Many critics agree that The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett is a transcendental text. It is a novel where the natural world is symbolic of the characters' actions and transformations. Sarah Way Sherman says, "nothing much happens to them here...and yet their awareness is subtly transformed" (92). Paula Blanchard says, "the role of nature in Pointed Firs remains essentially transcendentalist, wild creatures and plants being both embodiments and messengers of a universal anima" (296). Although Sherman, Blanchard and others agree that transcendentalism is vital within the novel, they ask the reader to accept this relationship much like Yvor Winters asked his readers to accept the relationship between Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of transcendental philosophy: "on faith, until they find it convenient to check the matter" (285).
Recently, critics like Josephine
Donovan have reanalyzed The Country of the Pointed Firs
as a feminist text by emphasizing that the women of Dunnet Landing
form the core of a matriarchal Christianity.(1)
This argument is an appealing way to read the text, and these
critics are responding appropriately to the central nature of
the women's community in Dunnet Landing. But rather than deliberately
forging a feminist idea throughout her text, Sarah Orne Jewett
writes out of the tradition of Emersonian transcendentalism that
so radically changed the face of nineteenth century philosophy
and politics. Jewett's infusion of womanhood and community throughout
The Country of the Pointed Firs offers a subtle twist
to this tradition. Emerson's ideas, as outlined in his best known
essay "Nature," emphasize the unity of nature, the
divine, and consciousness (Soul) of the individual self. In Dunnet
Landing, nature and the divine are interrelated, in keeping with
Emerson, but rather than the individual self in an isolated environment
it is the communal self, the nature of the individual as a part
of the community, that is a catalyst for transformation and transcendence
of the characters.
Sarah Orne Jewett was not a contemporary of Emerson's. Though he lived until 1882, Emerson was most active in his work through the 1830's and '40's, and Jewett was not born until 1849. Still, Elizabeth Silverthorne reports that Jewett knew the Emersons, having visited them in Concord when she was a girl, and that she "had a great reverence for Emerson and for his disciple and friend Thoreau"(72). It is almost certain that Jewett would have read Emerson's essays, and at the very least, as Virginia Kouidis points out, "the diffusion of Emerson's ideas throughout turn-of-the-century England and America would have made him a common cultural reference" (115). In The Country of the Pointed Firs, divinity and nature are entwined exactly as the core of Emerson's philosophy suggests, undermining formal Christianity and elevating simple country people to a sublime and spiritual realm.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's descent from the church pulpit and ascension of the lecturer's podium is well known to be the beginning of a shift in religious thinking in America. In an introduction to Emerson's essays, Larzer Ziff says that Emerson showed early on a "discontent with the notion of an anthropomorphic god" (13) and that he "preached pure subversion -- a doctrine of perpetual revelation" (16). In "Nature", one of his first essays, Emerson never mentions Christianity directly. He asks, "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" (35). The original relation he espouses is far from the doctrine of Calvinism and puritan Christianity that dominated the young nation. Emerson says:
Emerson believes that the spirit, the Supreme Being (God), and the individual are interrelated through the causal effect of nature, forming a unity, or synergy, between spirit, nature, and self.
Like Emerson, Jewett went through numerous religious changes of her own. As a young woman, she was an active Episcopalian and her writing was infused with moralizing. For young Jewett, God was a muse and an inspiration. Through the influence of her friend Theodore Parsons, she learned of the Christian and ethical ideas of seventeenth-century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (also an influence on Emerson) and incorporated these into her religious tenets. Blanchard says that "in these years she gave religious expression to the belief, common to artists in all ages, that some force beyond herself created her art" (77). As Jewett aged, however, and as her circle of friends and influences widened, her religious fervor mellowed. Concurrently, her writing matured. Just twelve years before the publication of Pointed Firs, A Country Doctor ends with Nan Prince's evocation: "'Oh God' she said, 'I thank thee for my future'" (259). But in The Country of the Pointed Firs, overt statements of belief in divine will are subordinate to more subtle nuances. Blanchard agrees, saying that "Jewett at forty-seven had no need to appeal to external authorities to define her convictions. The moralism is self-evident, the mysticism implied in references to time and nature" (292).
