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Re-reading Country of the Pointed Firs

November 5, 2013

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Sarah Orne Jewett’s novella The Country of the Pointed Firs is a gem of story. For writers I’d say it’s essential reading–a prototype of the minimalist school of prose that would take off some fifty years after its publication in 1896. Then again, it is also a book of its time, written in a style that does not apologize for taking liberties with length and metaphor, nor for risking ambiguity.

Touted as a local color writer, Sarah Orne Jewett is a forgotten architect of contemporary realist writing. Back when women and minorities who wrote about their home towns were routinely called “local colorists,” while men who did the same were given the honorific of “regionalists,” Jewett was forging through the glass ceilings of literary history with a unique palette for capturing not only mood and character but for mythologizing places and people and their, at times, mystifying interrelation.

What I love about Jewett’s style comes at you like gang busters right in the first paragraph of Pointed Firs

THERE WAS SOMETHING about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seem more attractive than other maritime villages of eastern Maine. Perhaps it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore and dark woods, and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and tree-nailed in among the ledges by the Landing. These houses made the most of their seaward view, and there was a gayety and determined floweriness in their bits of garden ground; the small-paned high windows in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along the shore and its background of spruces and balsam firs. When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair.

Jewett’s houses have eyes. It’s a revelation that comes with a function. Before becoming fully-fledged people, making up a village that you can actually fall in love with, these houses see. They have an optical perspective on the world.

Normally thought of as objects, Jewett’s houses open her novella by transforming from mere sights dotting the landscape as so much punctuation along the vista of seaside sentences into seats of consciousness. They become subjects that look themselves and love what they look upon.

Rather than begin as ordinary objects, the houses start the paragraph as sacred relics. Crucifix-like, they start their transformation into loving, looking personhood by being “securely wedged and tree-nailed.” You can’t get deader than that. But you can’t get more crucified either, and that’s where some of Jewett’s signature ambiguity creeps in. The houses are both objects, pinioned like dead things on the specimen tray of the landing, as well as sacrificial figures, Christ-like in their “tree nailed” pathos.

From that Golgotha, however, those houses rise. Even before we get the personification spelled out for us in the simile “their steep gables were like knowing eyes,” the houses already metaphorically possess a gaze–which is so much more powerful than simply having eyes. They have a view, a “seaward view.” These are thoughtful houses. They know the allure of the ocean in panorama.

So it is the houses that do the looking in this opening. They look for us. We borrow their eyes. And they are practiced viewers of the landscape. It is they who do the watching–of “the harbor and the far sea-line beyond”–and they who do the looking “northward all along the shore and its background of spruces and balsam firs.”

I find all of this personification interesting, because it never fails to seemingly drop away the second the narrator gives us that abstract musing: “When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person.”

We naturally assume this is the shift, the signal to turn from the business of the houses with eyes that see to the business of making realistic sense and commenting in an almost explanatory fashion about what all the metaphorizing that comes before was really about.

But it is only a common fear of flying and falling that compels us to such a conclusion. We don’t like to drift. We tend to want something solid beneath our feet to ground our forays into metaphor.

The “one” that is the subject of this line then is a human. It is us. Not some dumb zombie house with googly eyes and a touristy penchant for beach scenes.

But what if we shed our fear? What if we were to continue to entertain the possibility, which has been carefully preserved for us in the grammar of the sentences and in the decision not to emphasize any shift in a paragraph break, that this shift to a “one” is still referring to the houses just personified?

Sure it could and does refer to us too, but us and them–the whole community of gazers and lookers and watchers convened here at the very start of this wonderful story, which emphatically asks us time and again to expand our understanding of what a community is, and to see even in the most unlikely of assemblages–a village “one” can fall in love with.

For weal or woe, the first love that happens in this paragraph could be the love that the houses have for their vistas. It widens to encompass a love the houses have for the village which their view concentrates into a singular person.

Why not? Haven’t the houses become persons? Is it not they who inaugurate all the looking going on here? Why not allow them to be model lovers too? Who better than they? They who spend lifetimes staring at their beloveds — who in the process are adamantly rendered as SUBJECTS of love by Jewett, rather than as mere OBJECTS on display.

One Comment
  1. Michael Andreoni permalink

    The book sounds intriguing. Nineteenth century writers were big on the personification of buildings, a la Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Melville’s “The Tartarus of maids”. I’ll definitely check out Jewett’s novella. Thanks for bringing her to light.

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