Though set in the 17th-century, the language is as straightforward and direct as the Puritans of New England themselves.
At the same time, the tone is sympathetic. Many characters find themselves misunderstood, in one way or another, but the narrator's tone always tends to gently highlight something positive beneath the surface. In a book full of judgmental characters, the narrator prods us to look deeper, and not fall into that trap. Here's an example of the narrator describing Prudence:
A more unpromising child she had never seen, Kit thought, yet she couldn’t get Prudence out of her mind. There was some spark in that small frame that refused to be quenched. (2.9)
And here's an example of the narrator on Uncle Matthew:
Going through the shed door one marooning, with her arms full of linens to spread on the grass, Kit halted, wary as always, at the sight of her uncle. He was standing not far from the house, looking out toward the river, his face half turned from her. He did not notice her. He simply stood, idle for one rare moment, staring at the golden fields. The flaming color was dimmed now. Great masses of curled brown leaves lay tangled in the dried grass, and the branches that thrust against the graying sky were almost bare. As Kit watched, her uncle bent slowly and scooped up a handful of brown dirt from the garden patch at his feet, and stood holding it was a curious reverence, as though it were some priceless substance. As it crumbled through his fingers, his hand convulsed in a sudden passionate gesture. (14.2)
This novel is set in the 17th-century Connecticut Colony. History, however, is not merely a backdrop for The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The novel picks up on many of the debates of the day. The political unrest in the colonies is a major theme, as is the religious tension between Puritans and Quakers. You need not have a background in history to enjoy the novel, of course. Elizabeth George Spears does a terrific job of guiding readers through the more unfamiliar material.
Want to learn more about Colonial America and the Puritans? Check out these Shmoop US History Learning Guides:
As with most books in the young adult genre, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist grapples with identity formation and finding her place in society. The search for “home” is one of Kit’s major narrative paths.
The funny thing about the title of The Witch of Blackbird Pond is that the novel doesn’t actually contain any witches.
That’s right, none. There are no black hats or warty noses or old women putting curses on kids with the stink eye. Sorry to disappoint you, potential readers. There’s not even one broomstick.
So, why the title The Witch of Blackbird Pond? Why not title the book The Quaker of Wethersfield Connecticut?
Well, because The Quaker of Wethersfield Connecticut doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, now does it? Also, of course, the book isn’t so much about who Hannah Tupper actually is (a Quaker living in Connecticut), but what the Puritan society fears that she might be (a right nasty witch).
We see the trouble when Kit first encounters Hannah:
Kit looked back at the gray figure bent over a kettle, stirring something with a long stick. Her spine prickled. It might be only soap, of course. She’d stirred a kettle herself just yesterday; goodness knows her arms still ached from it. But that lonely figure in the ragged flapping shawl – it was easy enough to imagine any sort of mysterious brew in that pot! She quickened her step to catch up with Judith. (8.18)
Here we can see that at a distance anyone, with a little bit of imagination, can look like a witch. Because the Puritans do not attempt to understand Hannah, she becomes an outcast and a scapegoat, even though she is completely innocent of any charges of witchcraft. We see the violent consequences of the town’s uniformed prejudices when the angry mob burns Hannah’s house and puts Kit herself on trial.
At the end of The Witch of Blackbird Pond all is right with the world: Kit Tyler has been cleared of all charges of witchcraft and is a free woman. Where does she go from here, though?
Kit’s first option is to return to Barbados as a single woman and work as a governess. The narrator maps this option for us as follows:
She would go as a single woman who must work for her living. Her best chance, she had decided, lay in seeking employment as a governess in one of the wealthy families. She liked teaching children, and hopefully there might be a library where she could extend her own learning as well as that of her charges. Whatever befell, there would be a blue sky overhead, and the warmth and color and fragrance and beauty that her heart craved. (21.11)
In this option, Kit is a lone wolf but she is also doing something she loves: continuing her education and teaching children to read and write.
The second option, the path Kit does actually take, is to become the wife of Nat Eaton and to sail around the world with him on his new boat with him. We'll let Nat explain:
“There’ll be a house someday, in Saybrook, or here in Wethersfield if you like. I’ve thought of nothing else all winter. In November we’ll sail south to the Indies. In the summer –”
“In the summer Hannah and I will have a garden!” (21.42-21.43)
Kit chooses not to return to Barbados alone. Instead, she decides that home is not necessarily Barbados, but more specifically the people she loves: Nat, of course, but Hannah too. There’s also the Wood family and Prudence. She gets to stay around her family and get married happily.
What do you think of the path Kit chooses? What would you do?
While most of the action of the novel takes place in the Wood household, there are three major geographical locations in the novel: Wethersfield, CT, Barbados, and England.
