The Country of the Pointed Firs

pointed-firs-med.jpgSarah Orne Jewett’s 1896 novella, The Country of the Pointed Firs, is a character study not of a person, but of a geographic region. The plot is simple, and exists less to advance a particular story than to provide a series of pegs on which to hang a collection of vignettes. A woman writer—we never learn her name—takes up summer residence in the harbor town of Dunnet Landing, Maine, renting a room from Mrs. Todd, “landlady, herb-gatherer, and rustic philosopher.” She forges a friendship with her hostess, and this connection offers opportunities to observe the locals as individuals in the context of the community. As her writing is interrupted by an ancient sea captain, as she calls on a widowed fishermen, as she travels with Mrs. Todd and her elderly mother to a family reunion, an image slowly comes into focus—like a developing Polaroid—of a harsh, wild landscape and the inhabitants shaped by it. The people are unremarkable, subsisting in the same hard fashion as their parents and grandparents, and yet each of them has a uniqueness of character, a particular beauty and strength, formed through decades of diligent striving.

I was captivated by the elegance of Jewett’s language, especially her natural descriptions, like this anthropomorphism:

We were standing where there was a fine view of the harbor and its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark. As we looked far seaward among the outer islands, the trees seemed to march seaward still, going steadily over the heights and down to the water’s edge.

She frequently describes the community’s social constructs in terms of the natural environment of the region. Some of my favorite quotes exemplify this:

Except for a few stray guests, islanders or from the inland country, to whom Mrs. Todd offered the hospitalities of a single meal, we were quite by ourselves all summer; and when there were signs of invasion, late in July, and a certain Mrs. Fosdick appeared like a strange sail on the far horizon, I suffered much from apprehension. I had been living in the quaint little house with as much comfort and unconsciousness as if it were a larger body, or a double shell, in whose simple convolutions Mrs. Todd and I had secreted ourselves, until some wandering hermit crab of a visitor marked the little spare room for her own.

You may speak of a visit’s setting in as well as a tide’s, and it was impossible, as Mrs. Todd whispered to me, not to be pleased at the way this visit was setting in; a new impulse and refreshing of the social currents and seldom visited bays of memory appeared to have begun.

And because the narrator is introspective, the reader is encouraged not only to appreciate the local vignettes relative to their context but also to consider them in the larger perspective of the universal human experience. One example is the narrator’s visit to a small island where a cousin (now dead) of Mrs. Todd’s husband had taken up a lifelong solitary existence after being jilted by her fiancé.

I found the path; it was touching to discover that this lonely spot was not without its pilgrims. Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,–the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance. This plain anchorite had been one of those whom sorrow made too lonely to brave the sight of men, too timid to front the simple world she knew, yet valiant enough to live alone with her poor insistent human nature and the calms and passions of the sea and sky.…

In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

I had been away from the classics for too long! And this was a quiet but moving return. I read it in daily email installments from I like the concept of subscribing to a book and being fed a portion of it every day, but I found that the portions were too small to do justice to the flow of the language, and I eventually resorted to just saving up a week’s worth and then reading them all at once.

20. November 2007 by Mindy
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