32 pages • 1 hour readSarah Orne Jewett
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“A White Heron” is the most popular short story by American author Sarah Orne Jewett. A work of American regionalism and romanticism, the tale emphasizes the setting, the human-animal connection, a celebration of nature, and individual experience. Jewett is a famous figure in literary regionalism, and her work often explores themes of the natural world. In “A White Heron,” Jewett uses literary techniques such as personification to make the environment and animals come alive as secondary characters.
This study guide refers to the 1994 Library of America edition: Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories.
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Originally published in 1886, “A White Heron” focuses on nine-year-old Sylvia, who lives with her grandmother in the coastal woods of Maine, and her transformative experience deciding whether to reveal the location of a rare white heron to an ornithologist. Sylvia subverts the expectation of giving in to greed and the wishes of an older male character in favor of protecting nature’s purity and her own happiness.
The story opens with a description of the setting, an expansive forest in Maine and “a bright sunset [that] still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees” (669). Sylvia is to bring her cow, Mistress Moolly, home to her grandmother’s farm to be milked. Mistress Moolly is known for adventuring far from her pasture. Though she’s searched for the cow for some time and feels impatient, Sylvia finds Mistress Moolly “swampside” and laughs. She urges the animal “affectionately homeward with a twig of birch leaves” (669). Sylvia wonders how her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, will react to the two arriving home late. Mrs. Tilley suspects Sylvia often dallies in her chores due to her love of the outdoors.
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Plodding along the trail, Sylvia and her “companion” stop at a brook, where Mistress Moolly drinks. Sylvia cools her bare feet in the water and takes in the sights and sounds of moths, birds, and other creatures surrounding them in the forest. She reminisces about the city where she lived with many siblings, for she moved to the farm a year ago. Mrs. Tilley is raising Sylvia to assist her daughter and have more help on her farm. She also knows Sylvia was too timid and scared of people to live in the city. Though Sylvia wonders about the happenings in her old “noisy town” (671), she prefers the woods. She feels peaceful pleasure in nature. Suddenly, she hears a “boy’s whistle” close by and notes that, unlike a bird’s friendly whistle, it sounds “determined” and “somewhat aggressive” (671).
Sylvia hides in the bushes, but the boy discovers her there. He asks how far it is to the main road. Trembling, Sylvia whispers, “A good ways” (670). The young man carries a gun slung over his shoulder, but he calms Sylvia by telling her not to be afraid. The stranger explains he’s bird hunting but got lost. He asks Sylvia if he may stay at her house and leave in the morning, and she reluctantly agrees.
Sylvia, the hunter, and the cow reach the farm, where her grandmother waits in the doorway. Mrs. Tilley jokes about the cow’s antics and asks about the newcomer. When Sylvia cannot find words, the hunter explains his “wayfarer’s story” and requests a night’s lodging (672). Mrs. Tilley agrees, and the characters spend the evening milking the cow, eating dinner, and talking while they watch the moon rise. The “new-made friends” converse about Mrs. Tilley’s family (672); she buried and grieved four children, but she has Sylvia’s mother and her son Dan, who lives in California. Dan often shot partridges and squirrels for Mrs. Tilley to cook. She adds that Sylvia takes after Dan, that she knows every “foot o’ ground” in the woods and that the wild animals “counts her as one o’ themselves” (673). The hunter is excited about how well Sylvia knows the woods and its creatures. He shares that he has been collecting birds since he was a little boy and that he has hunted rare birds for about five years.
When Mrs. Tilley asks if he cages the birds, the ornithologist replies that the birds are “stuffed and preserved” in his collection (673). The hunter “shot or snared” every bird himself (673). The ornithologist also states he saw a white heron a few miles from the farm and followed the bird’s trail until he became lost. Describing a “queer tall white bird with soft feathers and very thin legs” (673), he looks hopefully at Sylvia to discover if she knows the bird. Though Sylvia doesn’t respond, the narrator reveals she does. Sylvia remains quiet as the hunter continues talking.
The hunter admits he’d like nothing more than to find the heron, and he plans to spend his vacation searching for it. He offers $10 to anyone who can lead him to it, which is a large sum of money for the poor farmers in the area. Mrs. Tilley is thrilled about the potential monetary reward, but Sylvia is distracted by a toad jumping toward his hole nearby.
The next day, Sylvia accompanies the ornithologist into the woods; she has “lost her first fear of the friendly lad” and believes him to be good-natured and sympathetic (674). The hunter shares knowledge of birds and gives her a jack-knife as a present, which she cherishes. Though he scares Sylvia when he shoots a bird, and she thinks she’d like him better without his gun, she still regards him with “loving admiration” (674). She describes him as “charming and delightful” (675). At only age nine, she is “vaguely thrilled by the dream of love” (675).
The next morning, Sylvia climbs a towering pine tree to gain an aerial view of the forest and spot the white heron’s nest. She sneaks out of the house and hurries through the woods she knows by heart. When she finds the “huge tree asleep” (676), she bravely mounts the white oak alongside it, climbing higher and higher, holding tightly to the branches, before she must make the “dangerous” jump from the white oak to the massive pine.
As she climbs the old pine, the tree is personified as loving his “new dependent” (677), pushing away the winds to protect Sylvia from losing balance. When she finally reaches the tree’s peak, Sylvia looks upon the gorgeous sea, two flying hawks, woodlands, farms, churches, green flora, and lush marshes. Tired from her climb but giddy, she looks carefully for the white heron’s home but doesn’t notice it until the tree speaks to her, telling her to “look down again, Sylvia” (677), to the spot where the marsh touches the birches and hemlocks, where she saw the heron once before.
The white heron appears and flies to a nearby tree branch. The heron “cries back to his mate on the nest” (678), and Sylvia sighs as the bird glides back toward his home in the marsh below. Sylvia descends the pine and wonders about the hunter’s reaction when she tells him where the nest is.
At the farm, Mrs. Tilley and the hunter are looking frantically for Sylvia, who was missing from her bed. Sylvia runs toward the house in the early morning light, her frock “smeared with pine pitch” (678), and the hunter suspects she has known about the heron all along. Mrs. Tilley and the hunter question her, but Sylvia changes her mind and doesn’t reveal where the white heron lives. Mrs. Tilley rebukes her, for they could be rich with the hunter’s promised $10. Sylvia remains silent and does not give away the heron’s location. The young man eventually departs, disappointed not to find the bird. Having prioritized the bird’s well-being over the interests of the ornithologist and her interest in a relationship with him, Sylvia returns to the woods. The narrator wonders, “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell?” (679).
By Sarah Orne Jewett