Analysis of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Stories

When a young reader wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett (September 3, 1849 – June 24, 1909) in 1899 to express admiration of her stories for girls, Jewett encouraged her to continue reading:

You will always have the happiness of finding friendships in books, and it grows pleasanter and pleasanter as one grows older. And then the people in books are apt to make us understand ‘real’ people better, and to know why they do things, and so we learn sympathy and patience and enthusiasm for those we live with, and can try to help them in what they are doing, instead of being half suspicious and finding fault.

Here Jewett states one of the central aims of her fiction, to help people learn the arts of friendship. Chief among these arts is tact, which Jewett defines in The Country of the Pointed Firs as a perfect self-forgetfulness that allows one to enter reverently and sympathetically the sacred realms of the inner lives of others. In her stories, learning tact is often a major element, and those who are successful are often rewarded with epiphanies—moments of visionary union with individuals or with nature—or with communion—the feeling of oneness with another person that for Jewett is the ultimate joy of friendship.

Sarah Orne Jewett/Wikimedia

A White Heron

“A White Heron,” which first appeared in A White Heron, is often considered Jewett’s best story, perhaps because it goes so well with such American classics as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942). With these works, the story shares a central, complex symbol in the white heron and the major American theme of a character’s complex relationship with the landscape and society. As a story about a young person choosing between society and nature as the proper spiritual guide for a particular time in her life, however, “A White Heron” is atypical for Jewett. One main feature that marks the story as Jewett’s, however, is that the main character, Sylvia, learns a kind of tact during her adventure in the woods, a tact that grows out of an epiphany and that leads to the promise of continuing communion with nature that the story implies will help this somewhat weak and solitary child grow into a strong adult.

Sylvia, a young girl rescued by her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, from the overstimulation and overcrowding of her city family, meets a young ornithologist, who fascinates her and promises her ten dollars if she will tell him where he can find the white heron he has long sought for his collection. Childishly tempted by this magnificent sum and her desire to please the hunter, who knows so much of nature yet kills the birds, she determines to climb at dawn a landmark pine from which she might see the heron leave its nest. She succeeds in this quest, but finds she cannot tell her secret to the hunter. The story ends with the assertion that she could have loved the hunter as “a dog loves” and with a prayer to the woodlands and summer to compensate her loss with “gifts and graces.”

Interesting problems in technique and tone occur when Sylvia climbs the pine. The narrative tone shifts in highly noticeable ways. As she begins her walk to the tree before dawn, the narrator expresses personal anxiety that “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.” This statement seems to accentuate an intimacy between reader and narrator; it states the position the narrative rhetoric has implied from the beginning and, in effect, asks if the reader shares this anxiety. From this point until Sylvia reaches the top of the tree, the narrator gradually merges with Sylvia’s internal consciousness. During the climb, Jewett builds on this intimacy with Sylvia. Both narrator and reader are aware of sharing in detail Sylvia’s subjective impressions of her climb and of her view, and this merging of the subjectivities of the story (character, narrator, and reader) extends beyond the persons to objects as the narrator unites with the tree and imagines its sympathy for the climber. The merging extends further yet when Sylvia, the reader, and the narrator see with lyric clarity the sea, the sun, and two hawks that, taken together, make all three observers feel as if they could fly out over the world. Being atop the tallest landmark pine, “a great mainmast to the voyaging earth,” one is, in a way, soaring in the cosmos as the hawks soar in the air.

At this point of clarity and union, the narrative tone shifts again. The narrator speaks directly to Sylvia, commanding her to look at the point where the heron will rise. The vision of the heron rising from a dead hemlock, flying by the pine, and settling on a nearby bough is a kind of colloquy of narrator and character and, if the technique works as it seems to intend, of the reader, too. This shift in “place” involves a shift in time to the present tense that continues through Sylvia’s absorption of the secret and her descent from the tree. It seems clear that the intent of these shifts is to transcend time and space, to unite narrator, reader, character, and the visible scene which is “all the world.” This is virtually the same technical device which is the central organizing device of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and the intent of that device seems similar as well. The reader is to feel a mystical, “transcendental” union with the cosmos that assures one of its life and one’s participation in that life.

