Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In “A White Heron,” Jewett presents her readers with a series of conflicting values, all of which may be included under the theme of the country versus the city. By having Sylvia choose nature over civilization, Jewett clearly indicates her own preference while she also acknowledges the cost of making that choice.
Jewett’s comparison of Sylvia to the “wretched dry geranium that belonged to a town neighbor” is instructive, for Sylvia thrives, as would the geranium, on being transplanted from town to country. When she first meets the hunter, Sylvia hangs her head “as if the stem of it were broken.” Clearly, Jewett means to suggest that Sylvia is indeed a flower, a part of nature. She not only is accepted by the wild animals but also feels “as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves.” Sylvia’s ties to nature are also reflected in Jewett’s description of her bare feet and fingers, which are like “bird’s claws,” a simile that identifies her with birds and helps explain her decision to save the white heron.
The hunter who pursues the white heron is from the city and is therefore tainted by civilization. In fact, like the “great red-faced boy,” he represents a threat to Sylvia: He may not physically harm her, but he can corrupt her by enticing her to “sell out” nature by taking money for information. Jewett does not condemn the hunter for hunting in itself; Mrs. Tilley obviously understands...
(The entire section is 660 words.)
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Flesh vs. Spirit
When an appealing ornithologist comes to the Maine woods, young Sylvia must decide whether to please her new friend by showing him the nesting place of the heron he wishes to kill for his collection, or remain loyal to her animal companions. Although the nine-year-old girl would never consider her situation in these terms, the decision Sylvia must make is the choice between flesh and spirit—between earthly human pleasures and the natural world. The narrator states the conflict in a sigh directed at the reader: ‘‘Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfaction of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!’’ The hunter’s presence represents two aspects of fleshly desire. First, he offers Sylvia ten dollars if she will betray the heron. Although the sum seems to mean little to him, for Sylvia it is a great temptation: ‘‘He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now.’’ When he first offers the money, her head swims in confusion as she thinks of all she might buy. She is dazed and confused for the rest of the story, until the moment she decides not to tell the secret. Secondly, the hunter represents—albeit in a subtle way for the young girl—the fleshly temptations of sex. It is his maleness she responds to, as ‘‘the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, [is]...
(The entire section is 653 words.)