Sarah Orne Jewett, “A White Heron”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
In A White Heron and Other Stories
(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1886), pp. 1-21
Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) was a popular writer in the late nineteenth century, when literary Realists and local-color writers were in vogue. Jewett came from a prestigious family in South Berwick, Maine, and much of her writing is about life in this area and in New England generally. As a child she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and, as a consequence, would often miss school and travel with her father, a prominent doctor, on his calls to local farms. These experiences became the basis for A Country Doctor (1884). She seems to have had no serious romantic relationships in her life, and this fact has led to speculation about her sexuality; but as her biographer Paula Blanchard explains, “the choice of serious mates must have seemed rather thin.” This scarcity was partly because her family represented a coterie of Maine’s gentry in an otherwise rural farm community and partly because she was a teenager during the Civil War when the number of young men was seriously depleted. In any case, many women of the time chose to stay single, and they were respected socially. It is also clear that even as a young girl Jewett had career ambitions and recognized that marriage for women was limiting. Her first short story was published when she was only eighteen, and she managed to publish approximately seven or eight short stories a year for the rest of her life; many of these stories were later reprinted in collections, such as A White Heron and Other Stories. As one of the first women in America to support herself by her writing, she was an important role model for later female authors, particularly Willa Cather.
Jewett began her career writing children’s stories, often with didactic moral messages. Her early short stories for adults were in the sentimental tradition of Harriet Beecher Stowe, an early influence. Today she is known primarily as a writer of local color—sometimes referred to as Regionalism—which is often seen as a subcategory of nineteenth-century Realism. Mentored by William Dean Howells, then editor of the Atlantic Monthly, she began to portray life as she saw it, using the voice of a neutral but sympathetic onlooker. Howells praised her gift for dialogue, writing her that she had “an uncommon feeling for talk—I hear your people.” Jewett died of a stroke in 1909.
In the past the term “local-color” often was used as a subtle way to relegate women writers to secondary importance by suggesting that their stories lacked sufficient plot to rise to the level of serious literature. Not surprisingly, this issue has been a perpetual concern in regard to Jewett. For one thing, few of her works have the sustained drama associated with the novel. Even her longer works often seem to be merely collections of related episodes. Some critics, however, have argued that local color is a mode of writing that better reflects women’s sensibilities, and therefore Jewett should be credited as a pioneer developing a particularly female style and voice, though many men have written local color, too. In any case, Jewett focuses on character and setting rather than plot. She has an optimistic perspective and avoids life’s seedier aspects. Part of her optimism is apparent in that her characters exhibit free will and make moral decisions, as does Sylvia in “A White Heron.”
Some recent critics have suggested that works of local color are often racist or elitist in that the descriptions usually involve an upper-class, white narrator describing some other ethnic group or social class from a bemused distance, but this seems a difficult charge to level against Jewett, who is sympathetic, appreciative, and involved with her “rustics.”
“A White Heron” comes relatively late in Jewett’s career and shows her as a mature writer in control of her material. It is one of her most famous and often anthologized works, and rightfully so. Meticulously crafted and often lyrical, it has a style reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne, another of her early influences. Like much of Hawthorne’s writing, however, it is a romance, and as such is uncharacteristic of her work. Though set in Maine, the specific location is purposely vague, suggesting a pastoral Eden outside of place and time.
The plot is straightforward. Nine-year-old Sylvia has been sent to live with her grandmother on a farm because she was unhappy living with her family in the city. Rescued from the modern industrial town, symbolized by the aggressive, red-faced boy who taunted her, Sylvia thrives in her new and isolated environment; the grandmother and the girl live an idyllic life, until a young ornithologist appears, searching for an elusive white heron. He suspects that Sylvia knows how to find the bird and attempts to bribe her (first with the gift of a knife and later with the promise of a ten-dollar reward) if she tells him where it is. Sylvia wants to help, partly because, though only nine, she is attracted to him: “the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.” However, she is troubled by his gun. The ornithologist loves nature yet wants to kill the heron as a trophy, a position Sylvia cannot understand. Despite her misgivings, she decides to find the bird’s nest so that she can later tell him and earn his admiration. Consequently, at dawn, while the others sleep, she climbs a huge pine and discovers the heron’s nest. At that point, she has a transcendent moment in which she feels as if “she too could go flying away among the clouds.” When she gets home, she realizes she cannot tell of her discovery after all. She has learned that the rare white bird is sitting on a nest. By refusing to speak, she asserts her independence and, thereby, wins a moral victory.
