Jewett, Sarah Orne: Title Commentary

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"A White Heron"
The Country of the Pointed Firs

"A White Heron"


SOURCE: Dolberg, Lynn. "Unanswered Questions, Unquestioned Voices: Silence in 'A White Heron.'" Colby Quarterly 34, no. 2 (June 1998): 123-33.

In the following essay, Dolberg suggests that silence is used as an empowering narrative technique in "A White Heron."

Literary history and the present are dark with silences, some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden, some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all.

Olsen, Silences

Since the publication of Silences in 1965, "silence" has meant more than absence of speech or text. Tillie Olsen uncovers the various agencies behind things unspoken: how and why has silence come about? Who has silenced whom? Olsen's work makes "silence" a political term; giving voice to the previously muted is now standard practice in Women's Studies. In "Breaking Silence: The Woman Warrior," Shirley Nelson Garner outlines the feminist argument clearly:

It … occurs to me that silence or quietness has been just as unquestioned a virtue for women as chastity.…For women born into such a cultural tradition, speaking itself becomes an act of assertion. Speaking in public becomes a radical act.…To speak with anger relegates one to the realm of whores, witches and madwomen. It is no wonder … that feminist artists and writers talk about "breaking silence" as a crucial experience.


Silence is a "feminine" virtue; breaking silence is a feminist act. Olsen's work calls particular attention to the untapped potential of women who, for reasons as various as the women themselves, are unable to record their experiences, ideas, and beliefs. Sometimes, as Garner outlines above, the cultural pressure to remain "feminine" prevails; in other instances, silencing takes a much more concrete form: "Faulkner's 'real life' Dilsey lived and died [within] walking distance from the world-famous writer to whose books, language (and self) she contributed so much—never enabled to read a word he had written, let alone write; tell in her own powerful language, her own imaginings, reality" (Olsen 208). Here is a woman clearly inspirational. Her characteristics are well known to readers of American fiction. Has she any awareness of her fame? What if, as Olsen suggests, she had been able to tell her own story? What might readers learn from this woman's own voice? Literacy commands power and opportunity unavailable to "Dilsey."1

Enforced female illiteracy is a partial explanation for the fact that men have for centuries been the primary writers. This primacy leads to the understanding, so hotly contested among today's literary critics, that canonical literature is limited in its scope and, therefore, in its appeal. Jane Austen (one of a few women regularly included in the canon) understands this sentiment: "Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing" (236). Anne Elliot expresses dissatisfaction with books, her words part of Austen's work at transformation of a masculine literary heritage. This passage forecasts today's canon wars in its assertion that text has little meaning when its perspective is exclusive. What about those writers who prevailed in the face of cultural and societal pressures to remain silent? Do they not deserve some attention for these feats alone? Consistent throughout critical discourses concerning silence is the idea that, spoken or written, absent or present, speech is related to power.

Sarah Orne Jewett is one of many women writers recently reclaimed by feminist critics. Historically, analyses of Jewett held her within specific boundaries; customarily considered a regionalist, Jewett was often understood as limited in theme and focus.2 In contrast, feminist studies celebrate the woman-centered worlds within her works, finding within these communities a wealth of images, including the pastoral and the divine, and a wealth of dynamic characters, including spiritual and actual mothers, and powerful older women. In contrast to traditional feminist accounts that regard silence as merely oppressive and speech as inherently liberating, I wish to suggest here that an empowering and intimate silence is directly present in Jewett's work, where it represents a theme, a habit, and a narrative technique. Elaine Showalter has suggested that women's fiction speaks a "double-voiced discourse," containing a "dominant" and "muted" story (266). In Show-alter's terms I seek to amplify the muted through a reexamination of the dominant, in particular through a close reading of Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron." Here silence is present on two levels. The first occurs within the story world—when characters themselves are silent. Silence exists as well within what I will term Jewett's methodological world—within moments when either author or narrator (or both) are silent.

I will begin by simply pointing out some instances of silence in this story. To start within the story world, even Sylvia's cow understands the value of silence. She not only refuses to respond to Sylvia's calls, she also knows that if she remains "still," her bell will remain noiseless and enforce her solitude: "it was her greatest pleasure to hide herself away among the high huckleberry bushes, and though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring" (1). This scenario (silence in response to intrusive search) is of course parallel to Sylvia's own experience with the inquisitive stranger. When Sylvia encounters the "enemy," her initial responses to him are "almost" inaudible. He demands that she "speak up," and she barely manages a one-word response, answering only after he questions her repeatedly (5-6). Once they arrive at home Sylvia remains silent for the rest of the evening while her grandmother and the young intruder converse. Quiet, Sylvia is nonetheless listening carefully to her companions' conversation and is in fact so distracted by the mention of reward money that she uncharacteristically neglects a hop-toad's comfort. The creature is unable to gain access to his home because of their presence, but Sylvia is far too lost in thought to realize its dilemma: "No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy" (12). In fact, beyond her initial three words of direction to the stranger, we have access to only a single word uttered by Sylvia, her own—significant—name.3

On a methodological level, Jewett and her narrator are silent on several occasions. We are initially told that Sylvia is afraid of people. We are not, however, told why this is so. Has she had some frightening experience in that "noisy town" where she spent her earlier childhood? Does her fear have to do with the "red-faced boy" she is remembering at the moment she encounters the ornithologist? Or is it simply the result of shyness, not caused by any particular event but rather just part of her nature? The narrator is also silent on the subject of the ornithologist's name. His character is in this way generic—he is initially the "enemy," then "the stranger," the "young man," the "guest," the "ornithologist," the "young sportsman." When Sylvia brings him home, we are told that she "knew by instinct that her grandmother did not understand the gravity of the situation" (6). But we are not told what she believes the cause of this gravity is. Why is Sylvia so threatened?

