"In that handful of houses they fancy that they comprehend the universe."
Captain Littlepage's dismissal of the people of Dunnet Landing does not necessarily reflect Jewett's own views. However, his point that the villagers can be narrow and provincial resonates with some of the narrator's observations about Dunnet - for example, the prevalence of gossip. However, Captain Littlepage's comment is also ironic because, to a certain extent, Jewett argues that the people of Dunnet do "comprehend the universe." The novella includes many characters, like Mrs. Blackett, who seem to have special knowledge about how to be kind to others and live a good life. Regardless of how the reader, the narrator or Littlepage react to Dunnet, his words reflect several of the novella's central questions about life experience.
"Gaffet with his good bunk and the bird-skins, the story of the wreck of the Minerva, the human-shaped creatures of fog and cobweb, the great words of Milton with which he described their onslaught upon the crew, all this moving tale had such an air of truth that I could not argue with Captain Littlepage."
The narrator's reference to "an air of truth" hints at why Jewett wrote Pointed Firs in the first place. It is based on her hometown of South Berwick, Maine, as well as other coastal towns she visited. But if her purpose was to create an accurate portrayal of a real region, then why write fiction instead of nonfiction? It seems that by fictionalizing real places and experiences, Jewett felt she could imbue her stories with "an air of truth" that transcended mere facts. She gave herself the freedom to connect more supernatural, transcendent possibilities - like those suggested by Gaffet's story - with the more mundane reality of coastal life, and thereby explore larger questions of human experience.
"There was in the eyes a look of anticipation and joy, a far-off look that sought the horizon; one often sees it in seafaring families, inherited by girls and boys alike from men who spend their lives at sea, and are always watching for distant sails or the first loom of the land. At sea there is nothing to be seen close by, and this has its counterpart in a sailor's character, in the large and brave and patient traits that are developed, the hopeful pleasantness that one so loves in a seafarer."
As Jewett points out in the text, no industry is a permanent part of an economy – shipping has virtually disappeared from Dunnet Landing, a once-prosperous seafaring town. Nevertheless, she suggests that while the town's economy has moved on, shipping has had an irrevocable impact on the region's history and culture. She argues at multiple points in the text, including this one, that Maine's ports have established a rich and varied history for the state that will continue to pay dividends even after its residents start to make their livings differently. Every person is a reflection of his community's history, even if the elements of that history have moved on.
"In these days the young folks is all copy-cats, 'fraid to death they won't be all just alike; as for the old folks, they pray for the advantage o' bein' a little different."
Mrs. Todd's observation about conformity refers to the natural maturity that comes with age. However, it also ties into the narrator's occasional suggestions that the people of Dunnet Landing can be a bit too hostile to outsiders. The clearest example of this is their less-than-hospitable reception of Mrs. Captain Tolland in "The Foreigner." However, they seem to accept difference with equanimity when it occurs amongst their own people. Mrs. Todd's insight here helps to explain the villagers' kindness to Joanna after she became a hermit, and their easy tolerance of Mari' Harris and her eccentric employer. Because the locals are willing to embrace a certain degree of eccentricity, the narrator can find a real swath of humanity in Dunnet Landing, one to rival that of larger, ostensibly more eclectic cities.
"Clannishness is an instinct of the heart,--it is more than a birthright, or a custom; and lesser rights were forgotten in the claim to a common inheritance."
When she attends the Bowden family reunion, the narrator observes that family ties override all other loyalties or feuds. Even if it is something of a cliché, her comment that "blood is thicker than water" helps to explain Dunnet's tight sense of community despite poverty, harsh weather, and the occasional bizarre incident. As Mrs. Todd tells the narrator, almost everyone in Dunnet is somehow related to each other, and this helps to explain the town's remarkable resilience and insularity. This quote also ties into one of the novella's implicit themes - that we are all defined by our community and history, no matter to what degree we accept it.
