It is the end of summer, and a storm is building off the coast. Mrs. Todd is concerned about how William and her mother will fare on Green Island because of the bad weather, but the narrator comforts her by telling her that Captain Bowden and Johnny Bowden are dropping by the island. She knows this because Elijah had told her. To pass the time, Mrs. Todd tells the narrator a ghost story about an old Dunnet Landing family, the Tollands.
The Tolland men were famous for their sailing skill, and many of them died at sea. This story concerns the late Captain Tolland’s wife. He met her in Kingston, Jamaica, where his ship had docked for a few nights. She was French-born, and was on her way back to France when her husband and children had been killed in a yellow fever epidemic. To make ends meet, she had to sing and play guitar in pubs; it was in one of those where her voice enchanted Captain Tolland. She begged Captain Tolland and his colleagues to take her away from Jamaica, and they agreed, bunking her with Captain Tolland because he had the most space on his ship.
On the way home, Captain Tolland fell in love with the woman, and they married upon reaching Dunnet Landing. All was well, expect that the new wife did not get along with Eliza, the captain's sister. One day, Mrs. Blackett invited the bride to a singalong in the church. There, Mrs. Captain Tolland performed a song and danced a little, using the skills she had learned in Jamaica. Though they all pretended enjoyment at the time, some of the women - Mari' Harris prominent above them - soon began to gossip about the inappropriateness of the dance. The following Sunday, Mrs. Captain Tolland appeared at the church meeting and “kind o’ declared war” (170). (Mrs. Todd is vague about Mrs. Tolland's words and behavior.) Shortly after this incident, Captain Tolland died at sea, leaving his wife a well-to-do widow.
Most of the villagers were put off by Mrs. Captain Tolland’s foreignness and perceived antagonism towards the church. However, Mrs. Blackett made a point of reaching out to the grieving widow, paying her visits and bringing her food. Mrs. Blackett encouraged her daughter to do the same thing, and Mrs. Todd eventually showed the widow hospitality, though she was initially reluctant and could never entirely transcend her xenophobia.
When Captain Tolland died at sea, Mrs. Todd and her uncle, Captain Lorenzo Bowden, were the ones to bring his wife the news. When they arrived at her house, she was celebrating her feast day (a Catholic custom) alone – a pathetic scene that was only made worse by their tragic news. The shock and grief destroyed Mrs. Captain Tolland’s health, and despite the best efforts of Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Begg, she died a few months later.
Captain Tolland had named Captain Lorenzo as his executor, so he was the one to tell Mrs. Todd that she had been named heir to the Tolland estate - presumably because of her kindness to Mrs. Captain Tolland. Although most of the money had been lost in bad investments or with Captain Tolland’s ship, Mrs. Todd still inherited over a thousand dollars. Because Captain Tolland hid his money around the house, her uncle Lorenzo continued to periodically search for undiscovered riches until the house burned down a few years later.
After relating the basic facts of Mrs. Captain Tolland’s life, Mrs. Todd doubles back to tell the narrator about a unsettling incident that happened when Mrs. Captain Tolland was on her deathbed. Mrs. Todd was caring for the sick woman when she suddenly saw a dark apparition of a woman. Although the ghost was gone in a split second, Mrs. Todd is certain that she saw it. Mrs. Captain Tolland quickly mentioned that she too saw the ghost, and that it was of her mother.
The story closes with a brief chapter in which the storm clears, and Mrs. Todd reflects on the relationship between this life and the next.
Mrs. Todd’s commentary at the beginning of “The Foreigner” heightens the story's ominous tone and foreshadows future events. For example, when she comments that the men should have sent Mrs. Captain Tolland home to France instead of bringing her to Dunnet Landing, the narrator and the reader can infer that Mrs. Captain Tolland will face problems adjusting to life in Maine. This foreshadowing imbues “The Foreigner” with a sense of suspense even at the beginning of the story. Along with the tragic deaths of Mrs. Tolland’s children and first husband, it lends a dark tone to opening chapters that might otherwise be romantic and light-hearted. In this way, it is notably different from any of Jewett's other Dunnet Landing stories.
Just as she does in the rest of the book, Jewett blurs any sense of causality between plot events, and includes digressions that deppen atmosphere at the expense of plot. The atmosphere in this story is one of discomfort and supernatural oddness, best apparent in Mrs. Captain Tolland’s dance in the church. In “The Foreigner,” Jewett imbues mundane events with a sense of strangeness and horror. The digressive structure is simliar to that of The Country of the Pointed Firs, though that story was interested in the particularities of Dunnet Landing’s culture and atmosphere, and not in sinister moodiness.
The sophisticated narrative structure of this story – in which the narrator tells us about Mrs. Todd telling her a story – allows Jewett many avenues to reveal characterization. One particularly multi-layered moment occurs in Chapter IV, when Mrs. Todd recalls Mrs. Captain Tolland’s “made countenance,” to which the narrator reflects, “I could not help thinking of Sir Philip Sidney’s phrase, ‘A made countenance, between simpering and smiling’” (176). In addition to highlighting the narrator’s erudition, this moment also shows that Mrs. Todd, despite her lack of formal education, seems to intuit many of the great truths about life and the human condition with which history’s great thinkers have also concerned themselves.
“The Foreigner” is about the people of Dunnet Landing as much as it is about Mrs. Tolland. Significantly, Mrs. Todd only refers to the character by her husband’s name, suggesting that the woman is so alien to Dunnet that the villagers cannot understand her individuality, only her otherness. She serves as a kind of Rorschach test that reveals the villagers’ true personalities. She inspires empathy in Mrs. Blackett (which confirms what we’ve learned about the character in the other stories), contempt in Mari’ Harris, and ambivalence in Mrs. Todd — a character who usually tries to do the right thing, but who is sometimes encumbered by a small intolerant streak.
“The Foreigner” addresses some issues – including foreignness, intolerance, and the supernatural world – that are unique in their intensity and exoticness from the other stories of the book, but which resonate thematically with those stories nevertheless. The narrator is also a foreigner, but she seems to have integrated fairly well into Dunnet Landing. (Of course, she may be giving us a biased account). “The Foreigner” shows us another side of Dunnet that is less welcoming to the outside world. Indeed, it is open to debate whether the unsettling elements of “The Foreigner” reflect badly on Mrs. Captain Tolland, or on the villagers. Is her haunting life story a result of her own choices, or was she ultimately a victim of intolerance and hatred, as Mrs. Todd suggests? Likewise, Mrs. Todd’s observations at the end of the story, about the relationship between daily life and the supernatural world, echo some of Captain Littlepage’s meditations on the waiting-place in “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” In both cases, Jewett suggests that Dunnet Landing is a liminal space between life and the afterlife, though that is grounded in her own perspective. If nothing else, Dunnet Landing has that kind of transcendental potential for her.