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"A White Heron" by Sarah Orne Jewett: Summary, Symbolism, and Analysis

"A White Heron" by Sarah Orne Jewett: Summary, Symbolism, and Analysis

Sarah Orne Jewett was a 17th-century American novelist whose work focused on American Literary Regionalism. The White Heron addresses the issue of the impact of modernization and civilization on nature, and the environment and the choice one has to make over the other. This article gives you the summary, analysis, and the various symbolism used in "A White Heron".
Rashmi Sunder
Perseverance Provides Results
When Jewett first took this short story to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, who had encouraged and published some of her previous works, he rejected the piece saying it was too "romantic" and failed to make a point.
Sarah Orne Jewett is known for her feminist and romantic pieces of literature. Her works reflect her own experiences as a young girl in Maine, who spent a lot of time in the wombs of nature and fell in love with its beauty and tranquility. Unmarried and independent of a man, she set out to write pieces that spoke of both women and nature as central themes and was known to use local color depiction, or in other words, the use of realist subjects and focuses on the themes, the setting, imagery, and in-depth character profiles that pertain to a certain region.
In "A White Heron and Other Stories", Jewett focuses on the relationships between nature and society, the effects of urbanization on our surroundings, and the conflict within man to make a choice between what could be fulfilling and what is right. We will focus on the title story, "A White Heron" and explain the same, along with the literary devices used.
A Little about Sylvia
The story is set in the late 17th-century English wilderness, and starts off with the story of a 9-year-old girl named Sylvia, who is bringing back her grandmother's cow, Mistress Moolly, back from grazing, through the enchanting forest. It has been a year since she has moved from the "crowded manufacturing town" into the country home of her Grandma, Mrs. Tilley. We are told that she is not very good at socializing and is "afraid of folk". Being in the wilderness, surrounded by nature made her feel more alive than all the 8 years she had spent in the town. She enjoyed her walks in the forest, was privy to all the paths, and was friendly with the animals.
Meeting the "Enemy"
On her way back home, she hears a sharp whistle and realizes it is not a "friendly" one like those of the birds, but rather a "more aggressive" tone of a man, who reminded her of a "red-faced boy" from the town who used to frighten her, thus attributing the term "enemy" to this unknown stranger. She soon finds out that he is an ornithologist, who is out hunting birds and has lost his way in the process. He requests to be allowed to stay a couple of nights, while he is out on his quest. She warily leads the kind man to her home. He is welcomed by Mrs. Tilley who is a kind host and graciously offers him lodgings. While they sit out and talk, he tells them that he is out searching for a white heron, which he wants to add to his collection of self-hunted and stuffed birds. When Mrs. Tilley tells him about Sylvia's knowledge of the woods and her connections with the animals and birds, he sees it as an opportunity to take advantage of her and find his target. He offers $10 to anyone who can find him the elusive white heron, hoping that this offer might tempt these poor country people.
Warming Up to the Stranger
The next day, she goes on a walk through the forest, and her fear of the kind man slowly fades away as they talk about birds. He gifts her a jackknife, which to her is like a great "treasure". She did make note that she "would have liked him vastly better without his gun" and didn't understand how he "killed the very birds he liked so much". But as she spent more time, her fear turned to "loving admiration". A feeling of infatuation overcomes her as "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". Although she was meant to lead him, she merely followed. They return home empty-handed as they once again fail to locate the heron.
Setting Out on an Adventure
Sylvia makes up her mind that the only way to locate the bird would be to climb the majestic pine tree that seemed to reach out into the sky. At first, it seemed as if nature was working against her, making her climb all the more difficult. But through the course of her journey, it seems as though the tree warms up to her and aids her in her climb upwards.
Achieving Transcendence
When she reaches the top of the tree, the sights she sees sets her free. It seems as though land stretches for miles and miles. She saw the mighty sea, and all the birds and beauty around her, and her heart raced with joy. And then she found the elegant heron and its nest, and her journey felt complete. She wondered how the hunter would react to her newfound discovery and how he would be impressed.
Making a Choice
Finally when she reaches home and is questioned by both her grandmother and the hunter, something in her warms her heart towards the heron, and she couldn't find it in herself to sacrifice the life of the bird, despite the promises of money and a hopeful romance. The author ends on an ambiguous note where she puts forth a question as to whether the choice made by Sylvy was the right one, and if so, all she could hope for was that nature gave back to her treasures to make up for the loss of companionship and money.
The White Heron
White Heron
The heron symbolizes innocence, purity, and freedom, which is reflected by Sylvia, both in her character and demeanor.
The Geranium
Red flowers
Like the Geranium in the house of her neighbor back in town, she thought that it didn't belong there and was out of place. This is similar to Sylvia's true identity where she connected with nature and its surroundings, and not in town, amidst industrialization and loss of harmony.
Gray Eyes
Gray Eyes
In most of the stories, Jewett mentions the color gray. In this story, Sylvy's gray eyes are portrayed to show the contrasts between two conflict situations―white, which reflects purity and innocence; black, which characterizes the darkness of man and the knowledge of experience. The gray color, thus, shows the dilemma and discord between the two opposing ideas. It is also used to show the connection between Sylvia and the gray-winged birds, thus, establishing the relationship between her and nature.
The Pine Tree
The Pine Tree
The large and magnificent pine tree reflects clarity of thought, which Sylvia achieves upon conquering its heights. Being the lone, surviving tree of its kind in the forest, it also shows resilience, is the beacon of newfound knowledge, and has a transient effect on the character.
Sylvia herself is a major symbolism used in the story. Her name is derived from the word "sylvan", which means a spirit that lives in the woods, or rather who belongs there. It, thus, calls to attention the need for humans to be more in sync with nature, as the character does.
On the other hand, the antagonist of the story, the hunter, is a symbol of civilization and urbanization, who often shows disregard to nature and its surroundings, therefore, causing destruction.
The Ocean
The ocean with its vastness and beauty elevates Sylvia's level of transcendence and shows us that nature bears gifts and elegance in the simplest of ways.
In Jewett's style of writing and the literary devices used, she appeals to the mind of the reader through a simple story that is filled with eloquent detailing.
Jewett uses the contradictory styles:
  1. Romanticism, which focuses on an individual, their quests, battling against modernization, relationship with nature, and freedom on a very dramatic and exaggerated manner.
  2. Realism, which focuses on the contemporary lives and realistic representation of the times and the lives of the people, without the frills and the fancies.