These are just a few examples—there are many more—to offer evidence of the constancy of silence in this story. But what is this silence about? How is it employed and what is its influence? As I have mentioned, the stranger's initial presence frightens Sylvia, but by the next day she is enjoying his companionship. The language which describes their time together becomes increasingly romanticized:

As the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young foresters who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft-footed silent care. They stopped to listen to a bird's song; they pressed forward again eagerly, parting the branches,—speaking to each other rarely and in whispers.…


Some critics point to the underlying sexual tension in this passage; George Held has stressed the "romantic aura" created by Jewett's alliterative style (64). It is important, certainly, that Jewett herself understood "A White Heron" to be a romance. In a letter to Annie Fields, she writes, "Mr. Howells thinks that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more; but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all. It must be the fault of the writers that such writing is dull, but what shall I do with my 'White Heron' now she is written?" (59). The romance Jewett refers to is in "every-day life"; these lines do not necessitate a romance between Sylvia and her companion. "Every-day life" could describe the romance between child and nature, the romance of possible discovery, the romance that is almost a given within such pastoral surroundings. What is the setting and source of this romance? The couple tread with "soft-footed silent care," they stop to "listen to a bird's song," they speak "rarely" and then only "in whispers." The "premonition" of "that great power" these two experience clearly refers to the "dream of love" in the previous sentence.

But the great power present throughout this story is the power of silence. Perhaps the premonition is that one power (love) will be halted by the other (silence); or, perhaps for Sylvia, the two are somehow intricately connected. This moment is enjoyable to Sylvia only because she is able to exist within the silence she needs. The source of this need is not made explicit, but its urgency is without question. When silence is broken, Sylvia becomes terrified: "she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first. The sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her,—it was hard enough to answer yes or no when there was need of that" (13). Societal convention allows Sylvia to follow, not lead, to reject speech unless she is directly addressed. In this way she is able to avoid making a decision about whether or not to share her information about the white heron. On this first day of exploration together, Sylvia embraces silence because it offers her safety. Age and gender have determined her subservient position and Sylvia makes use of this subservience. Silence, described by Olsen and others as the result of oppression, is here turned into an instrument of empowerment. It enables Sylvia to retain her knowledge, save the white heron and, by extension, save herself.

The second portion of this passage also deserves attention: "the sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her." As Held points out, the meaning of this sentence is somewhat obscure (64). On what exactly does Sylvia's fear depend? Is it a fear of speaking unless she is questioned by her companion? Or does she fear speaking without questioning herself about her motives? The clearest interpretation of this line is the former, and yet the second meaning has import here as well. Is this obscurity typical of Jewett's writing? Jewett's critical and technical methods are never clearly laid out in a single essay but must instead be gleaned from her letters and diaries. With respect to her readership, one diary entry written in 1871 seems particularly apt:

Father said this one day "A story should be managed so that it should suggest interesting things to the reader instead of the author's doing all the thinking for him, and setting before him in black and white. The best compliment is for the reader to say 'Why didn't he put in "this" or "that."'"

(cited in Donovan 224, n. 19)

This entry suggests at least a couple of interesting resonances within the present discussion. Certainly in "A White Heron" Jewett adds gray to her "black and white" text. What is particularly significant is that at this moment describing Sylvia's "unquestioned voice," Jewett—herself determined to write things "as they are" (Letters [Cary] 52)—is not writing with exceptional clarity. Why does she stray from her stated method? The author is silent to her reader's questions about Sylvia's motivations. Although we know that Sylvia, at moments, hopes to spot the white heron, it is clear she is not at all ready to volunteer information. Jewett expands on the questioning process by making determinability about the girl's self-inquiry equally enigmatic. Sylvia fears her unquestioned voice; Jewett poses unanswerable questions. Both withhold information and retain control over their wooded and narrative landscapes.

Sylvia's early morning expedition to determine the heron's exact whereabouts, and to view the ocean for the first time, involves more moments of silence and listening, and a deepening of the parallel between this woodland creature and her natural habitat. As she steals away to begin her search, this parallel is made explicit: "Alas, if 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!" (15). The harmony of this relationship is contingent upon things unspoken. Further examples support this contingency. Sylvia finds the heron because she knows to hide, motionless and quiet, in a tree; the heron departs "when a company of shouting cat-birds comes … vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness" (19). Noise is momentarily equivalent to crime. Upon her return, Sylvia brings her knowledge home but elects to keep her secret unspoken. On this day, however, Sylvia is no longer unquestioned. Jewett gives this moment greater emphasis, for it is one of three instances where the narrative shifts to the present tense; we are told, "the grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door together and question her" (20). On this day, Sylvia is forced into the position of activist. She cannot simply exist in the silence she prefers; she has to refuse the questions and ignore inquiry actively.

The story's final paragraph leaves the reader with more unanswered questions. The paragraph begins with an address: "Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in that day" (21). "Dear loyalty"—is this loyalty to the lost companion, the ornithologist who has left disappointed? Is this loyalty "dear" because it has cost Sylvia companionship? Or does the term of endearment refer to Sylvia's true love, the natural world she has defended? The narrator asks, "Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell?" The story ends without response to this inquiry, only a directive that the "woodlands and summertime" "remember" and bring treasures and secrets to "this lonely country child" (22).