"Then she smiled at me, a smile of noble patience, of uncomprehended sacrifice, which I can never forget. There was all the remembrance of disappointed hopes, the hardships of winter, the loneliness of single-handedness in her look, but I understood, and I love to remember her worn face and her young blue eyes."
At the end of "A Dunnet Shepherdess," the narrator suddenly realizes how much a few hours of conversation has strengthened old, lonely Thankful Hight. This realization is particularly profound because the narrator had been a bit resentful about the conversation while it was happening. Indeed, Thankful lives up to her name and sheds her forbidding façade. This moment is also one of Jewett's most powerful justifications for the way she chooses to tell her story. As Thankful's gratitude proves, storytelling and conversation have the power to overcome incredible hardship.
“When I see the tears in her eyes ‘t was all right between us, and we were always friendly after that, and mother had us come out and make a little visit that summer; but she come a foreigner and she went a foreigner, and never was anything but a stranger among our folks.”
Mrs. Todd's comment about Mrs. Captain Tolland in "The Foreigner" reflects both her innate kindness and empathy, and the more pervasive xenophobic tendency in the community. In some ways, Mrs. Captain Tolland's experience in Dunnet Landing parallels the narrator's. Despite her years as Captain Tolland's wife, Mrs. Captain Tolland is never able to overcome her foreignness and become "anything but a stranger among our folks." The narrator is obviously more of an interloper – she never tries to become a permanent resident. However, Mrs. Captain Tolland's persistent foreignness resonates with the moment early in Pointed Firs when the narrator watches Mrs. Begg's funeral procession and observes that despite her best efforts, she will never be a true member of the Dunnet community. The flipside of Dunnet's intense communal atmosphere is that an outsider can never fully understand or integrate it.
“More than this one cannot give to a young State for its enlightenment; the sea captains and the captains’ wives of Maine knew something of the wide world, and never mistook their native parishes for the whole instead of a part thereof...”
Jewett spends much of Pointed Firs asserting that despite their provincial lifestyle, the people of Dunnet Landing have profound insights on life that are equal to those made by famous thinkers. However, she also observes that Dunnet's unique culture has been shaped by the fact that so many of its residents are well-traveled. Overall, the novella and its related stories suggest that a balance between isolation and worldliness is the key to true happiness. This quote suggests that those of Dunnet found happiness and understanding by having a taste of both a grounded community and the wide world.
“One felt a sudden pity for the men and women who had been worsted after a long fight in that lonely place; one felt a sudden fear of the unconquerable, immediate forces of Nature, as in the irresistible moment of a thunderstorm.”
As she walks to visit Abby Martin in "The Queen's Twin," the narrator reflects upon the people who have lost their lives and livelihoods trying to tame the forest. Dunnet Landing has a rich history, and throughout the text, Mrs. Todd has regaled the narrator about the important events of the past few decades. However, the opening pages of "The Queen's Twin" provide a rare glimpse of the region's longer history, in which the hardships of people like Joanna Todd and Thankful Hight are nothing compared to those undergone by Maine's first settlers. What is implicitly said in this passage is that all of the beautiful moments that the narrator experiences will themselves be washed away by the more powerful forces of nature and time. It poses a question - should we be sad about this fact, or thankful about moments while they last? Overall, the novella and its related stories propose that contentment comes with the latter perspective.
"The hurry of life in a large town, the constant putting aside of preference to yield to a most unsatisfactory activity, began to vex me, and one day I took the train, and only left it for an eastward-bound boat."
We learn very little about Jewett's anonymous narrator, but this passage in "Williams' Wedding" offers a crucial clue about her worldview. The narrator seems to view Dunnet Landing as a place where people can be free from the bustle - and also the conventions - of city life. Despite the residents' occasional intolerance, they demonstrate true open-mindedness through their kindness to their eccentric or flawed neighbors. This live-and-let-live attitude helps explain the village's appeal to the narrator, and the reason she believes it important to tell others of this special place.
The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Study Guide for The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories
The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories study guide contains a biography of Sarah Orne Jewett, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
Essays for The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories
The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett.