Sylvia, a nine-year-old girl, is leading her wayward cow, Mistress Moolly, home. She lives on a farm with her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley. Mrs. Tilley took Sylvia in as her town home was too busy, and Sylvia was ‘afraid of folks.’ Sylvia has become part of the natural environment and feels at home in this ‘beautiful place’. Her grandmother acknowledges Sylvia’s kinship with the creatures around her.
Sylvia is startled by a ‘boy’s whistle’, then approached by a ‘stranger’. He is a hunter who shoots birds for his collection. He is looking for a place to stay while he tries to locate a white heron. Sylvia reluctantly takes him to her grandmother, harbouring a sense of foreboding at his presence.
The hunter is very gracious and polite. He is impressed with the modest farmhouse, referring to it as a ‘hermitage’. Having been told by Mrs. Tilley that Sylvia has an affinity with animals, he offers $10 to be given the location of the heron.
Sylvia warms to the ‘handsome stranger’, and he gives her a jack-knife as a gift. She is unsettled by the fact that he kills what he seems to love – the birds. However, she has ‘lost her first fear of the friendly lad.’
Sylvia resolves the next morning to locate the heron’s whereabouts by climbing a giant pine tree. As she climbs the tree, she becomes at one with the birds around her, feeling ‘as if she too could go flying away among the clouds.’
The story changes narrative perspective as Sylvia sees the heron’s nesting place. Her natural instinct overcomes the appeal of the money and the hunter, and forces Sylvia to keep the birds’ secret: she cannot ‘give its life away.’
The narrator gives the opinion that Sylvia has shown herself worthy of keeping the secrets of nature, and is better off with her life as it is, rather than following her stirring womanly desires.
The story has an ominous beginning in terms of Jewett’s use of pathetic fallacy-‘The woods were already filled with shadows’. This tone does not seem to influence Sylvia, the main character, who is naively leading her cow home. Her youth and innocence are emphasised by her relaxed nature- ‘Sylvia had all the time there was.’
We appreciate her joy at being taken from the busy town based family to be with her grandmother at a country farm. The young girl is energised and transformed by the experience: ‘…It seemed as if she had never been alive at all before she came to live at the farm. We see Sylvia as a pantheistic figure, gently attuned to the creatures around her –
‘…she listened to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure’. Sylvia’s affinity is closest to that of the birds, which foreshadows the ending of the story where she will choose their privacy over her human desires.
An ‘enemy’ breaks the blissful solitude of Sylvia with her animal friends. This emotive word is used to describe the other human force present. He is carrying a gun, instantly symbolising his focus on destruction. The reader is shocked into the present tense, mirroring Sylvia’s surprise and horror at the interloper to her pastoral scene, ‘a boy’s whistle, determined and somewhat aggressive.’
The stranger reveals he has been hunting for birds and has become lost. He tells Sylvia he is looking for a place to stay. Sylvia is struck by his alien nature and is very wary of him. She seems to be better attuned than her grandmother is at this point to appreciate the danger such a visitor could bring. He is invited to stay, and is impressed with the ‘clean and comfortable little dwelling. ’ He is also intrigued by Sylvia, interpreting her grandmother’s assertions for Sylvia’s affinity with nature for his own destructive ends;
‘the wild creaturs counts her one o’ themselves.’
‘So Sylvy knows all about birds, does she?’
Mrs. Tilley’s dialect is endearing and contrasts with the diction of the stranger. This lack of understanding between Mrs. Tilley and the young man is symbolic of the difference between the town and country dwellers. The stranger believes that he has a love of birds. He shows this, however, by killing and stuffing them- ‘dozens and dozens of them…and I have shot or snared every one myself.’ The stranger is a hunter, a collector. Sylvia is the real lover of birds, ‘She would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much.’
The ‘enemy’ becomes ‘the handsome stranger’ as the day passes. We see the allusions to fairy tale construction as the stranger offers ten dollars to locate a heron he would like for his collection,’… he turned again to look at Sylvia with the hope of discovering that the rare bird was one of her acquaintances.
But Sylvia was watching a hop-toad in the narrow footpath.’
Sylvia still has more regard for her animal companions that this new person.
The ‘young sportsman’ bewitches Sylvia and presents her with a jack-knife as a gift, ‘which she thought as great a treasure as if she were a desert-islander.’ The knife is symbolic of him attempting to get her to understand and accept his destructive ways.
We witness the first stirrings of attraction in Sylvia as she is drawn to the young man-
‘…the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.’ Sylvia wanders the woods with the stranger, in a way strangely reminiscent of her namesake from Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona (1594). In Shakespeare’s play, Sylvia is in love with Valentine and follows him relentlessly. In ‘A White Heron’, Sylvia has been asked to guide the stranger to the heron, yet, she remains under his control-
‘…she did not lead the guest, she only followed.’
In Part II of the story, Sylvia is excited at the prospect of revealing the whereabouts of the heron to the stranger. She tries to climb the great old pine, which will give her an unparalleled view of the forest. Sylvia becomes bird like climbing the great pine, as indicated by the following simile-‘with her bare feet and fingers that inched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder.’