One reading of this story suggests that Sylvia remains loyal to herself, retains her "nature" and lives independent of male-dominated society like many of Jewett's characters and, indeed, like Jewett herself. That Sylvia is lonely, however, suggests some questioning as to whether or not this isolation is the best choice. Significantly, this loneliness is the result of the intrusion by the stranger. Prior to this visit, Sylvia is content. In the opening section of the story we are told that she whispers, not to any person but to a content, solitary cat, "this [is] a beautiful place to live in, and [I] never should wish to go home" (4). Prior to the hunter's visit Sylvia exists silently in a feminized world, feminized in that it is inhabited only by a woman and a girl (and a female cow) but also in that a conventional feminine role (subservient silent companion) offers protection here. During the stranger's visit there is a moment of romanticized contentment, but it exists conditionally, only within a safe, unquestioned and unquestioning place. After the visit, however, something has changed. Silence (meaning both Sylvia's surroundings and her choice to keep her secret to herself) no longer offers her complete happiness. She is lonely—her rules and her world have been somehow altered by this experience. Jewett's ending to this story lacks conclusion.

Although Sylvia has saved the white heron and retained her nature and her world, she is no longer content. Equivalently, Jewett herself is not content with keeping secrets from her readers by writing enigmatically. She is not merely secretive; she follows her father's advice and offers a series of questions for the reader to contemplate. Perhaps Jewett chooses to remain silent because she does not have the definitive answer, or perhaps she (like her young heroine) elects to keep her knowledge to herself. Perhaps she is not, as yet, fully satisfied with her method; perhaps it is still in process. Jewett does not, however, remain a passive reporter of facts here. Asking questions and not providing responses forces us to respond on some level. Jewett takes a position and incites readerly participation.

Scholars have for years noted Jewett's characters' reluctance to speak and the regularity with which climactic moments hinge on the unspoken, but this notice is usually treated only parenthetically within a larger topic. For example, in "'Tact is a Kind of Mind-Reading': Empathic Style in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, " Marcia McClintock Folsom notes an attention to "hints and unspoken conversation" as part of a larger discussion of Jewett's unsentimental, realistic style (78). Alternatively, in "Archives of Female Friendship and the 'Way' Jewett Wrote," Marjorie Pryse discusses what she describes as the "intertwining of friendship and fiction, of listening and telling": "The process through which the narrator learns how to turn friendship into a 'lifelong affair' becomes the 'plot' of The Country of the Pointed Firs. What makes this process possible, and what Jewett equates with the narrator's moral and professional development, is her discovery that listening is as important as telling for the growth of both 'true friendship' and fiction" (64-65). Part of being a good listener, of course, involves a measure of the ability to be silent.

In fact, Jewett's characters often resort to silence and there is no single cause for this practice. Most often, quiet is indicative of deep emotion, as in A Country Doctor when Mrs. Thacher is at a loss to express her sadness about the continued absence of her daughter, Adeline: "the good woman could say no more, while her guests understood readily enough the sorrow that had found no words" (6). Jewett also creates moments of contentment when words are disruptions and silence, peace. For example, in Deephaven, Kate and Helen often enjoy moments of quiet together: "Sometimes in the evening we waited out at sea for the moonrise, and then we would take the oars again and go slowly in, once in a while singing or talking but oftenest silent" (40). While in these examples within the story world silence typically reflects emotion, we see elsewhere a commitment to silence at the methodological level as well. In The Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, Jewett is silent with respect to her narrator. The teller of this tale (a writer) is without a name and in fact, as Sarah Way Sherman has pointed out, initially without the first-person pronoun (203). She is present to us in the observations she makes about her surroundings; in other words, she is present more as the writer of that story, and less as a character in her own right. In fact, this character becomes most alive to us through the lessons that other characters such as William teach her. She learns the value of being a good listener and improves this ability through an appreciation of what silence makes possible. The few details we do gain about the narrator, her relationship to the people of Dunnet Landing, and the place itself become all the more important because they are what sets this narrator apart from the other writer involved here, Jewett herself.

I believe that Jewett's constant attention to this issue of silence is conscious. On one level, certainly, her characters are silent because the writer wishes to depict New England reticence. Of Jewett's mimetic practice, Josephine Donovan observes: "One of the central elements in Jewett's literary credo was that the artist should transmit reality with as little interference and doctoring up as possible." But Jewett is also clearly aware that silence inspires thought, and she wants her readers to think. She wants to teach us something about the nature of silence and does so by using it to shape her content and her purpose. Donovan goes on to discuss Jewett's form: "Implicit in this thesis is the idea that form follows function (that is, content and purpose), rather than the other way around" (212, 213). If we accept Donovan's understanding that Jewett's form follows her function, her form is indebted to silence. The writer is not providing answers but inviting, soliciting and encouraging response. She does not dominate, does not tell her readers how to respond, but she suggests that we participate in a process of discussion (see Oakes).