Today, the best known expert on religion within The Country of the Pointed Firs is Josephine Donovan, who believes that the spiritual life of Dunnet Landing is a creation by Jewett of a woman's religion. Donovan says that in The Country of the Pointed Firs:
I think Donovan's theory correctly emphasizes the importance of the community within Dunnet Landing, but her argument is ungrounded. I will return to some of Donovan's ideas in the next section, but let me point out here that she does not define what she means by religion or give examples on why this community is Christian. Rather, she turns to the mythical attributes of Almira Todd when Mrs. Todd works with her herbs and salves. Greek images are not made relevant to Christian images, unless Donovan means to imply that the nature of giving and healing inherent in Mrs. Todd's character is like that of the New Testament.(2) Paula Blanchard believes this:
Today, both Donovan and Blanchard speak from a tradition that has already absorbed many of the primary tenets of transcendentalism. As Jewett writes in the late nineteenth century, she is still mining from a new tradition. Ziff points out, "Orthodox Protestantism was officially outraged by Emerson's ideas" (25). The spiritual life of Dunnet Landing is rooted in a purely transcendental idea of spirit, where the spirit operates without law and civilization, where revelation no matter how small can transcend the ordinary world, and where the spirit is vital within the individual soul. The Supreme Being, the god-figure of which Emerson speaks, is a force directly related to the Christian God, but that spirit manifests itself through nature rather than through cultural dogma. The references within the text to ancient rites, Greek myths, and witch-like herbalism that Donovan cites go hand-in-hand with a cathedral-like grove of trees, a preaching song sparrow, and the humble placement of family bibles on both Joanna Todd and Mrs. Blackett's shelves. All of these ritual elements are infiltrated by nature and human nature to form a world infused with spiritual meaning. As Emerson says: "All things with which we deal, preach to us. What is a farm but mute gospel?" (59).
I believe that by the time Jewett wrote Pointed Firs she was discontented with religious dogmatism and that this is obvious within the text. Formal religion is depicted contemptuously and as subservient to nature as a spiritual influence. Francis Fike expected to find the church would be of central importance in a Northeastern Protestant town like Dunnet Landing but instead found that "religion is considered by the characters more as the occasion for "meetin" (the term for Sunday worship) than as a source of strength" (173). In the novel, Mrs. Blackett says she will "come back an' rest me over night, an' go to meetin' to-morrow, and have a nice, good visit" (79). Mrs. Blackett undermines the importance of the meeting by sandwiching it between the two other equal occasions of resting and visiting.
Mrs. Blackett talks about going to the meeting, and Almira Todd makes comments about a Sunday or two in church, but there are no actual visits to a church building or meeting house in the course of the narration. The only representative of Christianity is Pastor Dimmick, and he is out of touch with the spiritual nature and needs of the people at Dunnet Landing. His ineptitude is the source of several complaints from Almira Todd. She says, "I couldn't help thinkin' he might never get no further; he seemed to know no remedies, but he had a great use of words" (71). When Mrs. Todd joins Pastor Dimmick for a visit to Shell Heap Island, the refuge of the self-condemned Joanna Todd, Dimmick's prayer vexes Almira Todd's sensibilities: "'I got so provoked I opened my eyes and stared at him'" (69).
Pastor Dimmick's ability for moral Christian persuasion is insufficient and inferior to messages that come through nature. The prayer that upsets Mrs. Todd is about God's voice in the whirlwind. Mrs. Todd says that Joanna knew more about these things than Pastor Dimmick as she "had spent the long cold winter all alone out on Shell-heap Island" (69). At Joanna's funeral, Pastor Dimmick is outdone in his preaching by a sparrow who sings louder than Dimmick speaks. The preacher "was put out by it, an' acted as if he didn't know whether to stop or go on" (72). Sparrows are also present at Mrs. Begg's funeral at the beginning of the novel when they "sang and sang, as if with joyous knowledge of immortality, and contempt for those who could so pettily concern themselves with death" (21). These sparrows have contempt for Pastor Dimmick and his beliefs, and they represent an opposing view of mortality. When the lone sparrow comes to battle it out with the preacher over Joanna Todd's coffin, Almira Todd cinches the victory for the sparrow. She says she "wa'n't the only one thought the poor little bird done the best of the two" (72). I think Emerson would agree with Mrs. Todd. He writes that religion "puts an affront upon nature," and that both ethics and religion "put nature under foot"(79).
