Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender

Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender

Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender

Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender

Synopsis

In her book Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender, Margaret Roman argues that one theme colors almost every short story and novel by the turn-of-the-century American author: each person, regardless of sex, must break free of the restrictive, polar-opposite norms of behavior traditionally assigned to men and women by a patriarchal society. That society, as seen from Jewett's perspective during the late Victorian era, was one in which a competitive, active man dominates a passive, emotional woman. Frequently referring to Jewett's own New England upbringing at the hands of an unusually progressive father, Roman demonstrates how the writer, through her personal quest for freedom and through the various characters she created, strove to eliminate the necessity for rigid and narrowly defined male-female roles and relationships. With the details of Jewett's free-spirited life, Roman's book represents a solid work of literary scholarship, which traces a gender-dissolving theme throughout Jewett's writing. Whereas previous critics have focused primarily on her best-known works, including "A White Heron," Deephaven, A Country Doctor, and The Country of the Pointed Firs, Roman encompasses within her own discussion virtually all of the stories found in the nineteen volumes Jewett published during her lifetime. And although much recent criticism has centered around Jewett's strong female characters, Roman is the first to explore in depth Jewett's male characters and married couples. The book progresses through distinct phases that roughly correspond to Jewett's psychological development as a writer. In general, the characters in her early works exhibit one of two modes of behavior. Youngsters, free as Jewett was to explore the natural world of woods and field, glimpse the possibility of escape from the confining standards that society has set, though some experience turbulent and confusing adolescences where those

Excerpt

Sarah Orne Jewett was a Victorian woman, subject to the socialization process of her time. Yet she repudiated the belief of her era that women could occupy only a narrow, separate sphere. In her life and work, Jewett rejected the Victorian concept of "the angel in the house," a term coined from Coventry Patmore's poem of the same title, which has come to mean a vaporous upholder of spiritual values and familial bliss within the confines of the home. John Ruskin enlarged upon this definition in his 1865 essay "Of Queens' Gardens," which Walter E. Houghton assessed as "the most important single document . . . for the characteristic idealization of love, woman, and home in Victorian thought" (343). Basically, woman's work to Ruskin entailed providing a haven of moral and spiritual values away from the money-hungry commercial world. In order to accomplish the task, woman had to be protected from any contact with that outside world so she could remain untainted. Her sphere was "a place apart, a walled garden, in which certain virtues too easily crushed by modern life could be preserved, and certain desires of the heart too much thwarted be fulfilled" (Houghton, 343).

Yet unrestricted by patriarchal fences, Jewett's women characters break out of the Victorian home and garden. True, Jewett regrets the passing of the Puritan grandmothers' gardens, which . . .

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