How can "The White Heron" be understood as an initiation story?

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“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.

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An initiation story typically features a protagonist who, like Sylvia, undergoes some sort of initiating experience that heralds her arrival into a new and different stage of maturity. If Sylvia represents innocence and girlhood and nature, the unnamed hunter represents maturity and manliness and society. She is country and he is city. She is child and he is adult. The narrator says,

She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.

There is a part of Sylvia that is awakened by her interaction with the hunter: the woman, interested in love and desirous of being pleasing, who she will one day become. In this sense, then, Sylvia is experiencing an initiating into what it feels like to be an adult, and to be conflicted. Sylvia seems to have a young girl's crush on the hunter. She even thinks that "He is so well worth making happy . . . " though she cannot bring herself to tell him where the beautiful white heron lives, not after she has seen its nest.

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In addition to being a fine example of local color writing, “A White Heron” is also an excellent initiation story with a universal theme. Through the character of Sylvia, the “little woods girl,” Sarah Orne Jewett addresses the dilemma that occurs when personal values conflict with emotional needs and making an ethical decision is sure to cause pain. After the young hunter arrives at the farm, Sylvia is forced to choose between pleasing him and her grandmother or protecting the life of the white heron. By the story’s conclusion, she discovers that she cannot violate who she is at the core or betray the natural world she treasures; she cannot “give [the heron’s] life away.” Sylvia makes an ethical decision consistent with her values, even though she is filled with sadness that lingers long after the hunter goes away.

Like the protagonists in other initiation stories, Sylvia gains a greater awareness of herself and the world. Through a difficult experience, innocence is lost as truth is revealed and knowledge is acquired. Climbing the towering pine at the edge of the woods initiates Sylvia into a new world and a new state of being. From the top of the tree, she can see vistas that lie far beyond the farm, and for the first time, she sees the sea. No longer earthbound, Sylvia experiences in a new way the beauty and the wonder of the natural world, and she sees it with new eyes. She becomes a part of it as the hawks fly below her and the white heron rises from its nest and flies past her with a “steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head,” alighting in a tree nearby to call its mate.

Sylvia climbs to the top of the towering pine so that she can locate the heron’s nest for the hunter; the difficulty and the danger of her journey indicate the depth of her desire to please him. When she climbs down from the pine, however, she has been forever changed. After watching the heron fly “through the golden air” and remembering “how they watched the sea and the morning together,” Sylvia will not participate in the slaughter of the beautiful bird. Regardless of the personal cost, she will not betray herself and her values by betraying the white heron.

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