Essays and Criticism
Overview of A White Heron
To her contemporaries, Sarah Orne Jewett was primarily a local color writer. Her stories and novels were peopled with typical villagers speaking in dialect, going about their daily work as country doctors or farmers or seafarers, moving about among the flora and fauna and landscape of New England. As a young avid reader, Jewett had admired the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe especially her depictions of the common folk of the South, with their strengths and short comings. One of Jewett’s aims as a writer was to present the people of her native Maine in the same honest and respectful light. But if her characters’ speech and dress and mannerisms were identifiably regional, their concerns and problems were not. Like all the best local color writing, Jewett’s fiction uses regional settings, but explores themes that are universal.
Most of Jewett’s central characters are women, and they usually operate to some extent out of the bustle of mainstream society: they are not young women having dramatic adventures and finding husbands, but spinsters and widows and children and professional women leading quiet, sometimes lonely, lives. Their conflicts are internal, their support is mainly from other women, their arena is domestic. It has often been observed that fiction with a male protagonist is considered suitable for all to read, but fiction about women is ‘‘women’s fiction.’’ Perhaps...
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The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s A White Heron
Let us imagine that we live in a culture where time is a cycle, where the sand dollar lies beside its fossil (as it does). Where everything is seen to return, as the birds return to sight with the movement of the waves. As I return to the beach, again and again.
Imagine that in that returning nothing stands outside; the bird is not separate from the wave but both are part of the same rhythm. Imagine that I know—not with my intellect but in my body, my heart—that I do not stand separate from the sand dollar or the fossil; that the slow forces that shaped the life of one and preserved the other under the deep pressure of settling mud for cycles upon cycles are the same forces that have formed my life; that when I hold the fossil in my hand I am looking into a mirror. . . . We are aware of the world as returning, the forms of our thoughts flow in circles, spirals, webs; they weave and dance, honoring the links, the connections, the patterns, the changes, so that nothing can be removed from its context (Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, 1982, pp. 15–16).
And now let us imagine that into this web—into this timeless cycle of birds and waves—walks a man with a gun.
I start with this quotation from the witch Starhawk because I want to suggest that ‘‘A White Heron,’’ on one level an interesting but ‘‘easy’’ story about the irreconcilable...
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Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s A White Heron
‘‘But what shall I do with my ‘White Heron’ now she is written? She isn’t a very good magazine story, but I love her, and mean to keep her for the beginning of my next book.’’ (Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Annie Fields 1911, p. 60)
When Sarah Orne Jewett wrote these words to a friend, the Atlantic Monthly had rejected her story ‘‘A White Heron,’’ and she was puzzled about its artistic merit. But after it appeared in a collection of her stories in 1886, it immediately attracted compliments from friends and fellow writers. Since then, it has become her most anthologized and best known story. I feel that the key to both the Atlantic’s puzzlement and the story’s wide appeal is its handling of the hero archetype. Sylvia, the protagonist, becomes a traditional hero who makes a quest after a much desired object. The Atlantic editors probably did not know what to make of this work of fantasy from a normally down-to-earth local color realist. But the story is much more than a simple fantasy. For Jewett, it seems to have been a personal ‘‘myth’’ that expressed her own experience and the experience of other women in the nineteenth century who had similar gifts, aspirations, and choices. And for modern readers its implications are even broader.
The hero archetype has been ably treated by a number of writers, but the definitive treatment is...
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The Necessary Extravagance of Sarah Orne Jewett: Voices of Authority in ‘A White Heron’
‘‘A White Heron’’ seems a simple story of simple people, in a simple time. Seems. But if we look more closely, we see that Jewett has used diverse and unusual devices to give this much anthologized story the satisfying impact which puts us so at rest at its conclusion. In the next to last scene, for example, she uses authorial voice and privilege in genuinely extravagant ways: a tree’s thoughts are reported and given weight, and the author not only urgently whispers counsel to the main character but later exhorts the very landscape and seasons of the year in pantheistic prayer. But these departures from ‘‘common sense’’ seem perfectly natural to us as we read the story, because they contribute so directly to the effect of the tale, the sense of which is a little uncommon. In fact, the work demands these extravagances.
‘‘A White Heron’’ is a story of innocence, a theme calculated to move us deeply, loss of innoA cence being a mainstay of literature and myth from Genesis through Milton, Joyce, Salinger, and beyond— a theme of proven power. However, Jewett here writes not of innocence lost, but of innocence preserved, much rarer, yet in less obvious ways touching each of us in the corners of our lives where we remain uncalloused by experience, resignation, or cynicism. To make the story take, Jewett has to convince us emotionally that Sylvia’s staying in the world of innocence is a positive step in her development as a...
(The entire section is 1340 words.)