Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)
Contributing Editor: Elizabeth Ammons
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I've encountered some problems teaching Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs because at first it seems dull to students, but they love "A White Heron" (hereafter WH) and I'm confident that they will also respond enthusiastically to "The Foreigner" (hereafter F), though I have not taught it. (There is, by the way, a film of WH that many people find excellent.)
Students often don't like the ending of WH (the author's intrusion) and are baffled by it; they wonder about Sylvia's mother--what's Jewett saying about her?--and about why the girl's grandmother sides with the man. Also they wonder why the bird is male.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Both of these stories are characteristic of Jewett, not only in focusing on women but also in focusing on women-centered or women-dominated space, geographic and psychic. The existence and meaning of such space probably identify the most basic theme in Jewett.
Female-defined space is celebrated in F, which shows the boundaries of such space transcending the physical world and also national and ethnic barriers. The bonds between women find expression in and are grounded in the acts of mutual nurture, healing, story-telling, shelter, feeding, touching, and transmission of wisdom denigrated in the dominant culture as witchcraft. Female-defined reality is threatened but then reaffirmed, at least for the present, in WH, in which the intrusion of a man from the city into the grandmother/cow/girl-controlled rural space upsets the daily harmony, and potentially the life-balance itself, of nature.
Historically these stories explore the strength and depth of female bonding at a time when same-sex relationships between women in western culture were being redefined by sexologists such as Freud and Havelock Ellis as pathological and deviant. Jewett recognizes in WH the threat posed to same-sex female bonding by the allure of heterosexuality in the person of the hunter, who is sexy and deals in violence and death: if Sylvia falls for him, she will be participating, symbolically, in her own death (the killing and stuffing of the heron). In F, written later, Jewett sets against a stormy background a story affirming women's love, despite divisions of region, nationality, and culture.
Sororal, filial, maternal, erotic: bonds between women in Jewett's work no doubt reflect her own feelings and those of women close to her. While she numbered men among her friends and associates, her closest, most intimate friends were women. Debate about whether to call Jewett a lesbian writer exists because the term was not one Jewett would have used; our highly sexualized twentieth-century view of same-sex romantic and erotic attachment may very well not be a historically accurate way to describe Jewett's world, fictive or biographical. So labels need to be carefully thought about. Whatever terminology is used, though, the central, deep, recurrent theme in Jewett's work is love between women.
Also, race is an important topic in these two stories, even though--or especially because--it is not explicitly acknowledged. In WH, the overdetermination of whiteness--the bird, the cow's milk, the emphatically pale skin of Sylvie--in combination with the tale's rejection of city/industrial life points to Jewett's creating a tale about protecting and preserving whiteness itself (the bird) from threatened attack (the hunter). Similarly, race constitutes a significant topic in F. The Foreigner comes from the West Indies, Josephine (born in the West Indies) figures in the story, and the dark visage of the Foreigner's mother appears in the doorway. A good question to consider in teaching both of these stories is: How so these fictions inscribe whiteness as a racial category? How are they about white culture? white people? white anxieties? white dominance?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
F uses many features of the traditional western ghost story to tell a love story. The storm, the cat, the ghost--the tale is deliberately encoded with ghost-story trappings, yet is in the end not scary but healing. The story is formally interesting to think about therefore as a transformation of something Poe or Hawthorne might do into a narrative that instead of scaring or depressing, succors. A kind of serious fierce maternalization of masculine form? Certainly WH plays with masculine form, reproducing in its structure the build to a high climax (literally the tippy-top of a tree) that both traditional, white, western dramatic structure (exposition/ conflict/complication/climax/resolution) and, it can be argued, male-dominated heterosexual relations inscribe. Then at the end of WH Jewett disrupts and undoes this tight, linear pattern with a flossy, chatty final paragraph so exaggeratedly "feminine" in character as to call attention to itself. One question often asked by students is: Why does the narrative voice switch like this in the end? One answer is that, just as Sylvia's decision thwarts the hunter, the narrative switch at the end deliberately deconstructs the traditional inherited masculine narrative pattern of climax-oriented fiction grounded in aggression and conflict that has preceded.
Jewett was widely read and admired in the late nineteenth century, but until recently she has been dismissed in the academy as minor, regional, slight. Her recent revival reflects in large part the increasing numbers and strength of women in the profession of professor and scholar. Not of interest (threatening?) to a predominantly white, male, heterosexual group of critics and scholars, Jewett is now finding an increasingly large audience as women gain power within the system of higher education. That is, Jewett is the beneficiary of a new group of people being able to define what is "interesting" and "important." Thus Jewett, when we ponder the question of audience, vividly raises highly political issues: Who defines what is "good" and worth studying? How do the politics of gender and sexual orientation shape the politics of the classroom, without their ever even being acknowledged? What writers and kinds of writers are currently being excluded or denigrated because of the composition of the profession of professor?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Jewett is often compared quite productively with Freeman, a fellow New England writer. Jewett admired Harriet Beecher Stowe's New England writing and therefore is fruitfully thought of in conjunction with Stowe. Since Willa Cather was encouraged by Jewett to write full time and, particularly, on the topic of women's relationships with each other, Cather's work is very interesting to compare and contrast with Jewett's. As a regionalist-- a writer engaged in trying to capture in detail and with great accuracy and sensitivity life as it was experienced in a particular region, rather than attempting to fill in a huge and more diffuse canvas, Jewett compares illuminatingly with other regionalists, especially across regions: Kate Chopin and Alice Dunbar-Nelson focusing on New Orleans, Hamlin Garland picturing the northern Midwest, Abraham Cahan on the Lower East Side in New York.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. F: Who is the foreigner? Is this story racist?
WH: Who/what does the heron symbolize? Why is the cow in the story? Why does it matter that Sylvia is nine years old? Why is the heron white?
2. These two stories together and individually lend themselves well to traditional kinds of textual analysis of symbols, imagery, characterization, authorial point of view, and so forth: for example, animal imagery and symbolism in either or both; nature as a character in either or both; comparing the portraits of old women in the two stories.
Two sources for essays are: Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984) and The Colby Library Quarterly: Special Issue on Jewett (March 1986). WH and F are discussed from various points of view in a number of excellent essays in these two volumes. An important booklength study is Marilyn Sanders Mobley's Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison (1991). Also New Essays on The Country of the Pointed Firs, ed. June Howard, contains valuable essays that can be applied to these two stories.