How is "A White Heron" by Sarah Orne Jewett a work of literary realism?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"A White Heron " is realistic in its depiction of the poverty that Sylvia and her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, live in, so that it is believable the ten dollars (several hundred dollars in today's money) Sylvia is offered to lead the young hunter to the white heron would be...

This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

"A White Heron" is realistic in its depiction of the poverty that Sylvia and her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, live in, so that it is believable the ten dollars (several hundred dollars in today's money) Sylvia is offered to lead the young hunter to the white heron would be a temptation to her. She reflects that night in bed on the many "wished-for treasures" that could be purchased with the money.

The dialect used by Mrs. Tilley is also realistic (Jewett is known for her use of dialect). For example, Mrs. Tilley says to the hunter of Sylvia:

There ain't a foot o' ground she don't know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o' themselves.

We can imagine a woman of the backwoods speaking this way.

It is realistic, too, that the young hunter is not treated as an evil person. He is richer than the family he stays with, and Sylvia doesn't want him to kill and stuff the heron, but she doesn't hate him. He is depicted as kind, although lacking in Sylvia's empathy for the animal kingdom. It is also realistic that a young girl would turn down money to protect a bird: children tend to be more innocent about money than adults and to identify more with animals. We might be less likely to believe in this decision if an older person made it.

Finally, the story is realistic in its description of nature. At the same time that she is realistic, however, Jewett does tend to romanticize the worthy poverty Sylvia and her grandmother live in, though not rural poverty in general:

It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness. The young man had known the horrors of its most primitive housekeeping, and the dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens. This was the best thrift of an old-fashioned farmstead, though on such a small scale that it seemed like a hermitage.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sarah Orne Jewett's "The White Heron" is an example of literary Realism. Realism was a reaction to Romanticism. Realists wished to portray life as it was, unlike the Romantics, who preferred to show the world as they wanted it to be—looking at the world through "rose-colored glasses." Realists wanted to show the world without artificiality, focusing more on events and characters who were probable and realistic.

Jewett's short story opens realistically:

The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o'clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. They were going away from whatever light there was, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.

Here, the text depicts a typical evening in the woods. The sun is setting, and a little girl is walking home with her cow. The path, walked by uncountable steps, is worn and known.

As the young girl (Sylvia) walks home, afraid her grandmother will be angry at their lateness, she comes across a young man. The young man questions the whereabouts of a white heron. Again, this seems very realistic and plausible. The two are in the woods, and they happen to come across one another. The young man strikes up a conversation with Sylvia about the bird. He even offers ten dollars to anyone who can lead him in the right direction to find the bird.

In the end, Sylvia considers the money and her own feelings about the bird. She refuses to tell the young man about the location of the bird; she simply cannot bring herself to disclose the location knowing the bird could be harmed.

This aspect of the story is realistic because it makes readers think about their own morality and worth. Jewett's point, in making the story realistic, is to provide readers with a situation in which they could see themselves. The readers, like Sylvia, would need to make a decision about disclosing the location of the heron or keeping the heron safe.

The setting and characters are realistic, ones that readers can picture and (perhaps) relate to. Jewett includes no supernatural aspects, no exotic settings, and no "larger than life" characters. The story is one which provides an observer's point of view, where neither the author nor the reader can intervene.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An author of a work of literary realism aims to depict the everyday world in a realistic -- as opposed to idealistic -- way.  This is what Jewett attempts to do through her description of the banal, commonplace activities of life on a farm: Sylvia's nighttime, muddy search for Mistress Moolly at the story's beginning, cow-milking, berry-picking, toad-watching, and keeping company with chickens.  Nothing is idealized or romanticized; the effect of nature on Sylvia is immense, to be sure, but there are no descriptions of, for example, some blissfulness that nature imparts to the child.  Rather, Jewett simply talks about Sylvia as though she were a part of the nature she so loves, comparing her throughout the story to a flower, a bird, even a star. 

Further, the opposition Jewett establishes between Sylvia, a representative of nature, and the stranger, representative of "civilization," helps to establish the story's realism.  She depicts the steady encroachment of the city on the wild and the damage to nature that such trespass inflicts.  The stranger nearly corrupts the innocent Sylvia into betraying the heron by offering her money and gifts, by flattering and charming her.  He isn't evil, but it seems as though he does not understand the danger he, and his way of life, pose to her and her woods.  By the end, after Sylvia has decided not to tell him where the heron is, and he leaves, she thinks of "the piteous sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood."  Such a true-to-life, matter-of-fact description of the stranger's way of appreciating nature helps to further mark this text as a work of realism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team