The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories

The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories Summary and Analysis of A Dunnet Shepherdess


The "Four Related Stories" that are included in most editions of The Country of the Pointed Firs are very similar in content and structure to the novella. They have the same narrator and take place in Dunnet Landing, apparently during the same summer that Jewett chronicles in Pointed Firs. For more information about the relationship between the novella and the sketches, see "About The Country of the Pointed Firs" at the beginning of this ClassicNote.

One morning, the narrator wakes to the sound of Mrs. Todd talking to her brother William outside her window. He has stopped by on his way to go trout-fishing in the countryside, and is now reluctantly allowing his sister to apply a pennyroyal poultice to his face.

Once she is done, he sets off on his way, and the narrator heads to the schoolhouse to write. She notices that the wind has blown her papers around, and wishes she could have joined William on his trip. Suddenly, he passes by, and invites her to come along. On their way to the stream, William explains that the old-fashioned clothes he is wearing were handed down from his father.

When they near the stream, William rests his horses near a barn. There, they encounter a woman to whom William gifts some lobster he had brought from Green Island. The woman laughs about how he continues to come back to this stream, even though he catches nothing.

When they arrive at the stream, William and the narrator split up to fish in different spots. The narrator is unsuccessful, and skeptical that there are many fish there. They rejoin for lunch and spruce beer a few hours later; William has also been unsuccessful. They eat in companionable silence, which suits William's reserved personality.

As they prepare to leave, William surprises the narrator by suggesting they visit Thankful Hight, a friend of Mrs. Blackett's. On the way to the Hight house, William tells the narrator about the daughter (whose name, we later learn, is Esther). She used to be a schoolteacher, but became a shepherdess after reading in books that sheep do better when they're watched by someone. As they pass a field full of sheep, he stands to point to Esther, a move rather dramatic for him, and which surprises the narrator.

Thankful Hight turns out to be an intimidating figure. "Our hostess was more than disapproving," the narrator comments, "she was forbidding" (149). She is an invalid, and so is mostly stuck at home. William introduces the narrator, and gives Thankful some lobster. When she suggests that William find Esther and bring her to meet the narrator, William is quick to comply by leaving them alone.

While they wait, Thankful and the narrator discuss the people they know in Dunnet, and the two women begin to warm to each other. Thankful explains how Esther often stays out late with her sheep, sleeping in a shed she built for this purpose. She also confides in the narrator about her husband's death many years before, and about her struggle to pay off the mortgage on the family's land. Because of Esther's diligence, they now are more financially stable.

William is gone for several hours, which taxes the conversation and annoys Thankful. Thankful suggests the narrator look for them outside, and when she does, she sees them talking nearby. She quickly realizes that William and Esther are in love, but she keeps this observation to herself. Although the narrator is annoyed at having been left alone with Thankful for so long, she is sympathetic to the couple, who are obviously a perfect match.

Esther and William finally come inside, and the narrator is pleased when Thankful tells her daughter how much she enjoyed their conversation. Esther glances at the narrator gratefully, and the narrator realizes how difficult Esther's life must be. The woman must support herself and her invalid mother alone, all while caring for her sheep and trying to maintain Thankful's quality of life. No one mentions the relationship between Esther and William, and the two visitors soon depart. On the way home, William wishes aloud they had caught some trout.


“A Dunnet Shepherdess” was originally published a year after The Country of the Pointed Firs, in the December 1899 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Although it shares a setting and characters with the novella, there are major stylistic and plot differences between this text and the longer work. These include a more nuanced exploration of poverty, and a slightly different orientation towards the theme of conversation. However, there are also notable similarities to the novella; one of the most important of these is Jewett’s use of the vignette structure instead of a plot arc.

Economic hardship was often implied in The Country of the Pointed Firs, but this story is the first explicit discussion of it. Thankful Hight’s struggle to pay her mortgage after her husband’s death indicates a level of privation that is absent for the characters who live in Dunnet Landing proper.

This difficulty, paired with a physical handicap, has caused Thankful to turn bitter and somewhat unpleasant. Though the narrator eventually warms to her as she does everyone in this world, there is a considerable hurdle in the older woman's bitterness. Although the narrator has been pleasantly surprised by villagers at other points in Pointed Firs – Susan Fosdick and Elijah Tilley come to mind – it takes her longer to warm up to Thankful. As we learn more about the character, it becomes clear that Thankful’s forbidding personality might be due to her lonely existence and the hardships she faced as a poor, single parent when she was younger. This reinforces Jewett’s portrayal of Dunnet as a place where fundamentally good people – like Elijah, Joanna Todd, and now Thankful – can be warped by the forces of grief.

Jewett also makes a tonal departure in “A Dunnet Shepherdess.” The narrator takes a darker attitude toward Thankful Hight than she does toward other characters. The narrator has had long, plodding conversations before, such as those with Captain Littlepage and Elijah Tilley. However, this is the first time that Jewett has emphasized the narrator's desire for a conversation to be over; indeed, she does not seem to have gotten much out of her discussion with Thankful until later, when she realizes she has provided some rare entertainment for the invalid old woman. So far, Jewett has showcased storytelling and conversation as a way to gain insight into the human condition. Here, she also shows how conversation can be an act of charity or compassion, and emphasizes its occasional difficulty.

The stories in this collection are unusual because the dynamism of the plot does not come from action, but rather from the narrator’s changing perspective on her surroundings. The plot events in this story are uneventful: William and the narrator go fishing and visit some friends. This is because the plot does not need to be eventful – the most important events of the story come when the narrator changes her opinion of Thankful, and when she realizes that William and Esther are in love. The state of affairs has not changed since the beginning of the story; the only changes that have taken place are in the narrator’s mind. For this reason, “A Dunnet Shepherdess” is one of the text’s clearest examples of Jewett’s static, inwardly-focused plots.

Finally, this story further characterizes William, one of the novella's most intriguing characters. While on her visit to Green Island, the narrator sensed William's contentment with his life, she here gets a glimpse of his loneliness and separation. It changes one's perspective on his life to realize that he has a beloved living far away. It also poses the possibility that William stays with his mother from duty, a duty that is paralleled by Esther's care-taking of Thankful. Further, we see that William is unable to admit these feelings, so much so that he manufactures a futile fishing trip to facilitate their meeting. As mentioned above, this story is about a shifting perspective, and in the larger world of Dunnet Landing, this story provides a new perspective on William, whom the narrator did not truly understand after all. Perhaps the most intriguing detail is that William, clearly shy about the relationship, goes out of his way to invite the narrator along, suggesting a subconscious (or conscious) desire to share his love with someone else.