A purpose of this union is to make justifiable and understandable Sylvia’s choice not to give the heron’s life away because they have “watched the sea and the morning together.” The narrator’s final prayer makes sense when it is addressed to transcendental nature on behalf of the girl who has rejected superfluous commodity in favor of Spirit, the final gift of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s nature in his essay, “Nature.” Though this story is atypical of Jewett insofar as it offers a fairly clear transcendental view of nature and so presents a moment of communion with the nonhuman, it is characteristic of Jewett in that by subtly drawing reader and narrator into the epiphany, the story creates a moment of human communion.

The Only Rose

More typical of Jewett’s best work is “The Only Rose,” which was first published in The Atlantic in January, 1894, and was then collected in The Life of Nancy. This story is organized by three related epiphanies, each centering on the rose, and each involving a blooming.

In the first “miracle of the rose,” Mrs. Bickford and Miss Pendexter are hypnotized into communion by contemplating the new bloom on Mrs. Bickford’s poor bush. In this epiphany, Miss Pendexter enters into spiritual sympathy with Mrs. Bickford, realizing that her silence this time is unusual, resulting not from having nothing to say, but from “an overburdening sense of the inexpressible.” They go on to share the most intimate conversation of their relationship. The blooming flower leads to a blooming in their friendship. It also leads, however, to Mrs. Bickford’s dilemma: On which of her three dead husbands’ graves should she place this single rose? Her need to answer this question points to a deeper need to escape from her comparatively isolated and ineffectual life by shifting from an ethic of obligation to an ethic of love. Her heart has been frozen since her first husband’s death, and it is long past time now for it to thaw and bloom again. Miss Pendexter understands something of this and tactfully leaves Mrs. Bickford to work it out for herself.

The second miracle of the rose occurs almost at the end of the story, when John confesses his love for Lizzie to his Aunt Bickford as he drives her to the graveyard. The symbolic rose of young and passionate love moves him to speak, even though he is unsure of the propriety of speaking up to the wealthy aunt from whom he hopes to receive an inheritance. His story of young love and hope, however, takes Mrs. Bickford out of herself, and she forgets her troubles in sharing his joy. As a result, he blooms, blushing a “fine scarlet.”

The final miracle is that while she is taking the flowers to the graves, she realizes which of her husbands should have the rose. At the same time that John is taking the rose for his Lizzie, Mrs. Bickford is giving it in her heart to Albert, the first husband, whom she loved so passionately in her youth. Her realization of this event makes her blush “like a girl” and laugh in self-forgetfulness before the graveyard as she remembers that the first flower Albert gave her was just such a rose.

In the overall movement of the story, Mrs. Bickford is lifted out of herself and prepared for a richer and deeper communion with her friends and relatives. The single rose blossom seems mysteriously to impose an obligation upon her, but probably it really awakens the ancient spring of love within her that was perhaps covered over by grief at losing Albert so young and by the difficult life that followed his loss. When she finally struggles free of the weight of the intervening years, she recovers her hidden capacity for friendship and joy, for forgetting herself and joining in the happiness of others. She has epiphanies, rediscovers tact, and begins again to experience communion.

Martha’s Lady

“Martha’s Lady” first appeared in The Atlantic in October, 1897, and was then collected in The Queen’s Twin. This story illustrates Jewett’s mature control over her technique and material. She represents a kind of sainthood without falling into the syrupy sentimentality of popular melodrama.

Into a community beginning to show the effects of a Puritan formalism comes Helena Vernon, a young city woman who is unselfconsciously affectionate and beautiful and, therefore, a pleasure to please. She delights her maiden cousin, Harriet Pyne, charms the local minister, who gives her a copy of his Sermons on the Seriousness of Life, and transforms Martha, Harriet’s new and awkward servant girl. In fact, Helena transforms to some extent everyone she meets in the village of Ashford, taking some of the starch out of their stiff and narrow way of life. After Helena leaves to marry, prosper, and suffer in Europe, Martha carries her memory constantly in her heart: “To lose out of sight the friend whom one has loved and lived to please is to lose joy out of life. But if love is true, there comes presently a higher joy of pleasing the ideal, that is to say, the perfect friend.” This is the ideal of sainthood that the narrative voice asks the reader to admire. Thanks largely to Martha’s living this ideal of always behaving so as to please Helena, she and Harriet live a happy life together for forty years. Helena returns to visit, worn, but with the same youthful spirit, and to reward with a kiss what she recognizes as Martha’s perfect memory of the services Helena enjoyed as a girl. This recognition acknowledges Martha’s faithfulness to her ideal and creates that moment of communion that is the ultimate reward for such faithfulness.