Through Sylvia, Jewett makes one of the first declarations in literature of the importance of preserving nature. Some critics stop their analysis at this moral victory, but the story is more complex than this reading implies. Jewett ends with a melancholy awareness of the cost of Sylvia’s decision. Sylvia seems doomed to remain a lonely and innocent girl, a female Peter Pan, alienated from the modern world and the issues surrounding adulthood.
The characters have obvious symbolic significance. Sylvia (from “Sylvan,” meaning wooded) is associated with nature, and the ornithologist represents a modern world dominated by science and reason. Another reading, however, notes biographical similarities between the story and Jewett’s life. Sylvia is in many ways similar to Jewett, who as a child preferred walks in the woods to school, and the young ornithologist has surprising parallels to Jewett’s own father, who was an amateur naturalist. When the ornithologist goes away, the narrator tells us, she “could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves!” Significantly, on at least two occasions Jewett compared her relationship to her father as that of a loving dog to its master. Still another reading sees Sylvia as representing a particularly feminine approach to understanding—intuitive, organic—whereas the young man represents a stereotypically male approach: rational and dispassionate. Another reading sees the story as a feminist remake of the traditional fairy tale: according to this view, Sylvia is the modern woman, strong and independent, and the ornithologist is a rejected Prince Charming.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
1. Jewett’s stories often dramatize the conflict between older, primarily Christian virtues and “modern” values associated with capitalism and the Gilded Age. How could this dichotomy be applied to “A White Heron”? Not surprisingly, Jewett is particularly interested in the plight of women, and her stories focus on issues stereotypically associated with women, such as marriage, the struggle for independence, and social/community harmony. How does “A White Heron,” which is about a nine-year-old girl, address these issues? Paradox and the difference between appearance and reality are also common themes in Jewett’s work. Often, seemingly foolish country people prove to be wise while sophisticated city folk are shown to be shallow and self-serving. How does this play out in “A White Heron”? In terms of style, Jewett often uses rhetorical techniques to create a sympathetic attitude toward nature. Examine how Jewett describes the natural world in “A White Heron” and consider how these descriptions affect the reader and advance Jewett’s thesis.
2. While the phallic imagery—the gun, the knife, the pine tree, even the redfaced boy who chases Sylvia—is obvious, critics have long speculated about the significance of the white heron. Does it represent nature, purity, the girl’s innocence, spiritual transcendence, artistic inspiration, or even a clitoris, to name a few possibilities? Some recent critics have refocused the discussion of Jewett’s work to the historical context and questioned her acceptance of social Darwinism, particularly Anglo-Norman superiority, and challenged her portrayal of racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes.
Paula Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994).
Well-researched, extensive, and fair-minded.
Joseph Church, “Romantic Flight in Jewett’s ‘White Heron,’” Studies in American Literature, 30 (Spring 2002): 21-44.
Interprets the story as Jewett’s coming to terms with her latent lesbian feelings for her longtime friend and companion Annie Fields.
Colby Library Quarterly, special Jewett issue, 22 (March 1986).
Includes Elizabeth Ammons’s “The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s ‘A White Heron,’” a feminist reading that sees the story as a subversion of the traditional fairy tale and Sylvia’s journey as a symbolic resistance to heterosexuality (pp. 6-16).
Karen L. Kilcup and Thomas S. Edwards, eds., Jewett and Her Contemporaries: Reshaping the Canon (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1999).
A collection of critical essays that includes a review of Jewett criticism in addition to several new critical approaches to her major works.
Karen K. Moreno, “‘A White Heron’: Sylvia’s Lonely Journey,” Connecticut Review, 13 (Spring 1991): 81-85.
Sees “A White Heron” as “the quest myth in feminist terms.” Sylvia “becomes one” with the natural world that the ornithologist attempts, but fails, to master through aggression.
Gwen L. Nagel, ed., Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984).
Includes two essays on “A White Heron”: “Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at ‘A White Heron,’” by George Held and “The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron,’” by Gayle L. Smith.
Elizabeth Silverthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer’s Life (New York: Overlook, 1993).
A sympathetic biography with brief biographical readings of the major works, including “A White Heron.”
Jules Zanger, “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and ‘A White Heron’: Correspondences and Illuminations,” Papers on Language and Literature, 26 (Summer 1990): 346-357.
Claims to reveal “a series of shared elements: themes, settings, narrative sequences, images” showing Jewett’s indebtedness to Hawthorne.