Sarah Orne Jewett plays with imagery of shadows, woods, and light throughout "A White Heron." In the first paragraph of the story, we meet Sylvia on her errand to bring Mistress Moolly, the cow, back home for the night. The cow often plays hide and seek with Sylvia in the woods, and this game is half-fun but half-annoying to the girl. "The woods were already filled with shadows," we learn, although at the same time, traces of "a bright sunset still glimmered." Leaving the light behind, they enter the darkening woods. As Sylvia heads homeward, she feels "as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves."
At this point, the stranger shows up, and Sylvia is surprised and confused, especially when he requests shelter. That evening, Sylvia and her grandmother chat with the stranger by moonlight, and they learn he kills and mounts rare birds. Sylvia is evidently ambivalent or unsure of the stranger, for she doesn't offer what she knows about the bird he's looking for.
As Sylvia spends the day in the woods with the hunter, her confusion continues. She finds him strangely appealing, because her incipient romantic heart "was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love." Yet she "would have liked him vastly better without his gun."
Sylvia doesn't lead the hunter to the "open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot"—the place she had seen the heron. But in the predawn light, she climbs the tall pine tree from which she knows she'll be able to spot the bird again. As she climbs in the dim light, scratching herself on the trees of the woods, she faces the "angry talons" of the pine that nevertheless "must have loved his new dependent." The contradictions continue with the descriptions of the shadowy woods.
When she reaches the top of the pine, light imagery breaks through the imagery of woods and shadows. Her "face was like a pale star" as she stares over the sea, where the "dawning sun [was] making a golden dazzle." The sun comes up "bewilderingly bright." But this is an ironic description, because suddenly all becomes clear to Sylvia, and the confusion and ambivalence of the shadows and woods fly away. She and the heron perched on neighboring branches are two of a kind, and her loyalty belongs clearly to her natural compatriot, not to the young man after all.
Jewett associates the woods and shadows with confusion and ambivalence, while she describes the scenes involving the heron primarily with light. In doing so, she convinces readers that Sylvia's decision was the clear, pure, and enlightened choice.