As Sylvia continues to climb the tree, it also adopts birdlike qualities. It appears that the tree becomes a bird of prey, restraining Sylvia from reaching the top of the tree; ‘the sharp, dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons.’ The anthropomorphism used here unites Sylvia with her surroundings, creating parallels to the Romantic writings of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in their Lyrical Ballads. Sylvia is at one with her environment, and though the tree challenges her, it supports her too; ‘More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet-voiced thrushes, was the brave, healing heart of the solitary gray-eyed child.’ Gray as a colour is symbolic of Sylvia’s blurring between the world of innocence – white, and the world of experience – black. The gray eyes of Sylvia also closely identify her to the birds with ‘their gray feathers as soft as moths’ and further bind her to the natural world. She sees the hawks flying around the tree, and has an instant connection with them, ‘Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds.’
The exuberance of Sylvia is made immediate here as the narrative again shifts in to the present tense. The audience is addressed as if we are Sylvia, making the emotions immediate and intense, ‘Now look down again, Sylvia, where…you saw the white heron once.’ We see a contrast with how Sylvia is gracefully integrated in to her natural environment and how the young man now sees her. His perspective, though still expressed through the third person, shows us the inner contempt he has for Sylvia, and makes it clear to us the reader that he is only motivated by his desire for the heron, not Sylvia. She is seen as, ‘paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch.’ It is likely that Sylvia sees that she is not of his world any more, as she has left the town without regret. She contemplates the attractions of his world; ‘He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now.’ It is worth noting that Jewett qualifies the word ‘rich’ by adding the words ‘with money’. This implies that there is richness, that of quality of life, which Sylvia already has.
Although part of her wishes to make the young man happy, she chooses to protect the bird instead. This indicates to the reader that she is, on reflection, content with her life amongst the animals, and the young man is unable to tempt her away. There is a cynical tone to Jewett’s narrative here as Sylvia contemplates what she has lost in not helping the young man; noting that she could ‘have served and followed him and loved him as a dog does.’ The use of the ‘dog’ simile indicates unconditional obedience rather than a balanced relationship. The animal simile may have been appropriate in Sylvia’s imagination, but the idea of a dog also suggests domesticity, which does not fit with the wild natural spirit we see in Sylvia.
Jewett invites us to contemplate whether Sylvia made the right decision; ‘Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, - who can tell?’ The implication is that Sylvia is indeed better off without the hunter seeking his prey, which she could all too easily have become.
“A White Heron” Sarah Orne Jewett
American short story writer, novelist, and poet. The following entry presents criticism on Jewett's short story “A White Heron” (1886).
“A White Heron” is one of Jewett's most well-known and often anthologized short story. In it, Jewett presents a nine-year-old girl's reaction to the intrusion of a young man into her feminine and natural world. The variety of narrative techniques, symbols, and imagery, as well as the ambiguous ending, have elicited much critical commentary by scholars. Several feminist scholars view this work as Jewett's rebellion against the realistic literature that male authors made the mainstream literature of the late nineteenth century. Although many of Jewett's short stories were first published in the Atlantic Monthly, the magazine's editor, William Dean Howells, declined this work for being too “romantic.” Thus this favorite work, which Jewett referred to as “her” and professed “to love,” was first published in 1886 in book form in A White Heron, and Other Stories.
Plot and Major Characters
“A White Heron” opens in the evening as young Sylvia is searching for a milk cow astray in the woods of New England. She is startled by the sudden appearance of a young man with a gun, who proclaims that he is an ornithologist and has come to this rural land to hunt, kill, and stuff birds for his pleasure. When he entreats Sylvia's aid, she leads him to her grandmother's farm. Sylvia has come to live with Mrs. Tilley to both escape the industrial city where her mother struggles alone to support the family and to be a help and companion to her grandmother. The young stranger both charms the grandmother and interests the granddaughter and enlists their help, by offering much needed cash, in locating the nest of a rare white heron. Although the next day Sylvia docilely accompanies the young man on his quest, they fail to find their prey. At dawn on the following day, Sylvia awakes and scales a massive and ancient pine in search of the heron and its nest. From her vantage point atop the tree, Sylvia glimpses the heron, its nest, and its mate, and she experiences an epiphany. When she returns to the farm later that morning, Sylvia guards her secret.
Jewett was known as a local colorist whose stories often portrayed the ordinary aspects of life in works where mood or atmosphere preceed plot in importance. While the colorist elements are evident in “A White Heron,” Sylvia's choice, or action of remaining silent, is the crucial element in the story. Commentators have interpreted Sylvia's choice between revealing or not revealing the location of the heron in various ways: expressing the conflict between urban/rural life, between child/adult perceptions of the world, or between male/female modes of artistic creation. Several critics see the work as a modern fairy tale in which the female declines to be rescued by a princely man, an ornithologist whose goal is symbolically to hunt and conquer women and display them in his home.
Although contemporary commentators on “A White Heron” express qualified praise, it was not until the 1970s that critics seriously analyzed the story. Several scholars considered the possible influence of prior works, particularly Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel The Pearl of Orr's Island and Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story “Young Goodman Brown” on “A White Heron.” The fact that Jewett expressed the personal importance “A White Heron” held for her has caused critics to treat it as a personal artistic credo and feminist document. They analyzed feminist subtexts, reversals of traditional fairy-tale formulas and coming-of-age stories, flight imagery, and narrative techniques. Several scholars explored the story's psycho-sexual and other symbols using Freudian or Jungian methods. Although critics debate various interpretations and the effectiveness of Jewett's efforts, they agree that “A White Heron” is worthy of study.