Wethersfield is a Puritan settlement in the early American Connecticut Colony. The landscape is rugged and the houses are plain, but sturdy. As Kit tells us, the life in the Connecticut Colony can be awfully dreary and quite a bit of work. The winters too, as Kit finds out, are harsh, though the spring weather is lovely.
In The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Wethersfield is the home turf of the Puritans who are, like the land itself, more than a little harsh. Wethersfield, therefore, becomes the site of intense culture clash for our tropical heroine. The beliefs of the Puritans differ significantly from Kit’s worldview. Most obviously, the Puritans dress plainly and are devoutly religious; they also take their work and their education very seriously.
Wethersfield, Connecticut, we might add, is a hotly charged world politically as well. The Connecticut men and women, exemplified by Uncle Matthew, believe in their right to self-government and will stop at nothing to defend their rights. As Kit learns, “freedom” means something very different in Connecticut than what she is used to. Many of the colonists openly defy the king and are loyal instead to the land they love.
Psst. Want to learn more about Colonial America and the Puritans? Check out these Shmoop US History Learning Guides:
While none of the action takes place in Barbados, the 17th-century British colony is an important location in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Barbados was the home of Kit and her aristocratic grandfather before her trip to Connecticut; the island very much influenced Kit’s upbringing. She experienced a great deal of freedom – especially from work – on her grandfather’s plantation. She was attended from her earliest childhood by a black slave.
Though both were British colonies, Barbados is a complete contrast to Connecticut. Scenically, the island features a lush tropical setting with blue skies and stretches of sandy beaches and ocean. For Kit, Barbados symbolizes home and family. She also associates Barbados with her own personal freedom – whether from the hard labor of the Wood family or the social scrutiny of the Wethersfield Puritans.
Don’t be completely fooled, though. The beautiful island also has a dark side. The society in Barbados is organized much differently than Connecticut. Rather than individual families working the land themselves, there are commercial plantations peopled with slaves and their prosperous slave owners. Trade and commerce – especially human traffic – is important to the economy of Barbados. Though Kit remembers Barbados fondly, the society can be cruel and harsh in its own way. Nat comments on this when he explains to Kit that the Dolphin doesn’t carry slaves: “we’re almighty proud that our ship has a good honest stink of horses!” (2.47).
Food for thought: How does Kit’s ideas about “freedom” contrast with the Puritans in Connecticut? Which place is more free: Barbados or Connecticut? Why?
Seventeenth-century England is the home of the royal monarch, King James II. None of the novel’s action is dramatized in England, though the country is often referenced as the far-off seat of power. Many of the Connecticut colonists object to being ruled at such a distance. England’s tyrannical rule of the American colonies will be questioned as the groundwork is laid for the American Revolution. Indeed, we see how detached England was from the daily life of the colonists in the novel when Governor Andros comes to visit.
England is most associated with Royalist characters in the novel such as Dr. Bulkeley and Governor Andros or those who are dead or distant, such as Kit’s parents and grandfather.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a story about the pride and prejudices of a small Puritan community in 17th-century colonial America. The historical details might seem daunting at first (Puritans and Quakers and Royalists – oh my!), but the characters are well developed and the plot is engrossing.
Elizabeth George Spears chose to contemporize the language of this novel; the only person who uses slightly archaic language is Hannah. As a Quaker, she addresses others with “thee” and “thou.”
Want to see a bit of real 17th-century writing? Check out the Connecticut Colony Charter of 1662.
My, oh, my is Kit Tyler a clothes horse. When she arrives at the Wood family house in Wethersfield she has not one, not two, but seven trunks full of clothing. Shocking!
Everyone in the house comments on her extensive wardrobe – some like her dresses and some don’t. We know, then, that these dresses matter in some way. They possibly mean something, right? What do they mean, though? Why are these dresses significant?
Kit’s many fashionable dresses are a symbol of her difference from the Puritan Wood family. They are a physical remnant of her aristocratic upbringing, a reminder of her privileged life back on Barbados. Kit sees these dresses as part of her identity. Initially, we might add, the dresses are adored by Judith – and scorned by Uncle Matthew. Everyone has something to say about them. As the narrator remarks, “How amazing that a few clothes could cause such excitement” (4.15).
By the end of the novel Kit learns that her appearance isn’t everything. She changes her dress from fancy silk to durable calico. At one point she even decides to sell her dresses in order to return to Barbados; Kit learns that her identity is based on other, more important things.