In the absence of a central church, Green Island is the most church-like, or heaven-like, place at Dunnet Landing. On the island, all nature has a touch of the sacred to it, and all human elements have a touch of nature. When the narrator first sees it, "a gleam of golden sunshine struck the outer islands, and one of them shone out clear in the light, and revealed itself in a compelling way to our eyes...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" (33). When I read this I can't keep from thinking that it is a description of what photographers call "God's light." The island is backlit in a halo. It is the source of a revelation. On the island, the pennyroyal patch is "sainted" (48) to Almira Todd; Mrs. Blackett's house is "two-thirds below the surface, like icebergs" (40), deeply rooted in the holiness of the place; and the narrator reflects on "finding one's hopes satisfied in the riches of a good hill of potatoes" (44). Emerson's statement from which I quoted earlier is apt: "that spirit, that is the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us". The heavenliness of Green Island acts upon the people who visit it and live on it.
Further textual comparison between "Nature" and Pointed Firs shows that many ideas espoused by Emerson were expanded upon by Jewett in her character development. Emerson believes that only "few adult persons can see nature" (38). He says:
Mrs. Blackett retains the spirit of girlhood despite being in her eighties, as told to us by her daughter who says, "There mother, what a girl you be!" (79). Mrs. Blackett retains this youthful demeanor despite seeing many sorrows in life.
Clearly, Mrs. Blackett is one of the few adult persons who can see nature. Further, as nature is also in union with the divine, so is Mrs. Blackett a symbol of divinity. The narrator reflects how Mrs. Blackett has "that final, that highest gift of heaven, a perfect self-forgetfulness" (46).
Almira Todd is like her mother, even though she sometimes feels older than the young-hearted eighty year old. Mrs. Todd's spontaneous ramblings in the woods to gather herbs, leaving the narrator to tend to the herberia, remind me of a school girl playing hooky. Mrs. Todd certainly finds that "wild delight" in nature, but she also has real sorrows about her marriage and a man she loved more than her husband: "them feelin's comes back when you think you've done with 'em, as sure as spring comes with the year" (17).
Emerson also says, "Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most will say least" (71). For Emerson, "words are finite organs of the infinite mind...an action is the perfection and publication of thought. A right action seems to fill the eye, and to be related to all nature" (61). William Blackett is a solitary figure and speaks rarely. His actions are the publication of his thoughts. The narrator notices that he "resolutely asked a blessing in words that I could not hear, and we ate the chowder and were thankful." It is most important that the blessing was asked than to hear the words that were used to ask it. Also, William picks "a few sprigs of late blooming linnaea" and gives them to the narrator "without speaking, but he knew as well as I that one could say half he wished about linnaea" (45).
Joanna Todd is a character who says "least" while she is probably thinking "most." Joanna has turned to nature and solitude in place of a God she believes she has abandoned and been abandoned by. Like William, Joanna has no great use for words. She meets Pastor Dimmick and Mrs. Todd at "the fore door and stood there, not sayin' a word" (67). Mrs. Todd recounts how when the minister "put on his authority and asked her if she felt to enjoy religion in her present situation... she replied that she must be excused from answerin..." (69). When Joanna sends the preacher away like a child, and she and Almira Todd speak frankly for a few moments about Joanna's troubles and how they directly relate to her relationship with God, the awfulness of the moment for Mrs. Todd fades away into the sounds of the island. "I can't expect ever to be forgiven," Joanna says, troubled, but "then she seemed to have said all she wanted to, as if she was done with the world, and we sat there a few minutes longer together. It was real sweet and quiet except for a good many birds and the sea rollin' up on the beach" (70). Joanna is more comfortable in her solitude and in her intimate relationship with nature than she is in the presence of the preacher. Like William, she is an antithesis to Pastor Dimmick, the formal Christian, who has a love for insensible words.
