Thursday, December 30, 2010

Aunt Cynthy Dallett

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels and Stories

When Sarah Orne Jewett published this week’s selection in an early January issue of Harper’s Bazaar 115 years ago, its title was the seasonally appropriate “The New-Year Guests.” She changed the title four years later when the story was reprinted in a book-length collection—an implicit acknowledgment of a heroine whose type appears often in her fiction: a New England woman living alone in her home. Such a character appears in a previous Story of the Week selection, “Going to Shrewsbury,” in which Mrs. Peet loses her home to an unscrupulous relative; we noted in our introduction how Jewett depicts the precariousness of solitude for women. Similarly, this week’s story, “Aunt Cynthy Dallett,” portrays how, for two women, such isolation can become unstable due to more benign reasons.

Still, Aunt Cynthy and her niece
, while sometimes lonely, value their isolation and their respective homes. Margaret Farrand Thorp, in her 1966 study of Jewett’s fiction, notes (using this story as a paramount example), “Misanthropy has nothing to do with this state of mind. Most of the solitaries like to mix with people and like to talk, but there are other things they value more, independence, the pleasure of being surrounded by their own possessions, freedom to order their lives and do things in their own way.” The tension in Aunt Cynthy Dallett” results when the two women, one growing older and the other poorer, are faced with the possibility that they can no longer sustain the households they have grown to love. But, since it’s New Year’s Day, Aunt Cynthy ultimately follows the tradition established by her father, who “made a good deal of it; he said he liked to make it pleasant and give the year a fair start.”

“No,” said Mrs. Hand speaking wistfully,—“no, we never were in the habit of keeping Christmas at our house. Mother died when we were all young; she would have been the one to keep up with all new ideas, but father and grandmother were old-fashioned folks, and—well, you know how ’t was then, Miss Pendexter: nobody took much notice of the day except to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

“They did n’t do much to make it merry, certain,” answered Miss Pendexter. “Sometimes nowadays I hear folks complainin’ o’ bein’ overtaxed with all the Christmas work they have to do.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.


Grammarrocks said...

What a powerful story. I've always loved the short story form. As I read this one, I couldn't help but be reminded of Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers." Although very different in premise, with the latter having a rather sinister back drop to work against, the tone is so similar in many ways. Both authors vividly show how much is going on inside the seemingly quiet exteriors of women. There is so much more happening than outsiders would ever guess.

I know and relate to these women. In many ways I am these women. That's always the magic of great story telling: readers identifying with the characters, especially characters who on the surface are completely different than oneself. It ties us all to each other and shows us that we share our humanity together.

Anonymous said...

What a privilege to read such a wonderful story from a distant past and different
culture. I could see, feel and hear the characters as they spoke and see the scenery on their journey and house where they stopped for dinner. Thank you.
Kathleen Mary NZ