Sara Orne Jewett was a turn-of-the-century novelist, poet, and short fiction writer, known especially for emphasizing nature and descriptions of coastal Maine in her work. Two pieces she is most well known for are:
In The County of Pointed Firs, Jewett inserts throughout a dueling yet complementary sense of loss and perseverance. The rural town setting of coastal Maine drives the piece, and the environment is as harsh and unforgiving as it is beautiful. Most of the residents are old, and the unnamed narrator relays their stories of lost love, spouses lost at sea, or simply the loss of life. Yet, to have survived as long as they have, especially in the challenging environment in which they live, represents a fortitude and strength that defines not only each resident, but also the town itself. The narrator observes much from the school house which she rented, like the funeral procession for Mrs. Begg, who had survived three husbands, each of them seamen. Yet, even on a day of such sad observance, the narrator remarks on how life, joy, and rebirth continue. “The song sparrows sang and sang, as if with joyous knowledge of immortality, and contempt for those who could so pettily concern themselves with death.”
The resident whose portrait is most intimately drawn is that of Mrs. Todd, who never married but who was once in love. She explained why she could never be with him: “he come of a high family, an’ my lot was plain an’ hard-workin’. I ain’t seen him for some years; he’s forgot our youthful feelin’s, I expect, but a woman’s heart is different.” Instead, Mrs. Todd grows her herb garden, whose appearance seems strange at first, unkept, but is actually life-affirming. “It seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking plants in Mrs. Todd’s garden.” The healing garden is both a symbol of loss and perseverance, and a literal representation of it. “There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past.”
There are other paradoxical themes at play, all of which have to do with the setting. The harsh environment heals yet destroys. The town is secluded and the residents isolated, yet people lived too close together for Mrs. Begg’s liking, and Mrs. Todd’s house was not secluded enough. The school house has the most beautiful view in town, yet it stands empty, at least during the summer, with no young people to appreciate or even see what is offered. However, there is the promise of the kid’s eventual return, and also the promise that no matter what is lost, the town’s journey will continue.
In both County of Pointed Firs and “A White Heron” Jewett’s use of setting is stunning. It doesn’t just provide flavor to the story, she uses it to impact both character and theme. Mrs. Todd, with her knowledge of the town, her herb garden, and the natural powers she is able to harness to impact her community and her surroundings, could not exist in any other setting. Sylvia, the protagonist of “A White Heron,” hated the city, but “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o’ themselves,” couldn’t exist anywhere else but in the woods she calls home. Both Sylvia and Mrs. Todd are artfully drawn characters, and I expect they were rare at the time they were written. Heck, they’re rare right now. Late middle-aged women characters are usually classified as bitter and villainous, unless they’re an appendage as someone’s wife or mother. Young girls are often either frivolous and forgettable, or bad-seed mean girl types. Yet, neither Sylvia nor Mrs. Todd falls into those character traps, and a big reason for that is their interaction with their surroundings, and their love and reverence for nature. I’ve read that for a character to be multi-dimensional, she needs to have deep connections or concerns for something other than herself. In both Sylvia and Mrs. Todd’s cases, that connection is with their setting, making the setting instrumental, no vital, when it comes to characterization. The same is true when it comes to theme. I wonder if the white heron perhaps symbolized Sylvia, and I also wonder if the herb garden symbolized Mrs. Todd. If so, the setting impacted theme in making the stories not just about character’s interaction with nature, but about self-empowerment and integrity.