Like Joanna Todd, who seeks Shell Heap Island as a refuge, the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs seeks out Dunnet Landing as a refuge from city life. The narrator returns to Dunnet Landing in the first chapter because she has seen it before, likes it, and wants a place to write and rest. The narrator is well-traveled, but still she finds Dunnet landing to be "all that mixture of remoteness, and childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told"(13). Dunnet Landing is childlike in its centrism, the narrator thinks, but she has dreamed of this quality affectionately. About the narrator, Emerson would say:
The setting itself also has individual traits that hearken to Emerson. Dunnet Landing, the surrounding islands, and the north country where the reunion takes place are all parts of "the country of the pointed firs", and each small environment is remindful of the relationship between nature and spirit. Emerson would say this setting is a "microcosm" of the greater world. He says, "A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world" (60). Dunnet Landing takes on the qualities of a friend:
Green Island, as I have already discussed, takes on the characteristics of heaven. Further, as Emerson says, "Nothing is quite beautiful alone; nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests universal grace" (47). William tells the narrator that Green Island's beauty is equal to any beauty in the world:
The Bowden family land in the north country, the site of the reunion, also becomes a religious symbol. As the family marches ceremoniously, like a Processional, to a wooded grove, the narrative renders this grove in the likeness of a cathedral:
The whole countryside, reigned over by pointed firs, is a microcosm of the divine world. Emerson says:
The characters and the setting
of The Country of the Pointed Firs, then, relate directly
back to Emerson's philosophy of transcendentalism. The characters
of Pointed Firs are intricately connected to the natural
and spiritual worlds. These relationships are not portrayed within
dogmatic or intellectualized text, but rather, they are subtle
and intertwined. Perhaps this is because, as Sherman says, Jewett's
subjects were the country people who are "still rooted in
the Earth...for [whom] truth is not abstract but organic, instinctual;
a matter of sympathy, not intellect" (92). Perhaps also
it is because transcendentalism elevates the intuitive and sublime
and emphasizes the interconnectedness of all natural and divine
things. In an extended metaphor, as Mrs. Blackett and Mrs. Todd
are to nature, as Mrs. Blackett and her home are to heaven, as
William and Joanna are to silent spirit, as the narrator is to
the revitalized soul, and as the whole countryside is to a microcosm
of the perfection of the divine whole, then so is the entire
text of The Country of the Pointed Firs a likeness of
the union of nature and the divine.
So far, I have made many comparisons of the individual characters in the text of The Country of the Pointed Firs with Emerson's ideas about transcendentalism, but it is the relationships between the characters that inform the heart of the work. These characters are interdependent; they remain individual in their behavior, but they share a mutual relationship with their community. This is what I call the edge of the communal self over the individual self. Emerson believed that the individual self is a part of the union with divinity and nature. Sarah Orne Jewett writes to the idea of the communal self as a part of this union.
At this point, I need to clarify some of my ideas in comparison to some ideas in the forefront today that speak to the role of women and community within the text. First, I do not agree with Virginia Kouidis when she claims that Emerson's ideas are exclusive of the woman's realm. Kouidis says, "from his use of the masculine pronoun to his substantive distinction between male and female vision, Emerson shapes and reflects the sexual chauvinism against which women have had to defend and define themselves" (118). Emerson's masculine language in "Nature" is clearly difficult passage for the modern woman reader. He gives nature the feminine gender, saying "Nature stretches out her arms to embrace man" (46), and uses feminine characteristics negatively: "The high and divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy" (45). But Kouidis works primarily with modern women writers Kate Chopin, Mina Loy, Dorothy Richardson, and Marianne Moore, and The Country of the Pointed Firs is not a "modern" novel in this sense. Kouidis points out that in the final work in Richardson's series Pilgrimage a character announces "Emerson is irrelevant to the realities of sex and marriage, to the compromises of domestic life" (128). While this is true in "Nature", and while in their work modern women writers like Kate Chopin delved into the realities of sex and marriage, such aspects of the domestic realm are not prevalent in The Country of the Pointed Firs. Mrs. Blackett and Mrs. Todd are widows, neither is involved in a romance, and Mrs. Todd is childless. The narrator is unmarried. There are no marriages or births within the original text of the novel. I believe that Emerson's exclusion of this realm of women in his essays would not have been of much concern to Sarah Orne Jewett, who also remained unmarried and childless.
