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...
(The entire section is 630 words.)
‘‘A White Heron’’ begins on a June evening near the Maine coast. As the sun sets, nine-year-old Sylvia drives home a cow, her ‘‘valued companion.’’ The child has no other playmates, and enjoys these evening walks with the cow, Mistress Moolly, and the hide-and-seek games the cow plays to escape being caught. It has taken an unusually long time to find the cow this night, and Sylvia hopes her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, will not be worried. But Mrs. Tilley knows that Sylvia never hurries these walks, because she so loves wandering in the woods. After living her first eight years in a crowded and noisy city with her parents, Sylvia has found her true home with her grandmother in the country. Although she is afraid of people, ‘‘there never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made!’’
As the two companions approach the farm, Sylvia listens to the birds and squirrels preparing for night, cools her tired feet in the brook, and thinks about how different her life is now from when she lived in the city. Just as she remembers uneasily a city boy who used to chase and frighten her, she is startled to hear whistling not far off. This is not the pleasant and friendly whistling of a bird, but the ‘‘determined, and somewhat aggressive’’ whistling of a boy. Before she can conceal herself in the woods, she encounters a tall young man with a gun, who asks her for directions to the road. He has been hunting for...
(The entire section is 760 words.)