Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Transgressive Daughters in Sarah Orne Jewett's 'Deephaven.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Transgressive Daughters in Sarah Orne Jewett's 'Deephaven.'

Article excerpt

[The daughter] enters the Oedipus situation as though into a haven.

... Girls remain in it for an indeterminate length of time.

Freud, "Femininity"

Generally considered merely an embryonic work, Sarah Orne Jewett's first novel, Deephaven (1877), offers the sometimes puerile account of a young woman's summer in a New England coastal village. Helen Denis, the free-spirited, twenty-four year old daughter of a naval officer, has accepted the invitation of Boston friend Kate Lancaster to join her at the village of Deephaven, where the Lancasters have come into possession of an ancestral home; Helen's story recounts how the two young women become acquainted with the region, its people and history. Inasmuch as the story emphasizes realistic descriptions of an otherwise unfamiliar, provincial world, we can understand the narrative as simply an early example of Jewett's regionalism or "local color" writing, but closer scrutiny of these descriptions indicates that more than rendering a region they reveal the inchoate concerns of the young women themselves: in that respect the narrative can be better understood as psychological realism in which the women's literal and symbolic (written) ventures into unfamiliar regions allegorize revelatory journeys into the self.(1)

At the very outset Jewett suggests that the women's writing and, by extension, her own, will involve psychological revelations. Taking up residence in the ancestral house, the two find writing desks with "secret drawers":

The [house's] wide window which looks out at the lilacs and the sea

was a favorite seat of ours. Facing each other on either side of it are

two old secretaries, and one of them we ascertained to be the hiding

place of secret drawers, in which may be found valuable records

deposited by ourselves one rainy day when we first explored it. We

wrote, between us, a tragic "journal" on some yellow, old letter

paper we found in the desk. We put it in the most hidden drawer by

itself, and flatter ourselves that it will be regarded with great inter-

est some time or other. (45) Though offered in a playful way, this description nonetheless appears to symbolize issues of the psyche. On either side of the means of perception (the window) the doubled writing desks suggest the mind's coupled and intercommunicating components--the composite nature of the psyche, its conscious and unconscious or normally hidden elements, the latter indicated by the "secret drawers."(2) Thus the women's writing material "between" them and hiding it in the "most hidden drawer" suggest, first, the mind's production of meaningful material that for various reasons (e.g., because of social taboos), cannot be expressed directly and therefore must find indirect expression, until then remaining secret; and, second, the use of writing to effect such ends, to evade interdiction.

These concerns with eluding interdiction, with psychological revelations, find analogous elaboration in the novel's sustained attention to the matter of governmental embargoes in Deephaven: the narrative repeatedly points up the deleterious effects of the early nineteenth century's Embargo Act on the region and the efforts of people to evade its prohibitions, to smuggle their goods out of Deephaven. (In 1807, seeking to reestablish its own maritime authority over the belligerents France and England, the government for a number of months embargoed all trade with Europe and in doing so severely crippled New England's economies.) In Deephaven one mariner tells of having tried to elude the authorities by voyaging at night, of having another time declared much smaller than actual dimensions of the ship in the official "custom-house books" (117) so that hidden material might pass inattentive inspectors. Running embargoes, secreting writing in hidden compartments--these and related acts to be discussed below indicate that Helen's (and Jewett's) account works to smuggle "secret," transgressive psychological material past authorities and out of Deephaven. …

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