Further, and more importantly, I need to return to Josephine Donovan. To Donovan's credit, she does not claim Jewett deliberately created a matriarchal religion. To say so would imply that Jewett meant to undermine the patriarchal religion. We have to take into account that Jewett in her own life did set an example as an independent woman and artist, but she did not harbor any reactive feminist ideas. Donovan says that A Country Doctor is an example of "impassioned feminism" (365), but in that context I believe the meaning is more in an individual sense rather than social or political. Nan Prince was established as being of a different nature than other girls in her community. In Pointed Firs, we have individuals, as well, in a world with a complex set of values. Donovan says that it is "Jewett's intuition of a woman's religion" (380) that guides the transcendence and community of the text. This does remind us that the nature of the work is intuitive and subtle, but I still believe Donovan's view is limiting. I agree with Blanchard who says, "the feminist view of The Country of the Pointed Firs excludes too much, violating the larger theme of universal harmony and interdependence" (276) that permeates the text.
The words Donovan uses, like "function" and "ultimate," imply that the women of the novel do not have other roles than to be a loving center of their community and that therefore their transcendence is a shared event. I disagree for three reasons. First, I believe that each of these women is clearly individual. Almira Todd, who says scathing things about Mari' Harris and another woman at the reunion, is not always loving. The narrator is quieter, a listener, and when Mrs. Blackett is uncomfortable at Almira's extroverted teasing of introverted William, the narrator intervenes on William's behalf by offering to dig the potatoes. Mrs. Blackett is heavenly; her daughter is earthly. Joanna Todd was considered fated to fall into depression because her own mother had been melancholy. Each of these women are individuals in their own right.
Second, although the central relationship within the text is between Mrs. Todd and the narrator, there are men present within the community. Captain Littlepage is a part of Almira Todd's community but Mari' Harris is not. The narrator spends an entire afternoon sitting with the widower Elijah Tilley. At the Bowden Reunion, the men there are an integral part of the family, and Mrs. Blackett points out that there were plenty of men's voices in the singing, saying, "Where I sat it did sound beautiful" (100).
Third, the transcendent nature of the work is more complicated that what Donovan would suggest. The characters are intricately woven in a blend of the public and private sphere. It is difficult to extricate their experiences from each other, but in doing so it becomes evident that the relationship between the public and private within Pointed Firs is the catalyst for transformation. It is the value the characters place on their shared experiences in contrast to their individual experiences that allows for each of them to be transformed.
The private sphere, the realm of the individual self, embodies these moments of or thoughts of solitude. All the characters are isolated. They are widows and widowers or have never been married. They are older, of varying ages, and most are childless. Mrs. Blackett and William have each other, but they are physically separated on Green Island from the rest of the community. As Sherman points out, also in relation to Donovan, the narrator's vocation is by nature isolated: "I agree with Donovan about the central importance of communion; however, I would also stress the importance of solitude and the narrator's dedication to her vocation. The isolation necessary for her art is not rejected, nor is individuality and self-consciousness" (205). All the characters, not just the narrator, are involved in vocations that require solitude. Mrs. Todd gathers herbs alone in the woods, William fishes alone on the sea, and Mrs. Blackett maintains the family home isolated from any neighborhood. There are many textual examples that point out the isolation and solitude that pervades Dunnet Landing, but I will list only one for each character: upon arrival at Dunnet Landing, the narrator first laments about her own isolation, a self-imposed isolation of social means -- class and education, saying, "I had now made myself and my friends remember that I did not really belong to Dunnet Landing" (21); Captain Littlepage's face is "worn into appealing lines, as if he had suffered from loneliness and misapprehension" (22); William's isolation is made clear before he is even introduced to the narrator when Mrs. Todd says, "he was always odd about seein' folks, just 's he is now"(42); the narrator wonders about Mrs. Blackett, "why she had been set to shine on this lonely island of the northern coast"(47); when Almira Todd is at the pennyroyal patch, "there was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape" (49); Elijah Tilley is moored to "continual loneliness" (107).
