Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” the most popular of her short stories, is a prime example of a “local color” story in its depiction of the life of a particular region—in this case, her native Maine. Jewett explores the internal conflict that a transplanted city girl experiences between her newly acquired love for nature and her natural and awakening interest in the opposite sex. Sylvia, who knows where the rare white heron has its nest, must decide between an allegiance to the things of nature and the gratitude and friendship of the young hunter who seeks to add the white heron to his collection of stuffed birds.
In the first part of the story, Jewett establishes Sylvia as a “child of nature” who is somewhat wary of people. After having spent the first eight years of her life in a “crowded manufacturing town,” where she had been harassed by a “great red-faced boy,” she is now at home in the “out-of-doors.” Her grandmother, who rescued Sylvia from the city, believes that Sylvia had never been “alive” until her arrival at the farm. According to her grandmother, “the wild creatur’s counts her one o’ themselves.” In fact, when Sylvia first appears, she is driving home a cow named Mistress Moolly, which is described as Sylvia’s “valued companion.” Sylvia feels more at home with her “natural” society than she does with “folks.”
As a result, when she hears “a boy’s whistle, determined,...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“A White Heron” is Jewett’s best-known short story and the only one to have an entire critical book written about it, Louis Renza’s “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature (1984). Though Jewett wrote many other stories at this level, this one has been most often anthologized, and it connects thematically with works that have much greater reputations, such as Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942).
Sylvia, a shy nine-year-old, is bringing home the milk cow when she meets a young ornithologist who is hunting birds for his collection of specimens. He goes with her to her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, has rescued Sylvia from a crowded home in the city, where she was languishing. The farm has proven a good environment for her. The handsome hunter, however, awakens Sylvia’s interest in a larger social life. He is friendly and sociable. He offers money and other rewards for information about where he can find the white heron he has seen. He spends a day with Sylvia looking for the heron’s nest, during which Sylvia comes to find him increasingly attractive, even though she is repelled by his killing birds. She knows where the nest probably is, but she hesitates to tell him.
On the second morning of the hunter’s stay, Sylvia climbs a nearby landmark pine at dawn to see the heron rise from its nest. She seems to have decided to help the ornithologist; however, at this...
(The entire section is 630 words.)