In this spirit of discussion I turn to one of the more important recent essays on Jewett's work. Richard Brodhead devotes a chapter to Jewett in his Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Brodhead's discussion focuses on cultural structures within nineteenth-century conceptions of regionalism. Engaging The Country of the Pointed Firs in particular, Brodhead argues that Jewett's regionalism is "produced … in the culture of a quite specific late nineteenth-century upper class" (149) and that Jewett (and her characters) should be situated squarely within the nineteenth-century leisure class: "If … we were to focus Jewett on the background not of women's culture but of a nineteenth-century leisure-class culture 'struggling to find expression' we would find for her writing a more concretely specified social home" (144). Brodhead's argument works well with the majority of Jewett's writing; "A White Heron," however, provides an exception. Sylvia and her grandmother do not fit comfortably into the leisure-class mold; they are not vacationing tourists like Kate and Helen in Deephaven, nor are they visiting writers observing a coastal community. In short, Sylvia's concerns (for example, rounding up wayward cows) are not those of the leisure class. "A White Heron" also offers an exception to Brodhead's assertions about expression. In much of Jewett's work her characters are indeed struggling to express themselves. Sylvia, however, decides against using her knowledge; the expression she chooses is autonomous silence.

Brodhead also pays attention to Jewett's contributions to nineteenth-century aesthetic understandings of "art" and "artist": "[Jewett] became more dedicated to her art at the price of having that art give up larger functions of social edification and political address embraced by the less 'artistic' domestic-sentimental generation" (173). The Country of the Pointed Firs did not and will never have the social and political impact of a work such as Uncle Tom's Cabin. But Jewett does not rescind all social and political consideration; commentary—about women's roles in a patriarchal world, about community, about romance—is contained quietly within her form. "Political address" is part of her narrative; "social edification" may indeed be an unstated (silent) goal. As study of "A White Heron" suggests, this goal is achieved by her engagement of the reader in creating meaning in response to the troublesome questions, particularly about gender and women's roles, that her silences elicit.

Jewett uses silence as a literary tool. When and how she wields this tool (within the story world and within her method) are indicative of her beliefs. Jewett's independence and love of woman-kind are everywhere evident in her work, but these beliefs are never more political than in her articulations of silence. She is aware of the gendered relationship between language and power so forcefully articulated by contemporary feminists; indeed, this relationship is often part of her subject matter. The critical discourse which began Jewett studies—by such men as F. O. Matthiessen and Henry James—regularly described her work with diminutive ("feminine") adjectives: "quaint," "little," "innocent," "childlike." These descriptives are all far from threatening and make Jewett's work appear easily kept within its place, easily controlled. But the silence within her work, multilayered, evocative, and as yet unquestioned, is revolutionary.


  1. In a specifically American literary tradition, the slave narrative, literacy is directly connected to freedom. See, for example, the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.
  2. For example, Jewett's first biographer, F. O. Matthiessen, feels the need to protect his subject from charges that her subject matter is minor: "Nowhere except in America and at the present time would it be necessary to defend a writer for handling pathos and humour instead of the stronger chords of passion" (150).
  3. It is possible, of course, to gain further access to Sylvia by studying Jewett and making connections to the author's own experiences. F. O. Matthiessen calls attention to Jewett's love of the woods surrounding her home and her horror at their gradual destruction: "The increasing destruction of her world gave her a hunted feeling like the last wild thing left in the woods" (23). Sylvia's defense of her home may well stem from Jewett's loyalty to and love of her natural surroundings.

Works Cited

Ammons, Elizabeth. "The Shape of Violence in Jewett's 'A White Heron.'" Colby Library Quarterly 22 (1986): 6-15.

Arac, Jonathan, and Harriet Ritvo, eds. Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1818. Rpt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Bader, Julia. "The Dissolving Vision: Realism in Jewett, Freeman, and Gilman." In American Realism: New Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 176-98.

Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her Life and Her Work. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Cary, Richard, ed. "Jewett on Writing Short Stories." Colby Library Quarterly 6 (1964): 425-40.

——. "The Rise, Decline, and Rise of Sarah Orne Jewett." Colby Library Quarterly 9 (1972): 450-63.

——, ed. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: 29 Interpretive Essays. Waterville, ME: Colby College P, 1973.

Donovan, Josephine. "Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes Toward a Feminine Literary Mode." Colby Library Quarterly 18 (1982): 212-25.

fetterley, Judith, and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American Women Regionalists, 1850-1910. New York: Norton, 1992.

Fields, Annie, ed. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett. Cambridge: Riverside P, 1911.

Folsom, Marcia McClintock. "'Tact Is a Kind of Mind-Reading': Empathic Style in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs." Colby Library Quarterly 18 (1982): 66-78.

Garner, Shirley Nelson. "Breaking Silence: The Woman Warrior. "In The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Held, George. "Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at 'A White Heron.'" In Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. 58-68.

Hovet, Theodore R. "'Once Upon a Time': Sarah Orne Jewett's 'A White Heron' as a Fairy Tale." Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978): 63-68.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. A Country Doctor. New York: Meridian, 1986.

——. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. 1896. Rpt. New York: Anchor, Doubleday, 1989.

——. Deephaven. 1877. Rpt. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889.

——. Letters. Revised and enlarged. Ed. Richard Cary. Waterville, ME: Colby College P, 1967.

——. "A White Heron" and Other Stories. 1886. Rpt. Cambridge: Riverside P, 1892.

Matthiessen, Francis Otto. Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Oakes [Kilcup], Karen. "'All that lay deepest in her heart': Reflections on Jewett, Gender, and Genre." Colby Quarterly 26 (1990): 152-60.

Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Dell, 1978.

Pryse, Marjorie. "Archives of Female Friendship and the 'Way' Jewett Wrote." The New England Quarterly 66 (1993): 47-66.

Renza, Louis A. "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984.