Joanna Todd is the central solitary figure within the text, and her solitude is both self-imposed and community sanctioned. We do not meet her directly but rather through a series of stories told by Almira Todd and her friend Mrs. Fosdick. Upon hearing these stories, the narrator steps out of character and acts judgmental. She at first finds fault in Joanna's situation by blaming the community and then blames the individual, reflecting "upon a state of society which had admitted such personal freedom and a voluntary hermitage. There was something mediaeval in the behavior of poor Joanna Todd under a disappointment of the heart" (64). But the narrator's critical scrutiny does not last because as she listens intently to Mrs. Todd's story she feels drawn into it. The next scene, in a visit by the narrator to Joanna Todd's island, we see that the narrator feels affinity with Joanna's hermitage: "In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong" (75). Like the narrator and like Joanna Todd, each of the characters in the novel -- the batty Captain Littlepage, the witch-like Almira, the heaven-looking Mrs. Blackett, the funny, silent William, the sorrowful Elijah Tilley -- is a recluse for an hour or a day. Each is an individual island, separate in thoughts and emotions from the next.
These constant reminders of reclusiveness, sorrow and solitude are offset by activities within the public realm. The community is actually displayed in a series of small interactions between individuals. These are shown from the context of the narrator, who is also the writer. Sherman points out the subtle shifts that occur within the text, saying, "These portraits are not fixed or objective. We see the writer's "material" but always in the context of her coming to know it. Her portraits are of individuals in relation. Each is present not as an 'other' but as a 'thou'" (225). Through her material, the narrator shapes each action by her involvement and recounts it without judgment, preserving the individuality of each event.
The narrator's relationship with Mrs. Todd is the most central to the text, and it unfolds as the narrator passes a series of small tests. She demonstrates the convictions of her own individual character to Mrs. Todd, and the host takes her into her confidence in the beginning of a friendship. Each event is linked to a previous one. For example, early on in her arrival at Dunnet Landing, the narrator specifically asserts the importance of her work over watching Mrs. Todd's garden: "I said unkind words of withdrawal to Mrs. Todd" (16). To the narrator's surprise her honesty rewards her: "Mrs. Todd and I were not separated or estranged by the change in our business relations; on the contrary, a deeper intimacy seemed to begin" (16). When the narrator tells Mrs. Todd that she had "a very interesting afternoon" with Captain Littlepage, Mrs. Todd is pleased. Directly after that, Mrs. Todd brings the narrator to Green Island to meet her family. There, the narrator pleases Mrs. Todd again by becoming friends with William and Mrs. Blackett. After the new friends all share a meal, Mrs. Todd takes the narrator to the pennyroyal garden and tells her secrets in confidence. The narrator says, "I felt that we were friends now since she had brought me to this place" (49).
The narrator develops her relationships in this way throughout the novel, making few negative judgments but rather accepting the people she meets for the individuals they are. Meeting William, she is surprised to find that he is an old man, but "I accustomed myself to plain facts on the instant, and we said good-morning like old friends" (44). The narrator develops an intuitive friendship with Mrs. Blackett, as well: "I looked up, and we understood each other without speaking" (12). The most obvious community interaction is the Bowden Reunion. I will come back to this, but let me point out that the reunion is the climax of inclusion for the narrator and the only scene with strangers included. In short, it is an entire community. The narrator says about the reunion, "I came near to feeling like a true Bowden, and parted from certain new friends as if they were old friends; we were rich with the treasure of a new remembrance" (98).
It is through these linked events that we get a picture of the people of Dunnet Landing, Green Island and the surrounding countryside as a community, and each communal interaction is offset by events of a solitary nature. It is the private realm, the individual self, in which our characters reside the most, but it is the public realm, the communal self, to which they aspire. The two realms are linked to transformation. It is in the interrelationship between these opposing states of being that they transcend the ordinary and enter into the realm of the extra-ordinary. In the pennyroyal grove, the narrator calls Mrs. Todd solitary but still the moment is shared between them. The narrator notes "it is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence" (49). In this scene, Mrs. Todd is "possessed" and renewed: "she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs (49). The symbolic image of Joanna's isolation is transformed when the narrator goes to visit Shell Heap Island and finds that "the lonely spot was not without its pilgrims" (75). The sound of a passing boat of laughing children breaks the solitude, and the narrator reflects, "I knew, as if she had told me, that poor Joanna must have heard the like on many and many a summer afternoon, and must have welcomed the good cheer in spite of hopelessness and winter weather, and all the sorrow and disappointment in the world" (76). Joanna sought reclusiveness, but her community was always around her. Conversely, but appropriately, then, even the reunion scene, the ultimate community scene, is not without its transformation. In this scene, after the development of intense feelings of inclusion, it is the loneliness and isolation that comes through. The narrator notes:
The blending and intermingling of solitude with shared events
enforces the importance of community within the text, but the
individual remains an important source of perception. This is
a more complex level of community than what Donovan suggests.
