Places: A Country Doctor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1884

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Places DiscussedOldfields

Oldfields. Country Doctor, AFictional Maine farming community, probably modeled after the environs of Jewett’s birthplace, South Berwick, Maine. Jewett’s father, a physician, often took young Jewett along on patient visits, pointing out for close observation features of the people and landscape. As a child, Nan flourishes on the farm. Local society–with its Puritan heritage–tends to be narrow, formally pious, and conservative. The opening chapters tell several stories of talented people thwarted by the limited life choices available there. Nan, however, is allowed to grow up “naturally”; she rafts on the river, roams the fields day and night, and plays with farm animals. She develops the self-reliance to resist the limits usually imposed on girls. From the local people she picks up the virtues of a work ethic and mutual helpfulness. Nan returns to rural Oldfields to begin medical practice despite opportunities to work and study in major city hospitals and in Europe.

River

River. Unnamed river that is a key place in rural Oldfields–the Salmon Falls and Piscataqua Rivers join below Jewett’s South Berwick. Nan’s despairing mother nearly drowns herself and the infant Nan near a graveyard along the river. Nan returns to the spot twice: when she decides to become a doctor and again at the end of the novel, when she meditates on the providential guidance she has felt.

The fictional village of Oldfields resembles Jewett’s childhood home. Oldfields differs from Jewett’s South Berwick in the absence of modern manufacturing. The narrator specifies that the village is untouched by the hurry and shoddy building of the industrial revolution.

When Nan’s grandmother dies, Nan moves to Dr. Leslie’s house in the village, which is much like Jewett’s home in its central location, spaciousness, and somewhat exotic furnishings, such as a medical library. The village offers the adolescent Nan new resources for growth, while not depriving her completely of her free, rural life. Nan’s adventuresome habits are curtailed in the more watchful village, but Oldfields also brings her into daily contact with liberal mentors. Dr. Leslie teaches her to study patients’ whole selves in deciding upon treatments. Mrs. Graham teaches adult manners and proper feminine taste, preparing her to interact well even with people opposed to her vocational choice. Thus she becomes ready to embark upon medical studies.

As in other works, Jewett here implies that knowing both rural and urban life is important to becoming a whole person. This was her own experience growing up in a rural village, roaming the countryside, learning self-reliance and social skills, and becoming a professional writer who divided her year between South Berwick and Boston, Massachusetts.

Dunport

Dunport. Fictional New England town, probably modeled on Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. Dunport is an Atlantic commercial port–with law firms, shipbuilding, and other businesses–and with a substantial number of leisure-class women. One of these is Anna Prince, Nan’s aunt.

Much larger than Oldfields, Dunport has an active social life but lacks a city’s resources for entertainment and education. Again, the river is a key location–possibly the same river that flows through rural Oldfields. Here the local youth entertain themselves with rowing parties and picnics. On the river, Nan becomes acquainted with a suitor and receives his proposal. In the harbor for repair, two ships with entangled rigging become an extended metaphor of unfortunate marriages.

Nan visits Dunport, partly out of gratitude for her aunt’s financial support, to end the feud that began when her gentleman-physician father married an ambitious farm girl. The places associated with her father and the amenities of the town extend Nan’s understanding and test her resolve. The fine houses and women’s social life offer a relaxing routine in contrast to the hard work of medicine. The leaders of society oppose her vocation. An attractive suitor opens this way of life to her, but she tactfully turns him away. Seeing her father’s childhood environment and mementos helps to confirm that she is carrying on his own medical ambitions and hopes. Assured that she has chosen rightly, she is ready to begin her career.

BibliographyBlanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994. Discusses A Country Doctor as an autobiographical novel. Dr. Leslie resembles Jewett’s physician father, and Nan’s decision to pursue vocation over marriage is drawn from Jewett’s personal experience.Donovan, Josephine. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Analyzes her fictional themes of city versus country and isolation versus community.Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Reprints early reviews and contains original critical essays on her works, several of which discuss A Country Doctor’s relation to Jewett’s other fiction.Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. Argues that Jewett creates male and female characters who do not conform to conventions in order to challenge accepted notions about the sexes and to project a world in which any person may live and grow freely.Westbrook, Perry D. Acres of Flint: Sarah Orne Jewett and Her Contemporaries. Rev. ed. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1981. Shows how Jewett’s work relates to the local-color literary tradition developed by New England women writers after the Civil War.
Categories: Places