that takes place in Frankfort, with Phebe's gift as a cause for his final enlightenment.
Jewett has presented us with a story that focuses on males, because it is imperative that they learn to balance ideas of self-importance with the values of a communal spirit. "The King of Folly Island" is about a man discovering the more feminine, passive and nurturing side of his nature. It also suggests a need for women to actively shaping their own lives so that a fully-developed person becomes a balance of the best of both sets of traditionally accepted male and female qualities. Such a balance should lead to spiritual growth, better behavior toward each other, and greater happiness. Frankfort discovers that without this balance, life becomes an island of folly, in which we are all potentially tyrant kings or passive victims.
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This essay was written for Literary Analysis, an introduction to literary studies for declared English majors and minors at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA. Ms. Sedlacek's classmates and her instructor, Terry Heller, provided commentary and assistance during the composition and editing processes.
The Jewett Journal