Roman, Judith A. Annie Adams Fields: The Spirit of Charles Street. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1992.

Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone. Hanover: UP of New England, 1989.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. The New Feminist Criticism. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

silverstone, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer's Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook P, 1993.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Sutherland, John H., ed. Papers from the Jewett Conference at Westbrook College. Colby Library Quarterly 22 (March 1986).

The Country of the Pointed Firs


SOURCE: Smith, George. "Jewett's Unspeakable Un-spoken: Retracing the Female Body Through The Country of the Pointed Firs." Modern Language Studies 24, no. 2 (spring 1994): 11-19.

In the following essay, Smith claims that in The Country of the Pointed Firs Jewett articulates a covert radicalfeminism as she subverts dominant patriarchal elements of romance and realism in her stories.

"Misogyny and the idealization of women are constituted in the same impulse: they are two sides to a single sheet of paper."

John Duvall

If we look at the question of regionalism from an intertextual viewpoint, Sarah Orne Jewett comes out as one of the least heard and most radical voices in nineteenth-century American literature. This is to say that while Jewett articulates a covert feminist realism in a quaint Down East voice, her narrative representation of coastal Maine village life speaks also to big name nineteenth-century American novelists through a close dialogical exchange with their phallocentric fictions. Indeed, Jewett carries on several dialogues at once. Picking bones with Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville about the phallic claims of American romance, she argues at the same time with the 'chief exemplars' of the new realism that had replaced romance as the conventional discourse of American patriarchy.1

Having said as much we should place Jewett's regional voice within its wider cultural framework. In the mid to late nineteenth century the New Woman arose against the American male hegemony. As the conflict intensified, there ensued a hard fought struggle for control over the female body. Most fiercely contested were issues centered on abortion and lesbianism (Smith-Rosenberg). In the 1850s, '60s, and '70s, abortion rates had reached "disturbing" numbers; in the '80s and '90s, female homosexuality was "discovered" by the sexologists. As with abortion, these "perversions" posed a grave threat to bourgeois patriarchy. Accordingly, the A.M.A. led efforts to rein in the female body, largely through backing anti-abortion legislation and raising the alarm against "Mannish lesbians" and "Genteel, educated women, thoroughly feminine in appearance, thought, and behavior, [who] […] might well be active lesbians" (102). These repressive misogynies went hand in hand with the literary commodification of the female body and the larger realist enterprise that emerged out of and replaced the American romance and its discourse of idealization. In her subversion of romance and realism, Jewett represents, as we shall see, an autonomous female body in terms of abortion and lesbianism.

Jewett's subversive voice speaks these terms from within a regional culture dominated by a patriarchal hegemony that staked its claims to authority on Yankee blue blood. And of course that blood had deep connections with European aristocracy. Thus in The Country of the Pointed Firs Jewett links the patriarchal strain of American romance to its origins in the chivalric tradition. In this tradition the romance plays out a variety of themes centering on the fisher king, whose illness—usually involving or suggesting impotence—is reflected in a barren kingdom. As the story goes, the questing hero returns virility to the king and fertility to the land. But the moral lies in the devastating consequence of the king's prior impotence, which semiotically encodes the colossal power and necessity of the life giving patriarchal phallus. To say the least, the affirmed sign here, the doxa represented, is none other than the transcendental signifier. In this regard Laurie Finke has recently suggested that the various courtly romances of the Middle Ages "served as a vehicle for the expression and mystification of masculine desire" (109). Using Chretien de Troyes as example, she argues that "In their sophisticated deployment of strategies designed to promote the politics of patrilinear order, Chretien's romances provided a means for articulating and solidifying the hierarchical relationships among men at a time when older feudal ties were being undermined by new social, economic, and political developments" (109-10).

As mid nineteenth-century America shifted from a quasi-feudal Jeffersonian agrarian political economy to that of industrial capitalism, the American romance—particularly as represented in Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville—constructed a cultural discourse similar to the patriarchal strategies Finke has described in Chretien de Troyes. As example of the way Jewett subverts this intertextual alliance, let me mention briefly and schematically the fisher king typology of the old and impotent Bowden alcoholic. In his "patrilineal" role as the habitual impersonator of an officer of the United States Army, he heads the Bowden family reunion procession into the vaulted banquet hall of standing pines. Underscoring these chivalric ironies is the likelihood that the Bowden forebears "sat in the great hall of some old French house in the Middle Ages, when battles and sieges and processions and feasts were familiar things" (105).2 The parody here hits close to Poe, the alcoholic who so often situates his romance hero (always descended from chivalric lines and usually addicted) within the dark chambers of a feudal manner. There is also, I want to add, much promise in considering the dialogical exchange between Captain Littlepage's tale of "The Waiting Place" and Melville's romance of the sea, such as Benito Cerino. In this case the noble phallic power so mysteriously threatened and at the last breath rescued and triumphant in Melville's homo-social romance is replied to and restylized, in Jewett's text, by an impotent old man's hallucinatory nostalgia.

But these are schematic generalizations. Let me draw more specific attention to Elijah Tilley's tale. A sentimentalized patriarchal romance, this episode is dialogically linked with Hawthorne (say, Aylmer's 'absolute' perfection of Georgiana in "The Birthmark") and perhaps more closely with Poe, for whom, as the saying goes, 'the only good woman is a dead woman'. Thus Elijah, "sore stricken and unconsoled at the death of his wife" (118), has for eight years sat alone thinking "it all over," and "some days it feels as if poor dear might step right back into this kitchen" (121). The narrator relates how

The visible tribute of his careful housekeeping, and the clean bright room which had once enshrined his wife, and now enshrined her memory, was very moving to me; he had no thought for anyone else or for any other place. I began to see her myself in her home,—a delicate-looking faded little woman, who leaned upon his rough strength and affectionate heart, who was always watching for his boat out of this very window, and who always opened the door and welcomed him when he came home.


