The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories

The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Is The Country of the Pointed Firs a feminist work? Why or why not?

    The choice of characters used in Pointed Firs suggest that it should be considered a feminist text. It is narrated by a woman, and most of the vignettes center around female characters, such as Mrs. Todd, Abby Martin, and Esther Hight – many of whom live alone or with other women. (Even male characters like Elijah Tilley and William have been transformed by their relationships with women). Overall, it suggests the potential of female independence and strength. However, the book lacks any explicit political message despite having being written in a highly-charged political atmosphere; after all, the suffragist movement was at its peak. One could argue that this is evidence that it was not meant to function as a feminist text, since Jewett could easily have justified including a message sympathetic to the political atmosphere.

  2. 2

    Comment on Jewett's use of regional dialect in Pointed Firs.

    Throughout the text, Jewett renders dialogue phonetically. This highlights characters' accents, and is a constant reminder of the setting even in stories featuring plots of more universal resonance. Language also distinguishes characters as either insiders in or foreigners to the community. The narrator's relatively standardized speech highlights her status as an outsider, and Mrs. Tolland's limited English hinders her acceptance when she moves to Dunnet. Overall, Jewett's use of dialect reflects her interest in 'local color' realism and her focus on characters above all else.

  3. 3

    Jewett refers to many literary and historical figures in Pointed Firs. Why are these allusions significant?

    Most of Jewett's references are to classical or Renaissance culture – these include John Milton, the Bible, the Countess of Carberry, Queen Elizabeth, Antigone, and Theocritus. However, she will also occasionally refer to a more contemporary figure, such as Charles Darwin or Queen Victoria. These references characterize the narrator (and Captain Littlepage) as highly educated and cerebral. It also hints that their worldviews might be different from those of other people in Dunnet. In terms of the narrator, it is one element that keeps the reader constantly reminded that no matter how closely she identifies with Dunnet, she is always an outsider meant to leave at summer's end.

  4. 4

    How are Mrs. Todd and her friend Mrs. Fosdick different? Why does this difference become important when they tell a story?

    Susan Fosdick initially turns off the narrator with her vivacious eagerness to chat, which contrasts unfavorably with Mrs. Todd's "grave" dignity (66). When the two women tell the story of Joanna Todd together, their different tones offer two possible interpretations of Joanna's life. Mrs. Todd focuses on the sad elements of the story, while Mrs. Fosdick emphasizes the fact that the town and Joanna achieve a kind of redemption by accepting each other, even though Joanna never returns from Shell-Heap Island. The women's different storytelling techniques suggest Joanna's story is more ambiguous than some of the others in the collection. Further, by reminding the reader of how perspective influences the way a story is told, we have opportunity to remember that our perspective of Dunnet is shaped by a single storyteller, who is herself often relating stories told by others.

  5. 5

    Why is Joanna Todd's story significant to Pointed Firs as a whole?

    Joanna's story illustrates what can happen when one relies on oneself rather than on the community. Joanna devotes herself completely to her fiancé, and when he abandons her, she becomes completely self-reliant. The result is not necessarily bad; when Mrs. Todd visits her, she seems happy on Shell-Heap Island and is able to find great beauty in nature. Her life story poses a counterpoint to the overall theme of the value of community, by showing that one can also find great contentment by rejecting community. However, in finding such self-reliant contentment, one still affects one's community, reflected in Mrs. Todd's sadness over Joanna's absence. If nothing else, Joanna's story provides one of the clearest manifestations of the thematic conflict between individualism and community.

  6. 6

    The narrator of Pointed Firs hears about several supernatural events during her time in Dunnet. How does Jewett reconcile this with the text's realist aesthetic?

    Importantly, the narrator never witnesses anything supernatural firsthand. The occasional supernatural story seems to be part of Dunnet Landing's oral culture. Yet, the people who relate these stories to the narrator (Captain Littlepage and Mrs. Todd) seem keenly aware that she will probably not believe them. The stories are not necessarily meant to be taken as literally true - instead, they reinforce Jewett's portrayal of Dunnet Landing as a mystical place where nature and community have come together to allow the people to understand life's great truths. By allowing the possibility of transcendent possibilities, she justifies the transcendent attraction it holds for her.

  7. 7

    How essential are the "four related stories" to understanding the Pointed Firs novella?

    The Country of the Pointed Firs is a self-contained novella in which Jewett portrays Dunnet Landing with nuance and compassion. However, the four related stories provide a level of complexity and plot resolution that is absent from the main text. "The Foreigner" and "The Queen's Twin" are darker and more pessimistic than the stories in Pointed Firs, and thus showcase a different side of life in Dunnet Landing. "A Dunnet Shepherdess" and "William's Wedding" provide a happy ending for William, whose lonely lifestyle is one of the small tragedies in the novella. By reading these as "related," the reader gets different perspectives on the community that are useful but do not compromise the otherwise cohesive tone of the novella, which they would were they included in that text.

  8. 8

    Analyze the friendship between the narrator and Mrs. Todd.

    Mrs. Todd and the narrator's friendship resembles the 'Boston marriages' that were common in the late nineteenth century. In these relationships, a pair of female friends would live together and function almost like each other's spouse. (These 'marriages' did not always - or even usually - have a romantic component.) In this way, the friendship suggests a depth of feeling that can exist in non-traditional pairings. Mrs. Todd also serves as a foil to the narrator; she is serious, reserved, and slightly judgmental, whereas the narrator is open-minded and eager to learn about Dunnet Landing. However, Mrs. Todd has accumulated decades of knowledge about the place, so their friendship often assumes a teacher-student dynamic.

  9. 9

    Native American artifacts occasionally appear in the text. Why might they be significant?

    Joanna Todd collects Native American arrowheads, and Mrs. Todd and the narrator walk along an Indian footpath on their way to visit Abby Martin. These references to the area's history, which stretches back centuries before European settlement, remind us that despite Dunnet's quaintness, the struggle between its residents and nature has been persisting for ages, and hence has an epic quality to it. This quality serves as counterpoint to the more mundane details by providing reminder of civilization's temporariness. Even though Dunnet has a long history, it will eventually be reclaimed by nature or absorbed by other settlements – just like the Native American communities that came before it. This is already happening in Abby's neighborhood. This remembrance creates the implicit message that we ought enjoy life's moments, since they cannot be taken for granted.

  10. 10

    Explain the significance of food and eating in Pointed Firs.

    Meals are often a pretext for storytelling in Dunnet Landing; indeed, the narrator hears many of the text's most prominent stories over dinner or drinks. However, food is also an avenue for characterization. Mrs. Blackett grows most of her food from scratch, and her simple meals serve as a symbol of her impressive self-reliance. Likewise, the excessively salty butter from Black Island literally reveals the makers' immorality – they add the salt to make the butter heavier and thereby cheat their customers. William often brings lobster or fish as presents, which speaks to his island life. At the end of the novel, Esther Hight proves herself to be a worthy wife for gentle William by rescuing a lamb – which would typically be used for food – and bringing it to Green Island as a pet instead. Overall, food and eating provide a means by which the individuals of Dunnet Landing are connected to both their community and their geography.