Briefly, womanhood and the matrilineal tradition are all entwined
within the text, but the similarities and differences between
characters are non-gender specific. These differences inform
the text with solitude and offset the community interactions
with individuality and self-hood. In this way, the individual
comprises the soul of the community. This is the nature of the
By this logic then, if the communal is actually the individual, and if the individual strives to become a part of the communal, then it might appear that in The Country of the Pointed Firs nothing is as it seems it would be. Emerson seems to speak in riddles as well when he says that the universe is comprised of nature and the soul, that nature comprises the Supreme Being, and that the soul can penetrate the vast masses of nature and recognize itself in the harmony of nature:
But the complications that arise from trying to unmask these interconnections within the text are made simpler when we look at the text more as a series of transfigurations rather than as leading to an ultimate transcendence shared by all characters. These events are structured in a loosely flowing forward-moving time sequence that enhances the subliminal dissemination of information within the text.(3) The unity of nature, the divine, and the communal self is realized in subtle alterations of character that transcend the ordinary.
Emerson says, "the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common" (80), and many of the events in the novel surround such small miracles. For example, Mrs. Blackett turns the carpet all by herself, with only William's help, and when she has the opportunity to share this news with visitors, she is transformed. She "took on a sudden look of youth; you felt as if she promised a great future, and was beginning, not ending, her summers and their happy toils" (41). Additionally, when Mrs. Todd gives the narrator an herbed drink, in the excitement of the gesture the narrator expects a grand transformation. Instead, the simplest of things is transcendent:
For Mrs. Todd, it is her herbs that cause transformations. The smell of some unknown herb in the evening air puts both Mrs. Todd and the narrator "under the spell" and Mrs. Todd begins to talk about things important to her. Then she transforms into the image of a "huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden" (17). I have already mentioned the pennyroyal patch in which the narrator shares the experience with Mrs. Todd, whose sorrows are heightened by the sensory memory of the herb. Then, she "might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain" (49).
In each moment of transcendence, nature is a vehicle for the spiritual. Emerson says, "Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us" (64). Like the evening herbs and pennyroyal, Almira Todd's garden is a source of a cure for all human emotional ailments and a few natural ones, too: "It may not have been only the common ails of humanity with which she tried to cope; 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" (15). Beyond the garden, the whole countryside takes on the nature of spirit. On Shell-heap Island, it is the birds, the faded sprig of flowers, the bee and butterfly, and the spring at which the narrator drinks that take the narrator so swiftly into Joanna's lingering consciousness. Also, the entire reunion takes place outside: from the small boats battling against the wind to come to shore; to the tree Almira Todd says is "same's folks" (84); to the sprig of laurel that "is a real Sant Bowden," a Bowden family member who drinks, and is "out of its own place" (92); and of course the grove of trees that invokes ancient rites and spiritual symbols in which the Bowden family conduct their ritual march. Mrs. Todd herself becomes a symbol of nature and divinity. At the end, transfigured by the gain and loss of a friend, Mrs. Todd becomes one with the landscape. The narrator watches her: "I lost sight of her as she slowly crossed an open space on one of the higher points of land, and disappeared again behind a dark clump of juniper and the pointed firs" (159). Mrs. Todd becomes a part of the woods. To go back to an earlier point, this whole countryside is a microcosm of the divine world, and it is in the woods where, according to Emerson, "we return to reason and faith."