In a word, Jewett is constructing in this little vignette a classic patriarchal romance. Thus we should stress the perfect silence and otherness of Elijah's idealized wife. Through Elijah's romance, she undergoes an other world transcendence, and there joins Ligeia, Madeline Usher, and all such heroines, to become what Gilbert and Gubar refer to as the "nineteenth-century angel woman [who] becomes not just a momento of otherness but actually […] an 'Angel of Death'" (24).

But the question remains, was Mrs. Tilley ever alive to begin with? From Elijah's viewpoint, she appears the epitome of the "spiritualized Victorian woman who, having died to her own desires, her own self, her own life, leads a posthumous existence in her own lifetime" (Gilbert and Gubar 25). Within the structure of Elijah's patriarchal romance she has played to perfection the role of one of those "slim, pale, passive beings whose 'charms' eerily recalled the snowy porcelain immobility of the dead" (Gilbert and Gubar 25). Indeed, this "porcelain immobility of the dead" becomes after death the symbol through which Elijah enshrines Mrs. Tilley in his little makeshift tabernacle. To quote: "'[…] I'm going to show you her best tea things she thought so much of,' said the master of the house, opening the door to the shallow cupboard. 'That's real chiny, all of it on those two shelves […] I bought it myself, when we was first married, in the port of Bordeaux'" (124). As Northrop Frye notes, "The precious objects brought back from the quest, or seen or obtained as a result of it, sometimes combine the ritual and the psychological associations." Here he argues that "The Holy Grail […] is connected with Christian Eucharist symbolism; it is related to or descended from a miraculous food provider like the cornucopia, and, like other cups and hollow vessels, it has female sexual affinities […]" (193-94). With Elijah's exaltation of his wife's precious virginity in terms of her china and its symbolic relation to the Christian Eucharist, Jewett tropes courtly love as it often functions within the feudal romance. The significance of this trope is perhaps best explained by Lacan's well-known observation concerning phallic jouissance and the courtly love tradition: "For the man, whose lady was entirely, in the servile sense of the term, his female subject, courtly love is the only way of coming off elegantly from the absence of sexual relation" (Lacan 141; qtd. in Finke 109). Added to this is the fact that Elijah's courtly romance belies a crack in its phallic structure:

There never was one single piece of it broken until—Well, I used to say, long as she lived, there never was a piece broke, but long last I noticed she'd look kind 'o distressed, and I thought 'twas 'count 'o me boastin'. When they asked if they should use it when folks was here to supper, time 'o her funeral, I knew she'd want everything nice, and I said 'certain'. Some o' the women they come runnin' to me an' called me, while they was taken' of the chiny down, an' showed me there was one o' the cups broke an' the pieces wropped in paper and pushed way back here, corner o' the shelf.… I guess wa'n't no other secret ever lay between us.


In his disavowal of reality, in his refusal, that is, to read in the broken cup the emblem of his wife's carnal knowledge, Elijah's life adds up to a prolonged imaginary dramatization of the American patriarchal romance. In this Mrs. Tilley plays, before and after death, the perfectly idealized, other worldly, silent "angel woman" whose "contemplative purity" was for Mr. Tilley a "living memento of the otherness of the divine." Thusly Elijah enshrines his wife's memory. In her actual life, however, Mrs. Tilley was, as we see, a material being who spoke and did things unspeakable against the strictures of patriarchal law. If nothing else, her unseen and silent sexual reality frames Elijah's lived patriarchal romance within the ideology that Althusser defines as "a 'representation' of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (162). Furthermore, insofar as Elijah's representation of the imaginary parodies Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, his text exposes their discursive tactics.

As already suggested, Jewett's text also takes on the realism that, largely through Howells, replaces romance as the hegemonic voice of American fiction. Whereas romance idealized the female body as a "mystification of masculine desire," Howells readily appropriates the female body to the discursive construction of middle class marriage. Silas Lapham, for instance, proudly names his top of the line paint "THE PERSIS BRAND," after his wife, and the label on every "pretty" can metonymically represents the female as object of exchange in a patriarchal economy. As commodity object we see the sign of woman in its relation to "business as sacrament," which Weber describes as the aura of holiness that suffused post-Civil War capitalism. And of course, though Howells operates in this subtler mode, later naturalists, such as Norris, Dreiser, and Crane, dramatize a gross and brutal relationship between capital and the female body.

It will be objected though, that not only did Jewett welcome Howells's intervention against the sorry state of sentimentalism into which the once robust tradition of American romance had finally collapsed, but that she admired his critical realism and brought it to bear on her own style (Carter 120). But to say as much and leave it at that silences the claims Jewett brings against the realist commodification of the female body. Along these lines let me argue to begin with that Mrs. Tilley is not the only angel-woman with an other, real, unspeakable life. Joanna, the "nun or hermit" of Shell-heap Island, was "Crossed in love." From all indications her crimes of the body, though not of The Scarlet Letter variety, drive her into absolute silence and self-imposed ostracism. But of course Joanna's Hawthornesque exile to the other world of Shell-heap Island, like Mrs. Tilley's broken cup 'otherness of the divine', has its realist overtones, and as such it is meant as a minor variation on the major chord that sounds through the silent discourse of "puzzling and queer Mrs. Todd." Dispensing brews, potions, and elixirs to the sick of body and heart, surely Mrs. Todd would seem to represent the archetypal nineteenth-century angel woman.

