Chapter 1 - "The Return"
Jewett introduces the novella's setting: Dunnet Landing, a coastal village in eastern Maine. The anonymous narrator had first visited Dunnet some years before, and loved it very much. It is summer, and she is now returning by steamboat for another visit.
Chapter 2 - "Mrs. Todd"
The narrator lives as a boarder with Mrs. Almira Todd, a plump, middle-aged widow who spends most of her time growing herbs and using them to make folk medicine, which she then sells to the villagers. She both grows herbs in her personal garden, and frequently searches for them in the surrounding nature. The narrator often assists Mrs. Todd with her medicine business, whether by helping the widow gather herbs or by simply tending the house while Mrs. Todd is away.
Though the narrator finds this pursuit rewarding, she eventually has to stop so she can focus on an unspecified writing project. One night, Mrs. Todd confides in the narrator about a brief romance of her youth, which ended because the man was too wealthy and high-born to be with her.
Chapter 3 - "The Schoolhouse"
The narrator enjoys listening to Mrs. Todd chat with her customers, but continues to feel distracted from her work. It is implied that she traveled to Dunnet partly to focus on this writing project.
When she discovers that the village schoolhouse, which sits at higher altitude with a view over the sea, is empty for the summer, she rents it for a reasonable rate, to use as an office for writing. However, she still returns to Mrs. Todd's house each evening for supper and conversation.
Chapter 4 - "At the Schoolhouse Window"
One day, while writing, the narrator watches a funeral processession in the distance. It is a sad and moving sight. The deceased is Mrs. Begg, a respected inhabitant of the village.
She is able to identify some of the village inhabitants as they walk in the procession, and she tells the reader about the eccentric Captain Littlepage and his "inelegant" housekeeper, Mari' Harris (15). The Captain enjoyed a long career at sea, and is known for both his stories and his seclusion. Mari' Harris is known primarily for her laziness.
The narrator, suffering from writer's block, begins to feel guilty for leaving the funeral after the service and not walking in the procession. She thinks her absence from the procession underlines her status as an outsider in the village.
Chapter 5 - "Captain Littlepage"
On his way home from the funeral, Captain Littlepage stops by the schoolhouse. The narrator has never had any personal contact with him before, and is surprised by his visit. He is clearly distracted and detached. He quotes to her from Paradise Lost, but makes no further attempt at conversation.
The narrator mentions Mrs. Begg in order to spark conversation, and the Captain soon pontificates on death, his career as a shipmaster, and the various ways in which the community is declining. Although he initially bores the narrator with his long-winded sea stories, she is moved when he laments the decline of the area's shipping industry.
Chapter 6 - "The Waiting Place"
Captain Littlepage tells the narrator about Gaffett, a seaman whom the Captain once knew. Gaffet regularly claimed that he had discovered a supernatural city in the Arctic that was "a kind of waiting-place between this world an' the next" (24). Gaffett had told Captain Littlepage this story when they were shipwrecked together in the north Atlantic, and confessed his life mission was to spread word of it.
Chapter 7 - "The Outer Island"
Captain Littlepage loses track of his story, and the narrator takes the opportunity to change the subject. Although Gaffet's story intrigued and moved her, its emotional intensity has obviously riled the octogenarian captain. They wrap up their discussion, and Captain Littlepage leaves.
On her way to Mrs. Todd's house for dinner, the narrator meets the widow herself. Mrs. Todd speaks of the captain's reputation, how he is known for being well-read but strange.
Mrs. Todd also tells the narrator about her elderly mother, who still lives on Green Island, which they can see from the shore. The women decide they will boat over to visit Mrs. Todd's mother the next day.
The Country of the Pointed Firs is famous for its unconventional narrative style, and for its loose structure, which at times resembles an essay or a collection of impressions more than one cohesive story. These qualities are apparent even in the novella's opening chapters. Each chapter describes a single minor incident, and there is not always a causal relationship between events. The text serves as a cohesive novella only through its general overarching plot: the narrator's experiences living and working in Dunnet Landing.
However, even the word "plot" is misleading, as there is almost nothing dramatic in the work. Nothing is really at stake for any of the characters, with the minor exception of the narrator's writing project. She professes a desire to finish it, but without any details on it or its purpose, the casual rhythm of events is more central than any dramatic impulse. The most dramatic arc in these early chapters is in the Captain's story, which is of course being told about the past and hence has no immediate bearing on present events. Jewett's intention seems to be less to tell a gripping narrative than to record a series of impressions through sketches, to evoke an atmosphere of a particular place and time.
To this end, although the narrator is ostensibly the main character, Jewett seems more interested in characterizing Dunnet's quirky residents than she is in offering details about the narrator. For characters like Mrs. Todd or the Captain, she gives lots of detail, backstory, and description. She carefully relates their dialogues, not to deliver expositional information but rather to dwell on their eccentricities. The Captain's visit reveals not only the character traits that she has heard about, but also the slow, careful rhythm of his speech and life. Similarly, Mrs. Todd is defined by her harsh but affectionate manner of speech. In many ways, it is in terms of character that this novella is most successful.
However, Jewett is far more cagey about the narrator. She omits the narrator's name and the purpose of her writing project, nor does she elaborate on the narrator's previous visit to Dunnet. Although this makes the narrator a mysterious and elusive figure, it also means that she functions as an authoritative, neutral eye through which the reader can presumably get an unbiased portrait of the village. She is more of an observer than she is an active participant.
Jewett's experiments in form are not limited to the text's lack of dramatic momentum. In the opening chapters, she alternates frequently between the first and the third person, so that is not yet clear in that the narrator is in fact narrating the story. This ambiguity, coupled with the lack of information we get about the narrator, helps direct the reader's focus to the description of Dunnet, which precedes the introduction of any specific character. In a sense, this paints the community itself as the novella's main character.
Further, one could argue that the narrator is meant to be Jewett herself, and that the writing project is in fact this novella. Though there is no explicit proof of this assertion, the grounded realism and the passion for the country that both Jewett and the narrator clearly share both suggest that the work is about its own creation, about the artistic process of relating an emotional atmosphere into literature.
As a regionalist writer, Jewett often uses style to reflect the culture and landscape of New England. For example, she renders the story's dialogue phonetically, in order to emphasize the regional dialect. This showcases the village's personality, but it also highlights the differences between individual characters. For example, Captain Littlepage's speech is more standard and less idiomatic than Mrs. Todd's, which reflects his education and travel experience. According to Roger Lathbury in his book Realism and Regionalism: 1860-1910, many of Jewett's contemporaries, including Theodore Dreiser and Mark Twain, used regional dialect to similar effect.
One element of the novella that is lost in summary is its physical and natural description. Though Chapter 1 is the only chapter solely devoted to the landscape, the work frequently drifts into longer passages of physical description, almost all of which praise the country's serene beauty. In this way, too, we see Jewett's interest in regional writing and the emotions that sparked the book's creation.
Captain Littlepage's story about the waiting-place adds a degree of mystery to the novella's beginning. There are many parallels between the supernatural city and Dunnet Landing. For the narrator and for Captain Littlepage, Dunnet is a liminal space between 'one world and the next.' The village allows the narrator to pass between her normal world of reality and the world of literature. It is an escape for the summer, a place where she can gain new perspective on her 'other' life, which is never really discussed. For Captain Littlepage, Dunnet is a slowly-changing remnant of old New England's shipping economy, his only link to the vanishing world of his youth. No matter how the parallels work, it is clear that Dunnet is a magical place for both the narrator and the Captain, one that transcends its physicality.