Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs.
- a novel based on regionalism
- loosely structured: a series of sketches unified through both setting and subject
- character development rather than plot development
- captures the simple way of life in a coastline village
- emphasizes the natural purity of the village in contrast to the artifice of the city
- peaceful and calm, simple but underlining the beauty of everyday detail
- local people use dialect in direct speech
- the feeling for the country and a deep character insight resembles S. Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, but also K. Mansfield's stories
- most of the sketches are pointed ("Captain Littlepage"), many of them marked by a final epiphany ("At the Schoolhouse Window")
The female narrator, a lover of Dunnet Landing, returns to the coast town of Dunnet. She compares knowing a village like this to knowing a person. Falling in love at first sight is swift, and a friendship may be a lifelong affair. On her revisiting Dunnet, she finds no changes. There are the shores of the pointed firs, the elaborate conventionalities of the village, its remoteness, as well as its childish certainty of being the centre of civilization.
The narrator describes the everyday common details of country life. She is a lodger of Mrs Almira Todd, aged sixty-seven, a large talkative widow, a lover of herbs. Her herbal medicine is purchased by neighbours whom she always sees off with long chapters of directions. She seems to have also remedies for love, hate, jealousy, adverse winds, etc. She is on surprisingly good terms with the village doctor. It is June, a herb-gathering season, so the lodger makes Mrs Todd some allowances. She is content with cold meals and answers the knocks while Mrs Todd is off.
Despite the lodger's own duty to produce a long piece of writing, there is a deeper intimacy established between the two women. In the evening, the lodger smells the penetrating odour of a mysterious herb and listens to Mrs Todd's story as if spell-bound. Mrs Todd tells the lodger about her lover from another village whom she had as a young girl. She fell in love with a prospering man from a family with a higher social status than hers. His mother was not favourable to the match. The man forgot her, but she never did.
Due to Mrs Todd's widespread reputation, there are women arriving from the inland country for a piece of gossip and advice. The lodger walks out with her blotting-book to flee the temptation to listen to the women. She contemplates the countryside. The village consists of a harbour, small wooden houses, and dark woods. Mrs Todd's house is the last on the way inland. In the inland country there are individual scattered farms rather than villages. A little white schoolhouse on the brink of the hill is a landmark dividing the coast from the inland.
The lodger hires the schoolhouse for summer. Her industries are here undisturbed, but by an idle sheep coming to the door. She sits at the teacher's desk like a great authority. Once Mrs Todd comes to the house to gather herbs. She compares herbs to people. The herbs about the schoolhouse lot are the best because they are being scuffed down all the spring. And some folks that had it hard in their youth make the most of themselves before they die.
"At the Schoolhouse Window"
It is a funeral of Mrs Begg. Mrs Todd and Mrs Begg used to be friends as girls. But the latter came to be dissatisfied with country life.
The narrator contemplates the walking funeral. She sees Captain Littlepage, aged eighty, mysterious, grave, and pale, who is never out of doors. She watches a person referred to as "that Mari Harris", Captain's incompetent housekeeper.
Her sentences fail to catch the lovely summer cadences. For the first time she wishes to have a companion. She realizes that she does not really belong to Dunnet Landing.
Captain Littlepage comes to the schoolhouse. He perhaps needs to talk to someone and naturally chooses the stranger whom he can expected not to be restrained in the way the villagers are. "A happy, rural seat of various views," he cites Paradise Lost when the lodger offers him the teacher's desk seat. Captain speaks with a slow correctness of language, despite his using of some dialect words. He makes an impression as if he came from an old New England ecclesiastical family.
Captain returns to the just finished funeral and describes Mrs Begg as one of the old stock. Then he tells the lodger about his life. The villagers fancy that they comprehend the universe, but he knows better. As a sea captain he had a dog's life, but was made a man in this way. He gained experience of foreign countries and their laws and above all he got a sense of proportion. Captains read a lot to make themselves company. He himself read poets. He is sorry for the disappearing shipping and sea captains.
The Dunnet Landing life is described as idyllic on one hand, on the other hand there are problems and disadvantages. The original country life is disappearing, it is being twisted to another and different form. The villagers now are a narrowed-down community, ignorant, shut up to its own affairs, and lacking knowledge of the outside.
"The Waiting Place"
Captain tells the lodger about his experience on the ship Minerva. He shipwrecked on the Greenland coast and was accommodated at a Moravian missionary station. There he waited for the supply steamer. He lived in poor conditions with an old crippled Scottish seaman called Gaffett. He found comfort in poetry, especially in Shakespeare.
Gaffett told him about his voyage of discovery. His expedition was taken by a warm current to the coast where a ghostly vision of a town appeared. There were human-shaped creatures of fog and cobweb, neither living nor dead. The expedition could neither reach the town nor catch the ghosts. The ghosts raised armies and ran after them, as if driving them back to sea. When they left the shore, they could see the town in the same way as when the first arrived. Was it a vision caused by some condition of the light and the magnetic current? Gaffet believed that this strange country up north beyond the ice was the next world to this, the waiting place between this world and the next. He was the only to survive and believing in the crucial importance of the discovery, he took down exact directions how to get to the place.