But in reality Almira Todd contradicts the idealized woman enshrined in the doxa out of which Jewett has constructed the patriarchal side—Elijah Tilley's side—of the dialogical enterprise thus far described. She too keeps hidden the unspeakable secret of the female body, silenced in the hard flat Puritanism of Dunnet Landing. Remembering back to her one real heterosexual love, she confides, "When we was young together his mother … done everything she could to part us; and folks thought we both married well, but't wa'n't what either one of us wanted most; an' now we're left alone again, an' might have had each other all the time" (7-8). This lover, with whom she explored the body of her youth, beyond and against the law and covenant of marriage, has now long since disappeared, and no doubt "[…] he's forgot our youthful feelin's […] but a woman's heart is different; them feelin's come back when you think you've done with 'em, as sure as spring comes with the year" (8). "The feelin's come back" later on in the novel, in that privileged and mysterious moment on Green Island, when Mrs. Todd reveals to her companion of "deeper intimacy" the secret source of her pennyroyal teas:

"There, dear, I never showed nobody else but mother where to find this place; 'tis kind of sainted to me. Nathan, my husband, an' I used to love this place when we was courtin', and"—she hesitated, and then spoke softly—"when he was lost, 'twas just off shore tryin' to get in by the short channel there between Squaw Islands, right in sight o' this headland where we'd set an' made our plans all summer long."

As the dialogue continues, we learn something more:

"T'was but a dream with us," Mrs. Todd said. "I knew it when he was gone. I knew it"—and she whispered as if she were at confession—"I knew afore he started to go to sea. My heart was gone out o' my keepin' before I ever saw Nathan; but he loved me well, and he made me real happy, and he died before he ever knew what he'd had to know if we'd lived together. 'Tis very strange about love. No, Nathan never found out, but my heart was troubled when I knew him at first. There's more women likes to be loved than there is of those that loves. I spent some happy hours right here. I always liked Nathan, and he never knew. But this pennyroyal always reminded me, as I'd sit and gather it and hear him talkin'—it always would remind me of—the other one."


We needn't overstrain ourselves in the exercise of close reading to get this right: Nathan's ship went down before he and Almira consummated their marriage. Nathan died without knowing that, like Mrs. Tilley, Mrs. Todd had committed her body to an unspeakable knowledge. And like Elijah, what marriage Nathan knew was lived in the Althusserian imaginary of patriarchal romance.

As for the widow Mrs. Todd: "She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain […] An absolute archaic grief possessed this country-woman […]" (49). If the comparison to Antigone standing alone in the desert locates Mrs. Todd in a wasteland, that wasteland is surely Dunnet Landing. Such a claim seems a far cry from the early promise of the novel, sounded in those first sentences giving airy whiteness to the honesty and spiritual health of the old New England coastal village at which we, along with the narrator, had just arrived. One sentence in particular bears repeating: "The tide was high, there was a fine crowd of spectators, and the younger portion of the company followed … with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white clap-boarded little town" (2). Aside from Mrs. Todd's nephew, Johnny Bowden, there is no 'younger portion' of Dunnet Landing. While the impotent old-timers repair their nets and fish close in on the bay for a small catch here & there, the aging town, "like its disabled schooners," rots to the water line. And indeed it is the shipping and the fishing that's gone to wrack in these barren times. Critics usually cite the rise of industrialism as the cause of the decline. If we apply the conventions of the grail, however, the decline is clearly for want of youth as well. Why, though, is there no offspring from earlier years, when the wives and husbands of Dunnet Landing were young and presumably fertile? Have they all but Johnny Bowden fled to the cities in pursuit of industrial revolution?

Whatever the reason, Dunnet Landing's infertility and the consequences thereof speak plainly to the phallocentric discourse represented in the fisher king legend as its strands weave through the dialogical tapestry of Jewett's text. Because no questing hero has come to restore patriarchy and fertility to the land, the town rots away, year after year. And yet this scenario doesn't add up. In the first place, instead of a questing knight who would bring potency to the phallus and fertility to the land, we do in fact get an errant woman, whose (phallic) power resides in her pen; and secondly, as we have seen, Jewett's women break the patriarchal law that binds the structure of romance: they break the hymen outside of marriage. Through that rupture they give form to their own realist text.

Which brings us to the very real question of procreation. If, in their 'illegitimate' liaisons, Mrs. Tilley, or Joanna, or Mrs. Todd got pregnant—not to mention all the other presumably childless women of Dunnet Landing—what has become of all the pregnancies? The answer lies hidden in the pungency of Mrs. Todd's favorite herb, penny-royal. Emitting the fragrance of romance and intertextually engaged as well with the sacramental aura of Lapham's Persis Brand paint, all through The Country of the Pointed Firs pennyroyal appears as something of a metonymic representation of Mrs. Todd's character and imbues with ambiguous aromas her "deeper intimacy" with the younger woman who narrates her story: "Among the green grass grew such pennyroyal as the rest of the world could not provide. There was a fine fragrance in the air as we gathered it sprig by sprig and stepped along carefully, and Mrs. Todd pressed her aromatic nosegay between her hands and offered it to me again and again" (48). What Mrs. Todd is offering here is not just a simple bouquet symbolizing complicated love. It is that too, but it is also a gesture of solidarity and political praxis. Mrs. Todd is passing on the secret of pennyroyal, so that her beloved, in her travels beyond Dunnet Landing, might be, like her mentor, a dispenser of pennyroyal potions and teas. In Mrs. Todd's time and place, pennyroyal was a common home-remedy abortifacient.3

