A White Heron Summary

Sarah Orne Jewett

A White Heron

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A White Heron Summary

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A White Heron is a short story by American author Sarah Orne Jewett. First published in 1886, it was later used as the title story in A White Heron and Other Stories, an anthology of Jewett’s writing. The story, only 41 paragraphs long, tells the tale of a young city girl named Sylvia who comes to live with her grandmother in the country. One day, while exploring the nearby woods, she meets a young ornithologist and hunter who is searching the woods for a rare bird he recently saw. Sylvia is torn between telling the hunter that she saw the bird or protecting the beautiful, rare creature. Along the way, she discovers how at home she feels in the country and develops a deep love for the animals that inhabit the woods. Considered an early example of New England feminist literature, A White Heron explores themes of humans’ interaction with the natural world, choices and regret, and the joy and purpose found in a simple, nature-based life. Based loosely off events in Jewett’s life, the story was critically acclaimed in its time and continues to be widely taught in American Literature classes today.

A White Heron begins on a lovely June evening as a young girl named Sylvia is leading her cow home. The cow is slow and frequently tries to hide from Sylvia. Sylvia just wishes that the cow would hurry up, because her grandmother is going to be mad if they’re late. Sylvia grew up in a crowded manufacturing town, but moved to the country when she was eight and fell in love with the countryside immediately. As she’s walking, her stroll is interrupted by a shrill whistle. She is well acquainted with the sounds of birds whistling, and she knows immediately that this whistle is from a human. A young man approaches her with a gun slung over her shoulder. He tells Sylvia that he got lost during his hunting trip and could use a place to spend the night. Although Sylvia is a bit scared, she agrees to lead him home, where her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, is waiting. Mrs. Tilley puts the young man up for the night after he asks for a bed and a bit of milk.

That night, Sylvia and the young man talk. She tells him about exploring the nearby woods, and he becomes excited when he realizes that she likes birds. He tells her that he collects birds— which actually means he shoots them and stuffs them. He asks Sylvia if she’s seen a specific rare bird, a white heron. He states that this would be the Holy Grail of his collection. Sylvia realizes that she has seen the white heron before, in the salt marshes near the ocean. It was a very memorable experience for her, but something makes her hold her tongue. The young man offers Sylvia and Mrs. Tilley ten dollars if they manage to help him find it, which is a lot of money for them. Sylvia spends the next day with the young man while he hunts. Although she doesn’t lead him to the heron yet, she begins to develop a child’s crush on the hunter.

Sylvia knows a tall oak tree about half a mile from the house, and she always imagined that whoever climbed to the top could see the ocean. She knows that whoever climbs it could see the heron. She can’t sleep that night and heads to the tree while it’s still dark. She climbs up a smaller tree and makes her way from branch to branch until she reaches the oak tree. Although it’s a tough climb, she feels energized by it. At the top, she sees the heron perched on a pine branch. Staying completely still, she admires it from afar. The heron is scared away by a flock of catbirds, and Sylvia climbs down, wondering what the young man will say when she leads him to the heron. She hears her grandmother calling out her name after finding her granddaughter missing. The young man is helping her look, having guessed that Sylvia went to look for the heron. He asks her what she saw when she was out there, but he is surprised—and Sylvia even surprises herself—when she can’t speak, unable to tell the heron’s secret. The young man leaves disappointed, and as she gets older, Sylvia always wonders if she made the right choice.

Sarah Orne Jewett was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet. Considered one of the early pioneers of American literary regionalism, all her works were set in her home region of New England. She was well-known for her detailed and vivid descriptions of the region’s natural wonders. Although many of her works are obscure now, she is best known for The White Heron and her novella The County of the Pointed Firs. She is considered influential due to her emphasis on female independence and early feminist themes and influenced later authors including Willa Cather.