Captain concludes that he remained the only to carry further Gaffett's message and to challenge further expeditions. He was not successful. Finishing his narrative, his eyes fall on the map of North America on the wall: "... his eyes were fixed upon the northernmost regions and their careful recent outlined with a look of bewilderment."
"The Outer Island"
Captain recovers from his reverie and returns to the funeral. The loss of Mrs Begg is juxtaposed with the loss of shipping. Captain invites the lodger for a visit. Mrs Todd watches them descending from the schoolhouse side by side.
Mrs Todd observes that Captain is affected by too much reading. Mrs Todd and the lodger contemplate the countryside: the harbour, the shores of pointed firs. Suddenly a shadow clears and the sun bursts upon the outer island. It is like a sudden revelation of the next world to this.
Mrs Todd plans a visit to Green Island where her mother lives. The lodger is of course invited, too. Mrs Todd shows her affection to the lodger by offering her a special kind of bear that she does not give just to anybody.
Mrs Todd, the lodger, and Johnny Bowden, who is Mrs Todd's cousin's son, set off in a boat to Green Island. The company watches passing islands and the lodger is told about the history of their inhabitants. One of the islands that they pass is occupied by two farmer houses who have not spoken to each other for three generations, though they share one island.
The tops of the firs come sharp against the blue sky and a small white house appears. The island inhabited by Mrs Blackett is a complete tiny continent in itself. Mrs Blackett and her daughter share a peaceful, harmonic, and affectionate relationship. Mrs Blackett is a little nice lady, short and tiny. She strikes the lodger as if she were an old and dear cordial friend. Though aged eighty-six, she is extremely vital. She even turned alone a carpet, only with some help of her son.
She shows the lodger her best room. Mrs Todd was married in this very room. The room is Mrs Blackett's tribute to Society, though she lives on an neighbourless island.
The lodger digs potatoes and compares it to gold digging. Mrs Blackett's son, William, aged sixty, meets her and helps her with the basket. He is shy about meeting people, being used to see nobody but his family.
William overcomes his shyness and invites the lodger to go up the great ledge. There is great innocence and simplicity in the moment. William proudly shows the lodger the magnificent view above the pointed firs: islands, mainland, far horizons.
"Where Pennyroyal Grew"
Lunch is served and Mrs Blackett proves to be exquisitely hospitable. Mrs Todd shows the lodger pictures of her mother, herself, and William. She then invites the lodger for herbgathering. She takes the lodger to a secret place that nobody else but her mother knows. It is a place where the most exquisite pennyroyal grows. For Mrs Todd the place is connected to many memories. It was her and her husband's favourite place.
Mrs Todd's husband Nathan died in an accident on the sea. He never knew that she always liked him. This place and the pennyroyal however always reminded Mrs Todd of the other man in her life, her lost lover. In this moment Mrs Todd strikes the lodger as if she were an Antigone: "absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman."
"The Old Singers"
Tea is brought. It is served in mugs that Mrs Blackett's father brought from Tobago. Though the family members cannot not speak their deeper feelings before each other, they express their affection in singing. William's tenor is accompanied by Mrs Blackett. The two sing "Home, Sweet Home", a song which brings the lodger to tears. She learns to know what a real home means to Mrs Todd and the Blacketts. She is invited to sit in the rocking chair in the bedroom. She shall never forget the day on Green Island.
"A Strange Sail"
A strange sail on horizon appears. It Mrs Susan Fosdick, Mrs Todd's old friend, good company, exquisite visitor, and an entertaining pilgrim whose chief occupation seems to be paying visits. The lodger at first feels as if she were left out, but soon she finds interest in the talk. Mrs Fosdick and Mrs Todd are sincere friends, they reminiscence of old times and old friends. Old friends are the best, unless there is a new one that is fit to become an old friend, too, they say. At this moment Mrs Todd and the lodger exchange an affectionate glance.
It is a cold evening. Herbgathering is over, it comes the time of syrups. Mrs Todd and Mrs Fosdick reminisce, the lodger listens. They talk about Shell-heap Island, a small and mysterious piece of land with harsh conditions and difficult access. It used to be an Indian island and was connected with tales of cannibals and the disappearing of seafaring families. Not only tales of cannibals vanished, but also curiosities and peculiarities of character are disappearing. The women tell the lodger about such a peculiar character who inhabited the island.
A young girl Joanna, Nathan Todd's cousin, was overwhelmed by her fiancé's marrying another girl. She wanted to get away from people and found her refuge at Shell-heap Island. She had a little house built by her father there. She was collecting the exquisite clams, keeping sheep, tended a field with potatoes, etc. Her life arose interest, but she asked to be left alone. There was even a man who would marry her and kept on bringing her packets, hen, and chicken. But she refused to leave her voluntary hermitage.