As an orphan, Kit is on a journey to find a new home, and the Great Meadows represent that place for her. The Meadows are the one place that Kit feels like she belongs in Wethersfield:
As they came out from the shelter of the trees and the Great Meadows stretched before them, Kit caught her breath. She had not expected anything like this. From that first moment, in a way she could never explain, the Meadows claimed her and made her their own. As far as she could see they stretched on either side, a great level sea of green, broken here and there by a solitary graceful elm. Was it the fields of sugar cane they brought to mind, or the endless reach of the ocean to meet the sky? Or was it simply the sense of freedom and space and light that spoke to her of home? (8.7)
The wide open spaces remind Kit of Barbados, bringing her a sense of peace. It is also in the Meadows that Kit meets Hannah, teaches Prudence to read, and interacts with Nat. The Meadows is associated with these people, making it a much stronger symbol of home.
Bonus Round: Why do the Meadows “claim” Kit? Who else do they claim?
As a teenager, Kit is searching for her true identity. How will she come to define herself in relation to the society in which she lives? One of the metaphors the novel offers us to think about Kit’s role in Connecticut Colony is that of a tropical flower transplanted to a cold climate. Hannah offers the image in a story she tells about a gift that Nat brought her:
"My friend brought the bulb to me, a little brown thing like an onion. I doubted it would grow here but it just seemed determined to keep on trying and look what has happened." (9.78)
The story seems to suggest that Kit can thrive in New England with just a little perseverance. Is Hannah right? Can Kit adjust to the Connecticut soil?
The novel offers us many metaphors for thinking about Kit’s identity. While Hannah tells us the story of the little flower that could, Nat compares Kit to a tropical bird he once wanted to bring home from Barbados. He tells the story as follows:
“You know,” he said looking carefully away at the river, “once when I was a kid we went ashore at Jamaica, and in the marketplace there was a man with some birds for sale. They were sort of yellow-green with bright scarlet patches. I was bent on taking one home to my grandmother in Saybrook. But father explained it wasn’t meant to live up here, that the birds here would scold and peck at it. Funny thing, that morning when we left you here in Wethersfield – all the way back to the ship all I could think of was that bird.” (12.29)
In Nat’s eyes, Kit is a poor little bullied bird. Unlike Hannah, Nat admits that he had doubts about Kit’s chances of survival in New England. Is Nat right about Kit in this metaphor? What other kinds of birds does he compare her to later in the story?
Like many Quakers in colonial America, Hannah Tupper and her husband Thomas were branded on their foreheads because of their faith. The brand is an outward symbol of the Tupper’s outcast status. (Kind of like Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A” in The Scarlet Letter.) It is also suggests the cruelty and prejudices peoples of different faiths faced in the colonies:
“But in the town there was not an inch of land to spare, not after they’d seen the brand on our foreheads.” (9.60)
The brand is a physical reminder of Hannah’s religious difference – one with very real consequences. The people of Wethersfield will not allow her to own land in town after they’ve seen the brand on her forehead.
If The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a novel about the search from home, then William Ashby’s house is one of the possible homes that the novel offers to Kit. The house that William Ashby is ever building and discussing is, first and foremost, a symbol of the luxury and comfort he can offer his future wife. He builds on the best land and even orders diamond-paned windows.
Kit, however, is not interested in William’s house in the least, though Judith finds the topic of conversation riveting. We also know that Kit is not truly in love with William. His money offers her an escape from all of the work in the Wood home, but is a home without love truly an escape?
Why is William’s house a place Kit could never call home? What does home mean for Kit? What does it mean for William?
Scholarly tip: Dreams are almost always important in novels. Anytime a character has one – and the author takes the time to write it down – you should sit up and take note. According to Freud , a dream is thought to express a person’s subconscious wishes, desires, or fears. When thinking about what a character’s dream means, we might try thinking about the dream as an expression of the character’s unconscious.
As the novel draws to a close, our heroine Kit Tyler has a dream:
One night she woke from a vivid dream. She and Nat had stood side by side at the bow of the Dolphin, watching that familiar curving prow carving gently through calm turquoise water. They came soundlessly into a palm-studded harbor, fragrant with the scent of blossoms, and happiness was like sunshine, wrapping her round and pouring into her heart till it overflowed.
She woke in the freezing darkness. I want to go back, she admitted at last, weeping. I want to go home, where green things are growing, and I will never see snow again as long as I live! (20.60-61)
Kit initially interprets this dream as meaning that she should return to her home in Barbados. Eventually, though, she realizes that it doesn’t matter where she is in the dream – but who she is with. What dreams, fears, or desires is the dream expressing? Why can’t Kit realize these feelings in her waking life?
