“A White Heron” is an 1886 short story written by Sarah Orne Jewett. Because of its thought-provoking themes, such as: the connection between humans and nature, isolation, inner peace, the chance for love and romance, and the consequences of choices, it belongs both in the romance genre and the realism genre. “A White Heron” is the title story in Jewett’s anthology A White Heron and Other Stories, published the same year.
The story follows nine year old Sylvia, a shy and intelligent girl, who moved from the city, where she felt anxious and bullied, to the country with her grandmother, where she finally felt happy and fulfilled. She has some knowledge of birds, as she learned to love and appreciate nature, and occasionally observes her environment. She meets an ornithologist, a hunter who collect birds. He wishes to find a rare white heron and offers Sylvia 10 dollars to help him. She agrees, as she deems him scary, but also handsome and attractive. When she finds the bird’s nest she realizes that the white heron is an amazing creature; one that she can relate to. Thus, she doesn’t reveal its whereabouts to the hunter, making the moral choice to sacrifice her chance of friendship with the hunter, in order to save the heron’s life and respect her deep connection with nature.
First, Jewett writes of a young girl who is in perfect sync with nature. She is observant, adventurous, and deeply loves the wildlife. Over time, she begins to value nature much more than the urban environment in which she previously lived in. Sylvia lives in harmony with the natural world, realizing that she is a part of it, and respects and appreciates the natural law. The hunter, in contrast, wishes to tame the wildlife and disrupt the natural course of things. Being reminded by her own life in the country in New England, Jewett argues that women are more connected to the natural world than man, because they are biologically more appreciative, understanding, and caring towards other people, creatures, and things. While I, personally, do not share this opinion with Jewett, as I believe that all humans, no matter their gender, are children of nature and share a deep connection with it, I also think that Jewett made a very bold statement in and with her story, challenging the gender roles and the social stigma of her time.
Furthermore, Jewett doesn’t portray Sylvia as the only woman connected to nature. She also writes of Polly Finch, a friendly and outgoing girl who aspired to be a teacher, but essentially took over her father’s farm. The community respects and admires her decision to work on the farm. Determined to succeed in her goals, Polly finds her happiness right where she is: helping her parents sustain the farm, “as if she was a boy”, and work with the natural world around her.
“Everything seemed to grow that she touched, and it was as if the strength of her own nature was like a brook.”
Then, there is the kind and compassionate Miss Ann Floyd (or Nancy Lane). She accepts the romantic advances of Jerry Lane, and even agrees to marry him. After Jerry goes to sea and does not return for three months, she is told that the husband she has greatly missed has died. She is very sad, but, that sadness is nothing compared to the rage, anger, and betrayal she feels when she learns that her husband is very much alive and well, and living with another woman. However, she chooses not to disrupt his new life, when she sees that he is happy with his new family. Jewett shows respect to her character who harbors multiple names, by showcasing her resilience, and her mental strength and complexity, by comparing her to a plant, thus further accentuating the connection of women with the wild nature:
“Who can laugh at my Marsh Rosemary, or who can cry, for that matter? The gray primness of the plant is made up of a hundred colors if you look close enough to find them. This same Marsh Rosemary stands in her own place, and holds her dry leaves and tiny blossoms steadily toward the same sun that the pink lotus blooms for, and the white rose.”
Second, Jewett distinguishes masculinity and femininity in nature. The symbol for masculinity is, naturally, the hunter. He is handsome, kind, charming, and friendly, but he is also powerful, intimidating, and manly; he kills birds for his own personal pleasure, and he is an aggressor. The symbol for femininity is Sylvia. She is shy, kind, caring, gentle, innocent, but she is also wise, intelligent, moral, ethical, and virtuous; she is deeply connected to nature, and appreciates the environment that surround her. She is the heroine of the story, as she is capable to overcome life’s obstacles, both mentally and physically, by showing great mental maturity and strength, despite her youth.
From a young age (especially in the time the story was written), women are told that they must depend on a man who will guide them through life, care for them, and provide for them; they are thought to be respectful, submissive, passive, loyal, and kind; and that the only way to find happiness in life is to marry a rich and desirable man. By making a story where the main protagonist chooses to remain in a perfect, harmonious sync with nature and stay loyal to that connection, Jewett breaks down the sexist barriers and standards, and writes of a female heroine who chose nature over society, and wisdom and rationality over love and friendship.