A White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett, 1886
A WHITE HERON
by Sarah Orne Jewett, 1886
Sarah Orne Jewett's celebrated story "A White Heron" was first rejected by William Dean Howells at the Atlantic Monthly on the grounds that it was too sentimental and romantic. Jewett kept her faith in it, however, and included it in her collection A White Heron and Other Stories (1886). This tale about the test of a young girl's love of nature has become one of Jewett's most popular stories.
The story concerns Sylvia, a shy little girl who, rescued by her grandmother from life in "a crowded manufacturing town," now feels at home in the Maine woods. As the story opens, Sylvia is leading a cow home to be milked when the quiet of the woods is jarred by a noisy, aggressive whistle. A young man, an ornitholo-gist from the city, is tracking a rare white heron to add to his collection. Mrs. Tilley and her granddaughter give the young man shelter for the night. When he learns how knowledgeable Sylvia is, he offers her $10 to help him find the heron. She accompanies the man as he walks through the woods in search of birds, which he kills. Though Sylvia "would have liked him vastly better without his gun," she watches him with "loving admiration."
In the second part of the story Sylvia, who is still distracted by the hunter and his desire to secure the rare white bird, leaves the house before dawn to seek out the heron's nest. Her journey to the heron's nesting place is described in heroic terms. Sylvia climbs an old landmark pine tree, sees the sun rise, catches a glimpse of the great world beyond the woods, and finds the heron and its mate. In her climb up the pine Sylvia is imagistically identified with the bird. Returning to the house, she faces the hunter, who has vowed to himself that "now she must really be made to tell." But Sylvia remembers the beautiful moment in the pine watching the heron fly. Because of her experience in the tree, Sylvia has rekindled her kinship with the bird and has discovered that she cannot betray it.
Like many other heroines in Jewett's work, Sylvia has a close relationship with nature, a relationship that is threatened by the intruder into this pastoral world. By remaining silent when the man presses her for information about the heron's nest, she chooses to preserve the heron rather than betray her woodland friend. Her choice requires that she sacrifice both the money, a sizable sum to the girl and her grandmother, and the friendship the man has offered. The story ends with the narrator's apostrophe to nature: "Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summertime, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!" In choosing the heron over the young man, Sylvia thus reinforces her relationship to the natural world.
Responding to a complimentary letter from Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, another New England regionalist and a contemporary of Jewett, wrote, "You are lovely to write me so about my stories, but I never wrote any story equal to your 'White Heron."' Interest in and praise for the story has continued. Indeed, critics have found much to discuss in this ostensibly simple story.
Early commentators pointed out how the tale fit into the canon of the local color school. Others have moved beyond the elements of the New England landscape to explore a range of issues. Richard Cary sees Sylvia as undergoing a rite of initiation, a theme that Catherine B. Stevenson also articulates when she sees the tale as "a rite of passage from the safe world of childhood to the precarious, lonely, self-determined world of adulthood." Sarah Way Sherman sees the tale as "a Bildungsroman in miniature" and explores the way in which it partakes of the paradigm of the Demeter-Persephone myth. Annis Pratt sees the story as a version of the traditional fairy tale, and Theodore Hovet discusses the fairy-tale structure of Jewett's tale but also gives it a psychoanalytic reading. James Ellis and Richard Brenzo are among others who find a complex pattern of sexual symbolism in the story.
In a biographical reading of the story, Eugene H. Pool sees a parallel between Sylvia's repudiation of mature love and Jewett's own choice never to marry. Many feminist critics have seen the story as a confrontation between a patriarchal value system—the young man with his gun and money—and a matriarchal world—the female-centered natural sanctuary. Elizabeth Ammons finds embedded in the story, with its traditional narrative structure, a rejection of "patriarchal prescriptions." Josephine Donovan sees the tale as consistent with Jewett's suitor pattern and calls it a repudiation of the Cinderella text. Donovan argues that the story "culminates the antiromance tradition" that is a hallmark of women's literary realism. While some critics like Richard Cary have questioned Jewett's handling of point of view, both Michael Atkinson and Gayle L. Smith find that the narrative voice, especially in the exhortations to Sylvia and to nature, enhances the theme of the story. Finally, in a short, book-length study, Louis A. Renza uses the story as a starting point for his exploration of the issues in the canonical status of minor literature. The persistent interest in and variety of interpretations of this ostensibly simple tale are evidence of the richness of Jewett's classic story.
—Gwen L. Nagel