What prevents this story from dissolving into mush? Nearly all the special features of Jewett’s technical facility are necessary. She avoids overelaboration. It is not difficult for an alert reader to notice the parallel to the Christ story type; a liberating figure enters a legalistic society to inspire love in a group of followers, which results in an apotheosis after her departure. The disciple remains true to the ideal until the liberator comes again to claim the disciple. Jewett could have forced this analogy on the reader, but she does not. Only a few details subtly suggest the analogy—character names, calling Martha a saint, and her relics—but these need not compel the reader in this direction, which, in fact, adds only a little to the story’s power.

Although avoiding overelaboration, Jewett also avoids internal views. On the whole, the story is made of narrative summary and brief dramatic scenes. Emotion is revealed through action and speech; this technical choice produces less intensity of feeling than, for example, the intimate internal view of Sylvia in “The White Heron.” The result is a matter-of-factness of tone that keeps Martha’s sainthood of a piece with the ordinary world of Ashford. This choice is supported by nearly every other technical choice of the story—the attention to detail of setting, the gentle but pointed humor directed against religious formalism, and the emergence of Martha from the background of the story. Jewett’s intention seems to be on the one hand to prevent the reader from emoting in excess of the worth of the object, but on the other to feel strongly and warmly the true goodness of Martha’s faithfulness to love. Another purpose of this narrative approach is to demonstrate tact. In “A White Heron,” both Sylvia and the reader enter the quest for the heron with mixed motives, but the nature of the journey—its difficulties, its joys, the absorption it requires— tends to purify motives and to prepare the spirit for epiphany. Sylvia’s vision from atop the pine culminates in communion with the wild bird, a vision she has earned and that she may repeat if she realizes its value.

Jewett’s light touch, her own tact in dealing with such delicate subjects, is one of her leading characteristics, and it flowers magnificently in the fiction of the last ten years of her writing career. Although the stories discussed above illustrate Jewett’s most powerful and moving storytelling, they do not illustrate so fully another of the main characteristics of her stories—humor. Humor is often present in her stories and can be found in more abundance than might be expected in “The Only Rose” and “Martha’s Lady.” She also wrote a number of funny stories that discriminating readers such as Cather would not hesitate to compare with the work of Mark Twain. “The Guests of Mrs. Timms,” though more similar to the stories of Jane Austen than Twain, is a popular story of the humorous ironies that result when a socially ambitious widow calls on another widow of higher status without announcing her visit in advance. Among her best humorous stories are “Law Lane,” “All My Sad Captains,” “A Winter Courtship,” and “The Quest of Mr. Teaby,” but there are many others that are a delight to read.

Major works
Children’s literature: Play Days: A Book of Stories for Children, 1878; The Story of the Normans, 1887; Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls, 1890.
Novels: Deephaven, 1877 (linked sketches); A Country Doctor, 1884; A Marsh Island, 1885; The Country of the Pointed Firs, 1896; The Tory Lover, 1901.
Nonfiction: Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1911 (Annie Fields, editor); Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, 1956 (Richard Cary, editor).
Poetry: Verses: Printed for Her Friends, 1916.
Short fiction:: Old Friends and New, 1879; Country By-Ways, 1881; The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore, 1884; A White Heron, and Other Stories, 1886; The King of Folly Island and Other People, 1888; Strangers and Wayfarers, 1890; Tales of New England, 1890; A Native of Wimby, 1893; The Life of Nancy, 1895; The Queen’s Twin, 1899; Stories and Tales, 1910; The Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1971.

Auten, Janet Gebhart. “‘Nothing Much Happens in This Story’: Teaching Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” In Short Stories in the Classroom, edited by Carole L. Hamilton and Peter Kratzke. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
Cary, Richard, ed. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: Twenty-nine Interpretive Essays. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973.
Donovan, Josephine. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Graham, Margaret Baker. “Visions of Time in The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Winter, 1995): 29-37.
Matthiessen, F. O. Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. Folk Roots and MythicWings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Nagel, Gwen L., and James Nagel. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer’s Life. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1993.

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