Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In her depiction of the often-reiterated conflict, Jewett is not objective; the “scales” are heavily weighted in favor of nature. Besides using stereotypical characters in a Good-versus-Evil confrontation of mythic dimension, she uses sentimentality to invest both vegetable and animal worlds with human characteristics. Sylvia’s “valued companion” is not the hunter, but Mistress Moolly, the cow, who is capable of “pranks.” The birds and beasts “say good-night to each other in sleepy twitters,” thereby making their deaths seem more like “murder” and helping to account for Sylvia’s final decision. Even the pine tree is personified and depicted as an ally in her quest for knowledge. The tree is “asleep”; it even stands still and holds away the wind as Sylvia climbs. Sylvia’s very name, with its “sylvan” suggestions, indicates that her true home is in nature (she is known as “Sylvy” rather than the more formal “Sylvia”). Similarly, Mrs. Tilley, who “tills” her farm, is also in her proper habitat. On the other hand, the unnamed hunter is seen as an interloper who does not belong.
In order to elicit sympathy for Sylvia, Jewett uses the third-person-limited point of view, so that Sylvia’s perceptions become the readers’ perceptions. Her choice seems inevitable, but at the end of the story Jewett gains some distance from Sylvia and editorializes about the decision: “Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the...
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Advancements for Women
The end of the nineteenth century brought many new opportunities for women in the United States and other industrializing countries, and Sarah Orne Jewett took full advantage of them. In 1848, just one year before Jewett was born, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and others had organized the famous Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York. By the time Jewett graduated from Berwick Academy in 1866, women were being granted certificates to practice medicine (for a time, a dream of Jewett’s), they were being admitted to universities, and led by Stanton, Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, they had formed the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to winning the vote for women and for African Americans. For the first time in American society, women were gradually and grudgingly allowed into full participation as citizens and as professionals.
Equally important for Jewett, women were beginning to enjoy a wider range of ‘‘acceptable’’ personal lifestyles. Married women could have careers, as in Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys, published in 1886, the same year as ‘‘A White Heron.’’ But it was no longer taken for granted, at least among urban upper-class society, that every woman would marry as soon as she could and live out her life as an unequal partner to a man, with no property rights and no protection should the marriage prove unhappy. For Jewett and others, there was...
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Set in an isolated portion of Maine, ‘‘A White Heron’’ tells of a lonely nine-year-old girl’s decision not to reveal the location of a beautiful white heron and its nest to a visiting hunter. The hunter leaves, disappointed, and the girl, Sylvia, loses her first human friend.
Narrator/Point of View
Of all the technical aspects of this story, that of a young girl who must choose between revealing the location of a heron’s nest to an appealing ornithologist and protecting the bird, none has proven more problematic to critics than point of view. Many readers have seen Jewett’s abrupt and dramatic changes in point of view as a weakness and a sign of immature talent; however, more recently, readers have seen the shifts as intentional and effective. The story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, that is, a narrator who is not present as a character in the story, but who looks out or down on the events and who can see more than the characters themselves see. This narrator sees more deeply into (or shows more interest in) Sylvia’s thoughts and feelings than into the other characters’. Nothing is shown of the hunter’s or Mrs. Tilley’s thoughts beyond what they demonstrate through their words and actions. The narrator tells most of the story in the past tense, but three times shifts to present tense: when Sylvia first hears the hunter approaching (‘‘this little woods-girl is horror-stricken’’), when...
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Compare and Contrast
1880s: Concern for the environment becomes an issue in the United States in the years following the Civil War, when economic development increases rapidly at the expense of natural resources, such as timber. In 1891, President Harrison signs a proclamation that turns a million acres in Colorado into the nation’s first forest preserve.
1990s: Forest preservation threatens jobs in the Pacific Northwest, where loggers prohibited from destroying the habitat of the spotted owl face layoffs. Global concern for the environment results in conferences such as the 1992 Earth Summit, held in Brazil. Topics for discussion include global warming and the destruction of the rain forests.
1880s: Naturalist John James Audubon (1785– 1851) attains great wealth and fame from his paintings of birds. He works from dead models; disliking the stiffness of stuffed and mounted specimens, he requires many freshly killed birds for each painting.
