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“A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett tells the story of a young girl named Sylvia who has to make the difficult decision whether or not to tell a hunter where a very rare bird is living. Sylvia lives with her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, out in the country. Daily she takes out her grandmother’s cow, Mistress Molly, to eat grass. One day on her way back home, she encounters a man in the woods who informs her he is lost and would like a place to stay.
Tilley allows him to stay, and while they all get acquainted, the young man explains he’s an ornithologist searching for a very rare bird, a white heron. He will pay ten dollars to whoever can help him find the bird. Sylvia and the man search, but constantly turn up empty handed. One night she decides to climb a tree where she believes the heron might be. She spots the bird and goes home to inform the man.
Although Sylvia later regrets this decision, she has a change of heart and says nothing about finding the bird.
He eventually leaves without the bird or knowledge of where it’s hiding. Jewett shows how making a life or death decision is always a hard choice to make. The title of the story, “A White Heron”, implies that it will be an important symbol. A white heron is a contextual symbol as it can mean different things to different people. In this specific story it symbolizes life and the hunter symbolizes death.
If Sylvia gives away the secret of where the heron is hiding, she will essentially give up his life to the hunter. He will be killed.
She stands her ground and doesn’t let him know where the heron is although she knows that if she did, she would get a remarkable reward. The heron is a physical symbol since it can be touched. It is shown many times throughout the story, “She remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away” (628). She feels as though she is one of them and they have had a special moment.
The heron is also used as a visual symbol in this story. “The birds sang louder and louder. At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away” (627). There is an image painted out for the reader to see what Sylvia is seeing. Jewett uses imagery to help point out a connection between two irrelevant thing, Sylvia and the white heron.
There are many similes throughout the whole story, “Sylvia began with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it, with tingling eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame, with her bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, almost to the sky itself” (627). And in a different instance: “Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look look!
White spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head” (628). The use of the heron as a symbol of life and the hunter as a symbol of death really shows a contrast between good and evil. It isn’t about the money for Sylvia. It’s about doing the right thing and making the decision she felt was the correct one.
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