A neighbour coming for a medicine for a sick child interrupts the narrative. Neighbours are of vital importance, and lonely Joanna had none. Mrs Todd once paid a visit to Joanna. The girl was polite, but sad and remote. Reverend Dimmick visited Joanna, too. He was a good priest as far as words are concerned, but incapable of comforting a person. Joanna claimed she had committed the unpardonable sin. She accepted the visit and provisions and invited her mother to come. But she refused to live on the mainland, claiming she had no right to do so. Her loneliness was her penance. At Joanna's burial there was a tame sparrow sitting and singing on her coffin. The sparrow's was a better performance than that of Reverend Dimmick.
"On Shell-heap Island"
The lodger and Captain Bowden's sail to Shell-heap island. They are like pilgrims coming to a saint's lot. Joanna has been dead for twenty-two years now. Her house is ruined, but there are paths leading to her grave. The lodger is interrupted from her reveries by a sudden noise from a pleasure-boat.
"The Great Expedition"
Sam Begg comes with his chaise to get his inherited annuity. It is the day of family reunion for Mrs Todd. She wails her mother's failure to come, but Mrs Blackett begins to feel her age. Unexpectedly, Mrs Blackett arrives in the morning to join the expedition up the country. They use Sam Begg's chaise.
On their way, the lodger contemplates the countryside, smells the fragrance of fir-balsam, and listens to the silence interrupted only by bird songs. Captain Littlepage is sitting at his window, not hearing the lodger: "There was a patient look on the old man's face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship."
"A Country Road"
Mrs Todd left the door wide open but scorns the lodger's offer to run back. Instead she asks the doctor, whom they meet, to close it when it is dusty. They pay numerous dooryard visits on their way. Mrs Todd and especially Mrs Blackett are greeted with delight. The inland consists of scattered farms creating a golden chain of love and dependence. Doughnuts are fried everywhere, but an only woman offers them some, she is a stranger married to the family.
They follow shady roads. Their trees are compared to people. If a grown tree is put into new ground, it will first almost perish, but then it will turn to its own living spring and survive. When the company arrives at the top of a hill, they contemplate the landscape: the upper bay, the town of Fessenden, a farm in Fessenden. Mrs Blackett's sister joins them and they continue in their way.
"The Bowden Reunion"
There is a great feast of the whole large family gathered to Back Cove. The enthusiasm of the villagers is not wasted on petty excitements of city life, so they fully enjoy the occasion of the family reunion. The family is of French origin. Near the house of the first Bowden settler there are the graves of five generations of sailors, farmers, and soldiers. The gathering relatives resemble an old illustration of the Pilgrim's Progress. Mrs Blackett, the queen of the reunion, walks at the head of the procession to the grove. The lodger feels like an adopted Bowden. One of the family members, the old marshal Sant Bowden, was never accepted to the army: "the country'd lost a great general". Sant Bowden was out of its own place, like a plant which cannot flourish when not planted in the right ground.
There is some disapproving gossip concerning Mari Harris. Captain Littlepage could have been better, if she were be better to him and listened to his narratives sometimes. Mrs Todd expresses her hate of Nathan's cousin. The lodger thinks that Mrs Todd is an example of wasted of human ability. She has grown sluggish for lack of proper surroundings, with no opportunity and no stimulus. A narrow set of circumstances makes a person restrained.
"The Feast's End"
It is time for apple-pie with elaborate dates and names on it. The lodger gets the word "Bowden", Mrs Todd consumes "Reunion". There is also a gingerbread copy of the house. What follows are speeches, lectures of family historians, and poetry reading.
When it is time to leave, there comes an extremely affectionate and sincere goodbye saying. A renewed sense of isolation follows. In this country even funerals are not without social advantages. There is a generally shared sense of getting old. Even the lodger feels she is no longer very young.
The lodger pays a visit to fisherman Elijah Tilley. He is one of the four ancient seafarers at the Landing. The seafarers used to be in a close partnership, helping one another, though without words or ostentation. Boats are compared to their masters, all of them have distinct personalities.
Tilley's fields are well kept, stakes in the fields mark the rocks, otherwise all stones are cleared. After the death of Tilley's wife eight years ago, his central concern is keeping the house in order as when she lived and so paying a tribute to her memory. The lodger is invited into the best room. She can see the great days of purchases for it. There is a set of French cups, the best that the couple had, and not a single of them was broken. At least Tilley used to boast with this. Only after his wife's death he found out that she had broken one and has not told him out of her own hurt pride. This was the only secret between them.
The old fisherman is self-sufficient and does all his work himself, but he lives for the memory of his dead wife only.
"The Backward View"
The lodger is leaving the island. Mrs Todd looks as if they were on the edge of a quarrel. She leaves the house for an errand, not seeing the lodger off. But she leaves her lodger presents, including the coral pin that Nathan Todd brought for poor Joanna and that Joanna gave her.
The lodger contemplates the countryside and sees the small figure of Mrs Todd. She is uneasy to leave for London to be a stranger there again. At Dunnet Landing she feels like at home now.
She leaves on a steamer and shouts to Elijah Tilley who answers by a solemn nod; "...and when I looked again, the islands and the headland had run together and Dunnet Landing and all its coasts were lost to sight."
AuthorJewett, Sarah Orne. (1849 - 1909).
Full TitleThe Country of the Pointed Firs.
First PublishedBoston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1896.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs. (1896). NY: Dover, 1994.