Legacy 22.2 (2005) 158-175
Jewett's Religious Rhetoric in A Country Doctor
When Nan Prince, the protagonist of Sarah Orne Jewett's A Country Doctor (1884), travels to Dunport for a stay with Anna Prince, her only aunt, from whom she was estranged at birth, she befriends Eunice Fraley and comes into conflict with Eunice's mother, Mrs. Fraley. At this point, Nan has nearly completed her medical studies and plans to become a physician. Eunice, who is almost sixty years old, sympathizes with and admires Nan's approach to life. Mrs. Fraley, however, takes it upon herself to confront Nan publicly concerning her impious and unnatural choice of a profession. Eunice places herself between these two powerful models of feminine life. In an odd but telling fragment, followed by a sentence, she confides to Nan, "Though I believe every word you said about a girl's having an independence of her own. It is a great blessing to have always had such a person as my mother to lean upon" (338). Eunice is attracted by Nan's independence, but she feels gratitude and duty toward her mother, who has taken care of her in exchange for a life of service. Eunice's syntax underlines her sense that these two attitudes cannot be reconciled.
Nan Prince, Mrs. Fraley, and Eunice represent three positions toward women's vocations enunciated in this narrative and in the post-Civil War period in the United States. Women who heard an inner call and found encouragement in their social and religious contexts might have seen themselves in Nan, the young woman who follows her inner voice into a profession that conservatives of the time wished to reserve for men. For such readers, the novel would offer encouragement. Women like Mrs. Fraley may have felt resentment about their restricted lives, but also, like her, may not have understood that their legalistic conformity to gender norms was a main cause of that oppression. Blind to the causes of her unhappiness, Mrs. Fraley imposes similar restrictions upon her daughter, making her unhappy, too. It is possible to imagine such women seeing themselves in Mrs. Fraley and becoming more self-aware; it is more difficult to see them changing their opinions about gender roles. Because of her middle position, Eunice represents the segment of Jewett's female reading audience most likely to change course, reject conformity, and follow Nan's lead into fuller self-realization. Jewett's rhetoric is addressed in part to each of these three different constituencies among her readers; in this essay, I examine how Jewett speaks to the Eunices.
Jewett's approach to this segment of her audience includes two main components. First, there is a direct and overt argument that all people, regardless of sex, receive individual vocational calls. There is also a subtle and covert argument that trumps the authority of the nineteenth-century biblical absolutists, who insist that the Bible narrowly defines woman's vocation. According to these religious leaders, woman's vocation includes subordination to male authority and domestic service and reproduction within marriage or, if one does not marry, in domestic service to the family. As Mrs. Fraley repeats, God has called women to their "lot and place" as wives and daughters in the home, where they should be content to do their duty (326–28).
The early literary critic Th. Bentzon (Madame Blanc) sees Eunice awaiting "the liberator who must finally bring her to life" (13). Eunice has lived all her life in the home of her formidable mother, who has dominated her in both large and petty ways. Mrs. Fraley is disappointed by the opportunities a restricted life has offered her: "[S]he had been well fitted by nature for social preeminence, and had never been half satisfied with the opportunities provided for the exercise of her powers" (322). The chief spokesperson for religious and social orthodoxy in the novel, Mrs. Fraley proves narrow and authoritarian. Religion serves her "rather as a basis for argument than an accepted reliance and guide" (321–22). Eunice has rejected a suitor to whom she has always felt she belonged because everyone around her opposed the...