Now we better understand Mrs. Todd's remark that "pennyr'yal always reminded me, as I'd sit and gather it and hear [Nathan] talkin'—it always reminded me of—the other one." Aborting the progeny of their resistance to patriarchal domination, most forcibly exacted in nineteenth-century America through the institution of marriage, the women in Jewett's feminist text—not the fisher king, not the patriarchal law or the post-Puritan middle-class white male hegemony—give cause to the very real decline of Dunnet Landing. And, it follows, in Jewett's female resides the power to restore the town to health and plenty.4 According to Sartre, "revolution takes place when a change in institutions is accompanied by a profound modification in the property system" (224). In the representation of abortion, Jewett's multivoiced text articulates not only the liberation of the female body in terms of its sexual autonomy; it also articulates the exercise of that autonomy in the termination of pregnancy, which, obviously, negates all institutional claims of patrilineal ownership. As already suggested, these patrilineal lines are threatened again in the "deeper intimacy" shared between Mrs. Todd and the narrator. While Mrs. Todd's domineering "height and massiveness" of "great determined shape" fits the A.M.A's description of the "mannish lesbian," the narrator is a "Genteel, educated woman, thoroughly feminine in appearance, thought and behavior, [and] […] might well be [an] active lesbian []." As Jewett's story represents the praxis of abortion and (the proximity of) lesbianism, it stakes out the regional site wherein a dialogical voice contradicts phallic American romance. At the same time, Jewett's materialist realism engenders a narrative discourse that speaks to and against Howells, Norris, Crane, Dreiser, Hemingway, and so many other realists for whom the commodification of the female body 'maintains and reproduces' the ideology of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century middle-class American patriarchy.


  1. For recent feminist critiques of Jewett's fiction, see especially Singley, Pratt, and Sherman. While Singley argues that Jewett's fiction advances "a rejection of patriarchal norms" (76), Pratt sees Jewett's fiction as a discursive appropriation of the male Bildungsroman. Sherman applies Chodorow's theory of matriarchy to the Persephone-Demeter myth as a way of intertextualizing Jewett's feminist strategies. See also Donovan, who argues that Jewett's text constructs "an escape from a masculine time of history into transcending feminine space" (223). Given these analyses it is tempting to approach The Country of the Pointed Firs as a feminist utopian novel. Certainly Jewett's text informs and dialogically engages later feminist utopian fiction, particularly Gilman's Herland. However, Ann Lane argues that Mary E. Bradley Lane's Mizora (1890) "is the only self-consciously feminist utopia published before Herland" (Gilman xix), and in my view The Country of the Pointed Firs is best understood as a discourse of resistance, whereby phallocentric narrative constructs are undermined through inversion.
  2. This and all further quotations from The Country of the Pointed Firs are taken from The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, Ed. Mary Ellen Chase. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.
  3. Pennyroyal is defined as an abortifacient in Jacob Bigelow's American Dictionary of Medicine (1835), a standard text used widely by American physicians throughout the nineteenth-century and in all likelihood included in Dr. Jewett's medical library. For a discussion of pennyroyal as it was used for abortions in the nineteenth-century American Northeast, see Malcolm Potts. While it is true that pennyroyal was also used along the Maine coast as a mosquito repellent, Jewett leaves no doubt as to whether this is the particular use she has in mind with regard to Mrs. Todd's herbal ministrations. In "William's Wedding" Mrs. Todd recounts how for years she "besmeared" William's face with pennyroyal ointment "under the pretext" of protecting him against mosquitoes on his way to secret rendezvous with Esther (220).
  4. Once Jewett's questing hero has fulfilled the ritual of her inverted romance, there is a return to fertility, represented in William's marriage to Esther. No longer will Mrs. Todd smother William's face with penny-royal ointment, and during the marriage celebration Esther carries a lamb, signifying birth and renewal.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Carter, Everett. Howells and the Age of Realism. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1950.

Donovan, Josephine. "Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes Toward a Feminine Literary Mode." in Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Gwen Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Duvall, John N. "Murder in the Communities: Ideology In and Around Light in August." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 20 (Winter 1987):101-22.

Finke, Laurie. "Towards a Cultural Poetics of Romance." Genre XXII (Summer 1989): 109-27.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Mad Woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New York: Yale UP, 1979.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. Ed. Mary Ellen Chase. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Lacan, Jacques. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne. Eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacquiline Rose. New York, London: U of Nebraska P, 1982.

Pratt, Annis. "Women and Nature in Modern Fiction." Contemporary Literature 13 (Autumn 1972):476-90.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Literary and Philosophical Essays. Trans. Annette Michelson. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett: American Persephone. Hanover, London: UP of New England, 1989.

Singley, Carol. "Reaching Lonely Heights: Sarah Orne Jewett, Emily Dickinson, and Female Initiation." Colby Library Quarterly 22:1(March 1986):75-82.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Body Politic." Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics. Ed. Elizabeth Weed. New York, London: Routledge, 1989. 101-21.

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