Initially serialized in the Atlantic Monthly—the leading literary periodical when Sarah Orne Jewett was most prolific—The Country of the Pointed Firs is, according to many critics (as well as authors such as Willa Cather), her strongest and most representative work. Critics praised the Novella her 17th book, for having an exquisite writing style; for capturing New England life, land, and language; and for using regionalism, the picturesque, and naturalism.
The Country of the Pointed Firs consists of semirelated sketches of people and place, interconnected by an outsider narrator who enters a pastoral, preindustrial region from an industrialized city. Jewett had been concerned with people and place since she began publishing in 1868; in Country, perhaps her most masterful attempt at this sort of writing, small crosssections of the lives of an insular, stereotypically New England community based in the fictional town of Dunnet Landing, Maine, intersect and comment on one another. Some of the residents of Dunnet Landing, notably Almira Todd, later appeared in Jewett’s short stories, such as “The Foreigner” (1900).
The residents of Dunnet Landing are long-term Maine residents. Jewett tells their stories in a style most often described as weblike, or artistically connected in a complex pattern. These characters have a very close community, and, not surprisingly, their closeness has a somber as well as a communal quality: They frequently exclude those who are not of Dunnet Landing and of European (generally French) descent. As has any small town, Dunnet Landing has characters (in all senses of the word) who refuse to conform to town standards; William Blackett, Captain Littlepage, and Joanna Todd, for instance, attain almost mythic status for their deviance. Those who, as Marie Harris, do not blend in racially, also refuse to adhere to community morals and thus appear coarse and uncivilized.
The narrative pointedly deviates from a traditional, patriarchal way of storytelling, instead almost always weaving outward from Almira Todd’s home. (The female metaphor of weaving appears apt here.) Dunnet Landing also focuses on women’s friendships: Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Fosdick, lifelong friends, discuss each other’s families as if they were their own; Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Blacket share an emotional trip to Green Island; and, in a pivotal scene, Mrs. Todd and the narrator gather pennyroyal, a medicinal herb, for Mrs. Todd’s homemade medicine. The land is pastoral, industry is absent, and the trees—firs and spruces—are mentioned as frequently as town locales, like the Bowden farm and Elijah Tilley’s fish house. The town, cast as fiercely regional, lies notably distant from the urban landscape where the female narrator used to live.
Many conversations and storytelling moments occur, such as long semidivergent anecdotes by Captain Littlepage and Elijah Tilley, but other stories explicitly address the signifi cance of tradition. Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Fosdick relate the tale of Joanna Todd, who disappeared into self-imposed exile. The narrator—as participant, observer, and the reader’s way into the story—travels to Shellheap Island, stands at Joanna’s grave, and, as the character frequently does, philosophizes about life inside and outside the world of Dunnet Landing. Ultimately, although the stories of Country feature moments of suffering, particularly of women under the subtly present arm of patriarchy, the majority of the tales connect through Jewett’s meticulously artistic examinations—often expressed through scenes of epiphany—of love, community, understanding, discovery, and individual fulfillment (Heller xxii).
Heller, Terry. “Introduction.” In Sarah Orne Jewett: The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Howard, June, ed. New Essays on “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Jewett, Sara Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.