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 this accounts in part for Jewett’s having been treated as second-rate, although in the century since it was written The Country of the Pointed Firs has never been allowed to go out of print, and ‘‘A White Heron’’ has been anthologized dozens of times.
The story of ‘‘A White Heron’’ revolves around a conflict, a choice a young girl must make between listening to an external voice and heeding an internal one. It is the story of nine-year-old Sylvia, who lives in the Maine woods with her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley. The two women (if the word can be used to describe a nine-year-old) appear to have no near neighbors, and there is no family around. Sylvia’s parents and siblings live in a ‘‘crowded manufacturing town’’ from which Mrs. Tilley rescued Sylvia a year before, and Sylvia has known from the day she arrived on the farm that ‘‘she never should wish to go home.’’ Whatever men were once on the farm have wandered off or died. So the two women are alone, with only a cow, Mistress Moolly, for companionship. For Sylvia, the cow is a true ‘‘valued companion,’’ giving ‘‘good milk and plenty of it,’’ and offering an excuse for lingering walks through the woods between the pasture and home. Sylvia and her grandmother have plenty to eat and a ‘‘clean and comfortable little dwelling.’’ They want for nothing. As Elizabeth Ammons describes it, it is a ‘‘rural paradise,’’ a mythical woman-dominated Eden.
If the forest home has overtones of fantasy or myth, so too is Sylvia a most unnaturally natural child. Although born and raised in the city, her true home is in the forest (even her name is from the Latin for ‘‘wood’’). Mrs. Tilley observes, ‘‘There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatur’s counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds.’’ She is ‘‘afraid of folks,’’ but she is not afraid to be in the woods after dark, even hearing the animals calling and rustling. Rather than causing fear, she listens to the bird calls ‘‘with a heart that beat fast with pleasure’’; it makes her feel ‘‘as if she were a part of the gray shadows and moving leaves.’’ Interestingly, the only thing that does disturb her in the forest is the memory from her city days of ‘‘the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her.’’
Startling Sylvia out of this memory is the ‘‘determined, and somewhat aggressive’’ sound and then the appearance of...
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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 conflict between opposing sets of values: urban/rural, scientific/ intuitional, civilized/natural, masculine/feminine, on a deeper level represents as radical—as sinister— a challenge to complacent heterosexual ideology as do the imaginings of a witch such as Starhawk. Indeed, it will be my contention that the arguments of ‘‘A White Heron’’ and of Starhawk, ‘‘birds’’ separated by a century (Jewett’s story was published in 1886, Starhawk’s book in 1982), have things in common. Specifically, after talking briefly about ‘‘A White Heron’’ as creation myth and as historical commentary, I will be arguing three things: that ‘‘A White Heron’’ is a story about resistance to heterosexuality; that the form Jewett adopts to express her idea is, quite appropriately, the fairy tale; and that despite her protests to the contrary Jewett shows in this fiction her ability to create conventional ‘‘plot’’—that is, to use inherited masculine narrative shape—when she needs to.
Perhaps the most obvious meaning of ‘‘A White Heron’’ comes from the female creation, or recreation, myth Jewett offers. The story presents a little girl whose world is entirely female. No brother, father, uncle, or grandfather lives in it; the men have feuded and left or died. Only she and her grandmother inhabit the rural paradise to which the child was removed after spending the first eight years of her life in a noisy manmade mill-town, the strongest memory (and perfect symbol) of which is a ‘‘great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her’’ as she walked home through the streets at night. In the country with her grandmother she is safe. Named Sylvia (Latin for ‘‘woods’’) the girl feels that ‘‘she never had been alive at all before she came to live on the farm.’’ Her grandmother says: there ‘‘never was such a child for straying outof- doors since the world was made!’’ Clearly Sylvia is nature’s child, a pristine or first female, repelled by the city but so at home in the woods that the birds and animals share their secrets and the earth itself, her true grandmother, embraces her with gentle breezes and soft lullabies. Walking home through the woods one night (compare this with the experience she remembers from the city), she listens ‘‘to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure’’ and senses ‘‘in the great boughs overhead . . . little...
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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...
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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...
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