The narrator is the character
who undergoes the greatest transformation and whose revelations
occur frequently throughout the text. I have already mentioned
the affinity she feels for Joanna's solitude, the union she feels
at the Bowden Reunion, and smaller transcendences, like the enchantment
with the herbed beer. The narrator's greatest transformation
occurs in the coming and leave-taking of Dunnet Landing. She
arrives with her eyes attuned to minutia; she notes with interest
"the rocky shore and dark woods" and the small houses
and gardens (13) but finds fault with "the complete lack
of seclusion" in "the tiny house of Mrs. Almira Todd"
(14). By the time she leaves, her eyes are turned on her friends.
Mrs. Todd scuttles off into the trees, and Elijah Tilley fishes
on the ocean. The setting is not of importance to her. It "became
indistinguishable from the other towns" (16). She has transcended
her own isolation in this little town in which community and
isolation are intricately entwined with the natural world. Michael
Vella says, "Through the power of her corresponding faculty,
she sees more and more the unity of interpersonal life at Dunnet
Landing, enclosed as it is within nature; and most importantly
for her, this unity is transcendental" (147).
Jewett's work is transcendental, and I believe it is more closely rooted in the transcendental tradition of her time than Josephine Donovan or Virginia Kouidis would say. The Country of the Pointed Firs is not solely about transcendence found within a women's community; the text is too deeply symbolic and textured with meaning to be read with only a feminist theory or any other singular approach. Transcendentalism is a thickly layered philosophy in which nature, the divine, and the self are entwined. When all things are interconnected, nothing is absolute except for an individual's own transformation.
Donovan is correct to assert
the importance of community and womanhood within the text, however.
Jewett does subtly alter Emerson's ideas with the infusion of
independent women. Further, beyond gender, the characters of
Dunnet Landing are individual and isolated, and yet they are
entwined in an intricate blend of interrelationships that forms
the heart of their community. It is in the interlocking of these
relationships between the public and private realm that the characters
undergo transformations. While in "Nature," Emerson
emphasizes the unity of nature, spirit, and self, in The
Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett elegantly
blends solitude and shared interaction to portray a union of
nature, spirit, and the communal self in keeping with and growing
from the tradition of nineteenth-century philosophy.
Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. Radcliffe Biography Series. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Donovan, Josephine. "A Woman's Vision of Transcendence: A New Interpretation of the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett." The Massachusetts Review 21.2 (1980): 365-380.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Fike, Francis. "An Interpretation of Pointed Firs." New England Quarterly 34 (1961): 478-491. Rpt. in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Richard Cary. Waterville: Colby College P, 1973. 170-179.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. 1925. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1989.
---. A Country Doctor. New York: Meridian, 1986.
Kouidis, Virginia M. "Prison into Prism: Emerson's 'Many-Colored Lenses' and the Woman Writer of Early Modernism." The Green American Tradition: Essays and Poems for Sherman Paul. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University P. 1989. 115-134.
Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1989.
Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer's Life. Woodstock: Overlook, 1993.
Vella, Michael W. "Sarah Orne Jewett: A reading of The Country of the Pointed Firs." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 19 (1973): 275-282.
Winters, Yvor. "The Significance of The Bridge,
by Hart Crane, or What Are We to
Think of Professor X?" American Transcendentalism: An
Anthology of Criticism.
Ed. Brian M. Barbour. Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame P. 1973. 277-288.
Most recent analyses of Sarah Orne Jewett have included reference to Josephine Donovan. See: Blanchard, (297); Priscilla Leder, "Living Ghosts and Women's Religion...", Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, ed. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar (Knoxville: U. of Tennessee Press, 1991; June Howard, ed, "Jewett in the Traffic in Words", New Essays on The Country of the Pointed Firs (Cambridge U. Press, 1994); and Sherman, (205). Back to paper
ii. A few works that offer New Testament analysis of the text are: Marilyn Fisher, "Community and Earthly Salvation: Christian Intimations Within the Setting of Jewett's Pointed Firs", in Literature and Belief, vol. 10 (Provo: Brigham Young U. P., 1990) 67-77; and Max Loges, "A Collection of Great Souls: Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs", Mount Olive Review, vol. 5 (North Carolina: Mount Olive College, 1991) 43-47. Back
iii. Sherman briefly mentions Emerson's essay "Circles" in a discussion of space and time within the text (216). Back