She manages to weave the two opposing styles in a manner that befitted the narration.
The focal theme of the story focuses on several ideas:
Naturalism over Industrialization
The events of the story show a conflict between the ideas of the modern man that causes disruption, versus the healing and enlightening quality of nature. It portrays the victory of simplistic nature over the advancement of modernization.
The story also focuses on a little girl's path to realizing her fundamental morals and ideals, through her connection with nature.
Jewett was a writer who represented her ecofeminist ideals through her writing. It showed us that more than man, a woman is more in touch with nature, and values and respects her surroundings, rather that falling for urbano-capitalistic values.
Innocence Vs. Experience
Although Sylvia was always a lover of nature, she didn't realize its importance until she was borne with the weight of choices. Through her experiences, her views of the world and her own ideals changed drastically. But throughout, she was a pure and innocent creature who didn't know any better about the ramifications of the smallest decisions.
Gravity of Choices
Sylvia not only had to make a choice between the nature that had nurtured her and the companionship of the man she was infatuated with, but she also had to make significant choices between silence over speech, poverty over the chance of being rich, and of peace over the violent acts of man.
Character Sketch
Sylvia: Sylvia is portrayed as an innocent girl who has found joy within the bounds of nature, but is also conflicted between the chance of forming a new bond with someone she took a liking to, over nature which had always brought her unbound pleasure.

Mrs. Tilley: She is the typical grandmother, doting and kind with ideals of yesteryear in both her speech and way of living.

The Hunter: He was the allegory for the deprivation of nature and destruction of the same by man, and his capitalistic and urban ideals.
Jewett has based the storyline on the English wilderness of Maine, which she herself was a part of for the formative years of both her childhood and womanhood.
Sarah uses eloquent imagery to transport us to the setting in the story and to emphasize on the beauty and transient quality of nature. This is seen in the way she describes the forest, the pine tree, the birds, the vast sea, the view from atop, and the skies.
Point of View
Mainly written in third-person omniscient tense, the narrative is slow. Jewett sometimes shifts tense to the immediate present to capture the emotions felt by Sylvia in her moments leading to transcendence.
There is both inner and outer conflicts present in the story. The former rages within Sylvia as she has to make grave choices. The external conflict lies between nature and civilization.
By establishing Sylvia's relationship with nature, we are already led to figure out that she would choose nature in the end. Also, by saving the heron, it foreshadows the abundant gifts that she should, or is bound to receive back from nature.
The tone changes from fantasy and romantic ideas to a more serious, deep, and mystical revelation as the protagonist nears the end of the story.
Personification and Similes
The tree is personified during Sylvia's journey upwards, to focus on the connection that she shared with nature. Similes are used for the same purpose, while comparing Sylvia to the birds, and the tree's branches to an angry bird's talons.
Sarah Orne Jewett was born on September 3, 1849, in South Berwick, in Maine. Due to rheumatoid arthritis at an early age, she was advised to partake in long walks into the district and countryside. These journeys had a huge influence on her, increasing her love for nature, and using the same in her writing. Her observation skills allowed her to write detailed and eloquent descriptions of her surroundings, which led to her being recognized as a leading local color writer―someone who was at the forefront of American Literary Regionalism. 'A White Heron' was one of her most anthologized works.
Woman Drinking Coffee
Sarah Jewett brings to life the mystical and magnificent quality of nature, and how it is significant in our lives. She uses a person that is not much different from us to show us that our choice has serious ramifications on not only our quality of life, but also on our environment. In our day and time, the simple moral provided by the author is an important lesson to respect the environment and protect it, and puts the needs of greater good ahead of our own.