By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A White Heron’ is one of the best-known short stories by the American writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). Published in 1886 in the collection A White Heron and Other Stories, the story is about a young girl who is approached by a hunter who offers her money if she will divulge the location of a rare white heron he wants to shoot.
You can read ‘A White Heron’ here, before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Jewett’s story below. The story takes around fifteen minutes to read.
‘A White Heron’: plot summary
Sylvia is a young girl who lives in the woods with her grandmother, Mrs Tilley, in Maine. On a June evening, she is driving home a cow, which she has been out looking for. We learn that Sylvia loves to wander in the woods, loitering and ‘straying’ before coming home. Sylvia had lived with her parents in a crowded city for the first eight years of her life, but enjoys life in the country with her grandmother. However, Sylvia is, according to her grandmother, afraid of people, and much prefers the company of the animals, like the cow, which is her ‘companion’.
As she is walking home, she hears a whistling sound, and meets a tall, handsome young man carrying a gun. He asks her for directions towards the road, and she tells him it is quite a distance away. He tells her he has been hunting birds and managed to get lose, and he then asks if he can accompany her home, and spend the night at her farm.
Sylvia reluctantly leads the stranger to the farm where she lives with her grandmother. Mrs Tilley is happy to play the hostess and give him a bed for the night, and some milk to drink. The man tells them that he is an ornithologist and has been out hunting for birds to add to his collection of stuffed specimens.
When he discovers that Sylvia – who, according to her grandmother, takes after her uncle, Dan – knows her way around the woods, he wonders if she would show him where he might find a rare white heron which he plans on adding to his collection. But Sylvia, who is watching a toad while he is talking, doesn’t fully hear what he’s saying, until he mentions the white heron. He offers them ten dollars if she will show him where to find it.
The next day, Sylvia goes out with the stranger, walking through the woods together. Sylvia is careful not to lead the way, and, because of her natural shyness, barely speaks to him. However, as they walk together she relaxes in his company, but when he starts shooting birds out of the trees, she is horrified.
Something is being awakened in her. When the evening comes, they begin the walk home without having seen the white heron. At night, Sylvia cannot sleep because she is thinking about how to give the stranger what he wants. Before dawn she heads out to a ‘huge tree’ and climbs it expertly, looking out at the distant sea. Then, finally, she sees the white heron in its nest.
She goes home, but when she’s asked about it, she doesn’t tell the stranger where he can find the white heron he seeks. He leaves the farm, and the narrator praises the bond Sylvia shares with nature, while calling her ‘lonely’ – because the first true friend she had made has gone away and left her.
‘A White Heron’: analysis
Sarah Orne Jewett’s story is often read as a kind of allegory, but precisely what it is an allegory for can be answered in two different, but subtly interlinked, ways. Some people view ‘A White Heron’ as a story about taking care of nature, and regard Jewett’s tale as almost an early work about conservation: the rare (almost endangered) white heron is saved from being hunted and killed by the kindly action of Sylvia, who refuses to give up the bird in order to please her male friend.
But this ‘male friend’ also raises the possibility of a second way of viewing the story, and some critics and readers see ‘A White Heron’ as being more about Sylvia’s coming of age and her awakening of romantic love. She is only nine years old, of course, so things are subtler and more platonic than they would be with, say, an adolescent protagonist, but Jewett provides a series of revealing symbolic details which support such an interpretation.
This male friend who arrives is someone with whom Sylvia, in time, comes to feel relaxed and comfortable, despite her shyness. As Jewett’s third-person narrator tells us, ‘the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.’ Something has been awakened in her by the arrival of the male stranger, who shares with Sylvia an interest in the birds of the forest.
But there’s a crucial difference, of course. To Sylvia, those birds, like her family cow, are companions and friends; to him, they are merely trophies to be stuffed and mounted in his house. He is a hunter, suggesting a predatory manner which extends, at least symbolically, beyond the birds of the forest. His gun and knife can both be viewed as phallic symbols, and he presumptuously invites himself (or as good as) to Sylvia’s home as soon as he meets her, and later offers money in return for the whereabouts of the white heron.
The heron, too, can be interpreted as a symbol: its whiteness represents Sylvia’s own childhood innocence and perhaps, even, her virginity, since whiteness is associated with purity. In refusing to give up the heron to the male hunter, we might say, Sylvia is also refusing to give up her childhood innocence, and her virginity, to a man. The fact that he was willing to pay Sylvia money for the white heron is obviously suggestive in this connection, given what the heron can be said to symbolise.
There are fairy-tale aspects to ‘A White Heron’, with its woodland setting and its echoes of Little Red Riding Hood: the young girl, the grandmother, the male threat which interposes itself into their idyllic world. So the male hunter’s significance is almost archetypal: he could be said to prefigure some of Angela Carter’s later predatory male figures in her reworkings of classic fairy tales (including Red Riding Hood), almost a century later.
In the last analysis, then, ‘A White Heron’ has two clear, interrelated themes: the loss of innocence and the dawning of romantic love, and the love and care for nature which Sylvia embodies. In choosing to give up the latter in pursuit of the former, Sylvia makes the decision to remain ‘lonely’, at least for the time being, without any ‘human friend’ now the stranger has departed.
Her natural affinity with the woods and its creatures, including the heron, is underscored not only by her name (Sylvia is derived from the Latin silva, meaning ‘wood’), but even by the way she climbs the tree from which she spies the heron: she has, the narrator tells us, ‘bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself.’ It is as if she is part-bird herself, at one with the forest.