Themes and Meanings
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 that hunting produces game birds (“pa’tridges,” for example) to be eaten in order to survive. On the other hand, hunting all kinds of birds (including thrushes and sparrows) simply in order to stuff them for one’s own “collection” is a notion “foreign” to Mrs. Tilley and incomprehensible to Sylvia: “She could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much.” In effect, her first perception of him as the “enemy” is correct.
The “persuasive” young man’s corruption is signaled by his situation when Sylvia meets him. Like many other moral wanderers in dark woods (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown comes immediately to mind), the hunter is “lost.” When he is guided to a hermitage and receives Mrs. Tilley’s hospitality, he repays it by attempting to exploit Sylvia’s obvious fondness for him and Mrs. Tilley’s equally obvious need for money. He is successful in enlisting Mrs. Tilley’s support, but Sylvia has grown and learned important lessons from her climb up the pine tree.
In many ways, “A White Heron” is an initiation story with mythic overtones. A young girl who lives in cloistered innocence is exposed to temptation from the outside world. The agent of temptation uses her developing interest in the opposite sex to seduce her into betraying the natural world to which she belongs. Although her “woman’s heart,” which had been “asleep,” is “vaguely thrilled” by the young hunter, she also gains new insights into herself and the world of nature. Her morning journey, which takes her through the dangerous bog, and her subsequent climb up the pine tree both test her and teach her. When she negotiates the “passage” from the oak to the pine, she undertakes a “great enterprise,” one at once challenging and fulfilling. From the top of the pine she can see the “vast and awesome world” that lies beyond the safety of the farm. Unfortunately for the hunter, she also sees the white heron and his mate. The two worlds are in conflict, and the parallel between the herons and her own situation is readily apparent to the “sadder but wiser” Sylvia: Her happiness at helping the object of her infatuation can be achieved only at the expense of destroying another “domestic” situation, which may be more significant. In a kind of epilogue Jewett writes, “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been—who can tell?”