English, Department of

 

Date of this Version

1999

Comments

Published in JEWETT AND HER CONTEMPORARIES: RESHAPING THE CANON, edited by Karen L. Kilcup and Thomas S. Edwards (University Press of Florida, 1999), pp. 76-98. Copyright 1999 Board of Regents of the State of Florida. http://www.upf.com/book.asp?id=KILCUF99

Abstract

The narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs is an elusive figure. A narrator who is also a character in the fiction, she nevertheless reveals very little about herself as a character in the course of her narration. She is the unnamed speaking "I," and she is "you" to Mrs. Todd and other characters. Although the narrator apparently travels to Dunnet Landing from a city, we don't know where she lives the rest of the year; and we can only assume from her time spent in the schoolhouse engaged in "literary employments" that she writes for pay. But critics (and I happily include myself) find the narrator as a character irresistible, and they expend much effort on constructing her from scant internal evidence and on reading Pointed Firs as a story of her personal development. To name just a few examples, critics have highlighted the narrator's apprenticeship to Almira Todd in the healing arts, the primal female love between the narrator and Mrs. Todd, the narrator's relearning female-identified relational living and returning to teach living to an emotionally starved male-identified culture, the story's ritual enactment of the Demeter-Persephone myth (with the narrator taking the role of the daughter Persephone to Mrs. Todd's motherly Demeter), and, least flatteringly, the narrator's role as tourist, traveling to the country to write about the quaint folk to amuse her cosmopolitan audience and to reinforce its hegemonic power.
My own analysis focuses on the narrator's most clearly defined characteristic: her profession. In the context of the literary field in the American 1890s, why did Sarah Orne Jewett choose to tell the stories of The County of the Pointed Firs through a first-person narrator who happens to be a female author? What does Jewett's literary practice tell us about her construction of herself as an author and of her relationship to the marketplace and her readers through that authorial persona? Although the practitioners of high realism in Jewett's own time, and the New Critics following their example, counseled that we should not look for authors and authors' intentions in literary texts, nineteenth-century American readers clearly did read for the author in literary texts. Exactly what did they expect to find? That is, for a nineteenth-century American reader, what was an author, and what was an author supposed to do?