In Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Foreigner," the small Maine fishing village of Dunnet Landing is described, both in terms of its own regional past and the possibility of changes due to the coming modern age. Mrs. Todd is one of the primary vehicles by which Dunnet Landing's past is both elucidated and glamorized; she absolutely adores telling stories about her neighbors and other members of the community, ostensibly making her trade in local color. Todd herself is a collector of past memories and stories, as she seems to collect them in order to protect them from being lost in modernity.
The use of anecdote is a strong point towards noting the characters' emphasis on regional past; many characters, like Mrs. Todd, strongly tie their relationships to others with interesting stories about them and their community in the past. One particular anecdote in the story that establishes this pattern is her story about William getting money from Johnny: "don't you know the first day we had Johnny out 'long of us, he took an' give William his money to keep for him that he'd been a-savin', and William showed it to me an' was so affected, I thought he was goin' to shed tears? 'Twas a dollar an' eighty cents; yes, they'll have a beautiful evenin' all together, and like's not the sea'll be flat as a doorstep come morning" (Jewett 157).
Mrs. Todd's collecting of regional past is very telling in how selective this act can be; for the most part, these stories are far from controversial or scandalous, merely amusing trifles meant to entertain. This indicates a relative inclination to deny the ugly truth of a place in favor of an idealized past; Mrs. Todd's library of stories alludes to this. Of course, this is broken by the presence of a raging storm that makes her mention the tale of Captain Tolland, "half to herself," as if she does not actively want to tell the story (Jewett 158). With urging from the unnamed narrator, she engages in this story; however, the haunted way in which she tells it betrays no shortage of guilt on her part, with a certain lack of specificity and restraint as the story is relayed to the insistent customer.
This reticence is indicated by her inability to pin down specificities with time and place. Despite that first story, where she knew the dollar amount that William received from Johnny, she doesn't remember the precise year that the tale of Eliza Tolland took place, instead saying it happened "thirty, or maybe forty, year ago" (Jewett 160). This is strange due to her normally encyclopedic account of details and the history of Dunnet Landing; this ignorance of detail must instead be read as purposeful. In short, Mrs. Todd does not really want to tell the ghost story, but the narrator so desperately wants her to that she feels compelled to do so. On occasion, Mrs. Todd seems to stop and drift into absent-minded ruminations on something else, before the narrator has to nudge her back into the story "to change the current of our thoughts" (Jewett 161).
The town's treatment of character of "the foreigner," Eliza Tolland, is a dangerous threat to the wholesomeness and idealism of the past, which is Mrs. Todd's stock in trade. In describing the story of her arrival, the town's local color itself is highlighted, as well as their reticence to accept the new; she is "a poor lonesome creatur" and "a stranger in a strange land" according to the townspeople (Jewett 166). It seems that Dunnet was completely unwilling to accept her into their ranks, made doubly clear at Mrs. Todd's categorization of this story as taboo, something not normally recounted. This illustrates another conflict between the modern and the past, which Mrs. Todd's storytelling appears to elucidate - the ability of the now to reassess the then. In retrospect, Dunnet treated Eliza very poorly, and Mrs. Todd seems to be incredibly ashamed of this fact, particularly given their relative kindness toward each other during Eliza's time in Dunnet Landing. However, the burden of the present makes it necessary to do so, and it is an uncomfortable experience.
Mrs. Todd, in particular, has a uniquely regretful perspective on the story of Mrs. Tollard - she wishes she had been more genuinely involved with her before the end. This opens up more deep wounds regarding the regional past, as her own negative reassessment of her actions and behavior, as well as those of the town, causes her to be reticent in articulating the reality of what happened. Instead of following her mother's advice to be kind to the foreigner, she lashes out in jealousy and lack of understanding. Mrs. Todd admonishes Mrs. Tollard for a perceived disdain for the ways of Dunnet Landing: "Why, since that time she flaunted out o' meetin', folks have felt she liked other ways better'n our'n" (Jewett 169). This is one of the most egregious insults one could levy toward a small town - the implication that their ways are not special or preferable to others; Eliza's foreign nature presumes this, and Mrs. Todd's guilt comes from that erroneous assumption. The ability of modernity to look back in the past and point out flaws or mistakes in people's judgment is an uncomfortable fact for Mrs. Todd, who would normally much rather tell nice stories if not for a) the presence of the storm, and b) the narrator's insistence on a spooky tale - "You have never told me any ghost stories" (Jewett 158). Mrs. Todd seems to take this as an opportunity to reveal, at the guest's request, an aspect of the town that is not normally discussed.
In conclusion, the portrayal of regional past in "The Foreigner" is that the denizens of small towns often engage in white-washing of their own town history, the uglier aspects of a town's personality only being told through those repositories of local color like Mrs.Todd. However, the encroaching storm outside, indicative of her guilt at the memory of the story about Eliza Tollard, informs her that she must take a more modern approach and tell the real tale of the town, warts and all. The dissipation of the storm indicates a sort of catharsis, as the raging sea calms down to show Todd has been released of her guilt. The goal of the story, then, is to demonstrate the dangers of white-washing local color to overtly idealize it; by ignoring both literal and metaphorical ghosts, we build up our guilt and misrepresent our community. Mrs. Todd's choice to tell the story is part of this catharsis; the town's ugly secret is now out, and this behavior is shown to be stored along with the rest of Mrs. Todd's anecdotes as part of the official history of the town.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. "The Foreigner."