The story is told by an unnamed narrator in the third person; however, the narrator has special access to Kit’s thoughts, feelings, and consciousness. This is what is meant by “third person limited” (or "close"): the narration is written in third person, yet the narrator is mostly limited to Kit's perspective. An example of third person limited narration is as follows:
“I had a black nursemaid. But I never needed anyone but Grandfather. He was –” There were no words to explain Grandfather. (2.22)
Kit describes her relationship to her father, but the narrator already knows her deepest feelings on the matter and completes her sentences for her.
The book’s opening pages set up the culture clash between Kit and the New England Puritans that structures the story. Kit Tyler is introduced as an aristocratic teen from the tropical island of Barbados. An orphan, she’s sailing to the Connecticut Colony to meet her Aunt Rachel. The Wood family, of course, is a family that is very different from what Kit is used to. The novel establishes a great contrast between Kit’s character (aristocratic and a little spoiled) and the Puritan society (hardworking and pious) into which she has been inserted. Note: Kit’s attempt to save Prudence’s doll in this section foreshadows the treatment with which she will later meet.
In this section, we find a series of episodes in which Kit doesn’t quite fit in with the stern New England Puritans around her. The basic conflict of the novel is established, which is that Kit and the Puritans just can’t seem to get along. Kit’s clothing is elaborate and ornate, as opposed to the drab calico worn by other Puritan women. She also can’t seem to handle the heavy workload in the Wood household: carding wool and working in the onion patch. Also, Kit is expelled from teaching at the dame school for her questionable methods. (She asks the children to playact, after all.) The tension between Kit and the new world she is in begins to escalate. Where will this tension lead? What happens when two cultures clash?
In this section of the book, we find out that Kit is not alone in her feelings about Puritan society. She finds others who feel – and are treated – in the same way. First is Hannah Tupper, the Quaker widow who lives by Blackbird Pond. They become fast friends, of course, as they share a mutual love of blueberry cake and kittens. She also learns that Nat, that cute and snarky seaman, is friends with Hannah, though he gets banished from the town. Kit also meets Prudence again, the neglected daughter of Goodwife Cruff, and brings her into the fold by teaching her to read. She does so secretly in the Meadows and introduces her to Hannah as well.
We see, then, that Kit is not the only person that Puritan society doesn’t accept; there are many people who are cast out. This complicates things because it suggests that the intolerance of the Puritans is a widespread problem, with potentially dangerous consequences. Also note that Kit begins forming her own family in this section and reaching out to others who feel isolated.
As the novel progresses, we see the true dangers of social exclusion and a mob mentality. A fever strikes the town, including the Wood household, and scapegoats are needed. The townspeople blame Hannah Tupper, the Quaker. They form a mob and promptly burn down Hannah Tupper’s house. Kit is able to save the woman just in time and, with Nat’s help, get her far away from Wethersfield. Still hungry for blood, the townspeople take aim at Kit. Her friendship with Hannah causes her to be accused of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. This section is the climax of the novel as the building tension between Kit, Hannah, and the Puritans finally turn violent. We see fear of outsiders turn into hysteria. The townspeople no longer wish only to exclude outsiders; they also wish to harm them.
Will justice be done in this small Puritan community? How will the conflict between Kit and the Puritans be resolved? This section builds the suspense as it attempts to answer these questions. Kit is examined before a board of the town’s elders. The only person willing to defend the girl is Uncle Matthew (William Ashby doesn’t even show up). Much of the accusations are baseless, but Goodman and Goodwife Cruff bring a piece of substantial evidence against Kit. They present a copybook – found in the ashes of Hannah’s house – in which Kit wrote Prudence’s name and which Prudence wrote her own name. The copybook is utterly harmless, but Kit refuses to get the child in trouble and remains silent on the issue. Kit’s noble unwillingness to rat out Prudence ratchets up the suspense.
The novel’s conflict is finally resolved with the arrival of a surprise witness. At last, the truth! Nat arrives with Prudence in tow to demonstrate to the crowd that Kit was, in fact, teaching Prudence to read. Prudence also reads a passage from the Bible. We see that Kit and the Puritans do not have such different aims after all: to be good and decent people (even if their methods are different). Kit is vindicated and Goodwife Cruff gets her comeuppance. In this section we, as readers, feel vindicated as we see Kit’s virtue rewarded and Goodwife Cruff’s nastiness punished.
As the novel concludes, Kit must decide what she wants out of life, where she belongs, and what place she will call home. Can she stay in New England? Should she return to Barbados? What will it take to give Kit a happy ending? With both of her cousins married off, Kit considers returning to Barbados to become a governess. She finally realizes, though, that she’s in love with Nat Eaton, the captain’s son. Nat returns to Wethersfield with a new ship named the Witch. He asks Kit to marry him. Kit decides that home really is where the heart is. By marrying Nat, she is able to stay close to the people that she loves: the Woods, Nat, Hannah, and Prudence.