“There never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made” (Jewett 69). A young girl, Sylvia, lived in a city environment for the first eight years of her life. Then, Sylvia came to live with her grandmother in the country, where the little girl came alive and became one with nature. One day in her travels through the countryside with her cow she encounter a lost ornithologist who was in search of a white heron that he had spotted in the area weeks before. At first, the little girl was frightened of this man who carried and gun and killed the creatures that he cared so deeply about. She could not understand why this man would do such a thing. However, as they spent time together, Sylvia found this man most charming and delightful. In the short story, “A White Heron,” by Sarah Orne Jewett, a young country girl’s innocence is lost when her heart is torn between her love for a young bird collector and her love for nature.
Sylvia is isolated while living at the farmhouse; her only companion is a cow. Sylvia may be lonely, but she is not lonesome. She is much happier and lively here than in the crowded industrial town. At the farm, she spends all day outside and lives in unity with the environment that surrounds her. “They key to her vivacity is that she is utterly in harmony with nature” (Held 171). When the ornithologist aggressively whistles in her territory her equilibrium is upset. The man explains to the horror-stricken girl that he got lost while in pursuit of the white heron. “Thus when Jewett first introduces the ornithologist himself, she labels him “the enemy” (171). There seems to be something threatening in his very “boyness” that makes Sylvia fearful.
Her awe of the ornithologist may in part be caused by his being the first grow-up boy she has seen in her woodland isolation” (171). The hunter attempts to induce Sylvia to lead him to the wanted bird by offering her a reward of ten dollars. “Despite his attractive qualities, there is something insidious about his attempt to bribe the girl in effect to betray her world. He suggests a sort of blithe Satan tempting a naïve Eve to eat of the fruit Tree of Knowledge” (171). When she thinks about how poor she is, her mind wanders off after the “treasures” that his money could buy.
This introduction of money into Sylvia’s simplicity disrupted her sense of loyalty to nature. However, as they spent time together, Sylvia found this man most appealing. Her virgin heart that lied dormant, vigorously awakened, as the innocent child was overwhelmed with an emotion of love towards this mysterious man. “Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.” This does not surprise me though, it is common for young girls to have a crush on or become attracted to a charming older man who impresses them.
Sylvia knew where the sportsman could find this precious bird he was in search of. Sylvia and the man are true to the gender roles society has bestowed upon them while traveling through the dense woodlands. The female instinct inside her would not allow her to lead the guest to the heron’s nest, nor be the first to start up a conversation with the guest. Instead, she kept silent observing all around her, watching his every move, and concentrating on every word spoken from his lips. “She grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first.” “Her socialization, ironically, saves her from revealing the bird and therefore betraying her world to this intruder”(172). The day outing with the bird collector brings Sylvia closer to him, and distances her from the natural world.
She could get no sleep that night, and ventured out into the forest. She climbed, and climbed the huge oak tree in search of the heron’s nest. “Once she is aloft in the pine tree, “the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her little fingers clumsy and stiff,” as though nature itself sought to keep her from succeeding in her project and thereby breaching their heart-to-heart relationship” (173). Then came the light as she neared the treetop, and a sea of sky appeared to her over the entire countryside. Only then was the heron’s exact location of the heron’s nest showed to her. She had discovered the bird’s hiding place among the green marsh. When she sees the beautiful bird, she comes back to reality and realizes the superficiality of the man.
She recognizes that the man has come between her and nature. “In this instant Sylvia balances the desire to earn the ten dollars and to please the attractive stranger against her unspoken fidelity to nature” (173). She knew that the man was well worth making happy, and after all he promised them a nice some of money, so she would also be happy. No, Sylvia could not do it. She would not give the birds life away. The girl and bird had united that morning in the golden sea, and this forbid her to speak. Her heart had developed into that of a strong feminist who could not be swayed by the charm of a man. She gave her love and devotion to the natural world that would always be there for her.
In the story, “A White Heron” the heron, Sylvia, is tempted by “evil” represented by the sportsman to betray her natural self. The story emphasizes the eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil, and the continual seduction of good by evil. The story concludes that all “woodland and summertime secrets are like the heron’s safe. For in the end the heron’s life has become the equivalent of the girl’s life, at least of her existence heart to heart with nature” (174). The story implies that in a sense Sylvia is the heron, untouched and at peace with the surrounding environment.
However due to external forces, the hunter in this case, the virgin Sylvia endures a loss of innocence. If Sylvia surrendered the heron it would be the equivalence of giving up a part of her and what she stands for. The heron and Sylvia depend on each other for survival. It was impossible for her to abandon her integrity and allegiance to nature or else she would no longer be Sylvia. Sylvia was able to resist the appeal of man, money, and attention. Sylvia displayed her growth as a woman by staying committed to her strong sense of values, and strengthening her heart to heart relationship with nature.
Bogard, C.R., and J.Z. Schmidt. 1995. Legacies. Harcourt College Publishers, New York, 1380.
Held, George. Short Story Criticism. Volume VI. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1990.