“The White Heron” is an initiation story on two levels. As a tale of maturity, it features a complete initiation. As Sarah learns the value of personal integrity, she is initiated into an aspect of adult self-understanding and behavior: She is the kind of person who must do what is right. In contrast, as a tale of romance or sexuality, the initiation is not completed. Although Sarah is captivated by the hunter, she does not yield to him. On the symbolic level of protecting the white heron, Sarah is protecting her own purity. While the author apparently intends this as a children’s story, the emphasis on whiteness seems to associate virginity with the girl’s denial of the man.
Sarah has only recently come to identify with rural lifeways, and when the hunter arrives, she is elated with both the contact with a city person and flattered by the man’s attention. She intends to fulfill his request for information about the heron because she is proud of her knowledge and she seeks his approval, even his praise. However, once she realizes that her actions will cause the heron’s death, she understands that this course of action would be wrong. By refusing to aid the hunter further, she shows integrity. In this, she is initiated into the mature, adult world of ethical behavior.
Sarah’s attraction to the hunter is not a child’s approval-seeking attitude toward a parent. Experiencing sexual stirrings for the first time, she is delighted by his attention and intends to continue toward fulfilling his desires. Once she realizes that her desires lie in another direction, she refuses him. Sarah is not further initiated into the world of romance or sexual activity. Faithful instead to the white bird, she remains childlike in her purity.