1990s: The Audubon Society, founded in 1886 as the country’s first bird preservation society, comprises 500 chapters, 9 regional, and 12 state offices.
1880s: Many people move to crowded manufacturing towns, like the one in which Sylvia lives with her family, because of the availability of factory jobs. In the 1880s, the industrial sector grows rapidly as machine processes are standardized and new technologies,...
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Topics for Further Study
The bird Jewett was thinking of when she wrote this story is more frequently called the snowy egret. Research the natural history of the snowy egret, especially its status at the beginning of the twentieth century, to see why Jewett was so concerned about this bird. Describe the reaction informed citizens of the 1890s might have had to the ornithologist’s plan. What animals might be used in stories today to achieve a similar effect?
Read an article or essay in a recent issue of a nature or conservation magazine (for example, Audubon, National Wildlife or Sierra). Compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of using fiction and nonfiction to argue for environmental protection.
Visit a natural history museum, or another museum with a collection of ‘‘preserved and stuffed’’ animal specimens. Discuss with the curator or a guide the value of such collections. Report on what you learn.
Research marriage in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on the differing rights and responsibilities of husbands and wives. Compare your findings to the implications Jewett makes about marriage.
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A White Heron was adapted as a video for elementary and junior-high audiences, Learning Corporation of America, 1978; available in VHS, Beta and 3/4U formats from Modern Curriculum Press (MCP).
The story has also been recorded as a book on tape; recorded by SoundWindow, the tape includes excerpts from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, distributed as Christine Sweet Reads, 1996.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Country of the Pointed Firs, Jewett’s 1896 novel, is often considered her greatest work and one of the nineteenth century’s best pieces of regional fiction. Set in a New England coastal village and the surrounding countryside, and narrated in a strong female voice, it tells the stories of the typically eccentric people who shape the landscape, and are shaped by it.
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) does for the American Midwest what Jewett’s work does for New England: presents universally recognized characters in a highly localized setting. Anderson’s male narrator observes life in his small town, recording the secret loneliness and pain of his neighbors.
Mary Austin’s 1903 The Land of Little Rain is an early work of Southwestern regional literature. It is nonfictional but very personal, a detailed look at the terrain, plants, animals, and Native Americans in the Sierras, presented by a woman who spent years living in the dry mountains and fighting to protect them from human exploitation.
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1987 collection of short stories. Le Guin may be best known as a science fiction writer, but these stories explore the place of women and animals in a male-dominated culture. In ‘‘May’s Lion’’ and other stories, she describes a...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ammons, Elizabeth. ‘‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, 22, no. 1 (March 1986): 6-16.
Griffith, Jr., Kelley. ‘‘Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, 21, no. 1 (March 1985): 22-7.
Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. Twayne, 1962. The first full-length critical review of Jewett’s work. This book attempts to analyze all of Jewett’s work. Cary finds ‘‘A White Heron’’ philosophically interesting but technically flawed.
Griffith, Jr., Kelley. ‘‘Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 21, no. 1, March, 1985, pp. 22-7. Shows how Sylvia’s story follows the archetypal pattern of a hero following a quest for a desired object, and suggests that Sylvia’s independence mirrors Jewett’s.
Held, George. ‘‘Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, 18 (1982):55-65. Discusses his overall interpretation of Jewett’s ‘‘A White Heron,’’ paying particular attention to changes that occur in the character Sylvia’s relationship with nature.
Johns, Barbara A. ‘‘‘Mateless and Appealing’: Growing into Spinsterhood in Sarah Orne Jewett,’’ in Critical...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne, 1962.
Cary, Richard, ed. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: Twenty-nine Interpretive Essays. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973.
Church, Joseph. Transcendent Daughters in Jewett’s “Country of the Pointed Firs.” Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.
Donovan, Josephine. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Howard, June, ed. New Essays on “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Matthiessen, F. O. Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.
Morgan, Jeff. Sarah Orne Jewett’s Feminine Pastoral Vision: “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Nagel, Gwen L., and James Nagel. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
Renza, Louis. “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor...
(The entire section is 201 words.)