“A White Heron” is an 1886 romantic short story written by American novelist, poet and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett. It is the title story in her anthology A White Heron and Other Stories, and it focuses on Sylvia – a shy and observant nine year old girl, who lives in a country farm in the Maine woodlands with her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley. One day, she meets a gray-eyed ornithologist who loves birds and hunts them. He tells Sylvia that he would like her to help him find a rare white heron for his collection, by using her knowledge of birds. She agrees because she is slightly afraid of him and, later on, even starts to develop romantic feelings for him. Sylvia finds the heron’s nest by climbing up a big pine tree, however, she doesn’t reveal the heron’s location to the handsome hunter, as she feels that she cannot ‘give its life away.’
When she climbed the tree, Sylvia felt as though she was a bird herself, and could fly in the sky too. This is the main reason why she chose to keep the whereabouts of the bird a secret. Even though she was attracted to the stranger, she proved her virtue and connection to nature by saving the white heron’s life. Essentially, she lets go of the hunter, and much like the heron itself, doesn’t become the ‘prey’ in his hands. This behavior is very descriptive of her character.
Sylvia moved to the country from the busy life in the city. I think if she still lived in the city, she would have accepted the hunter’s offer of 10 dollars to find the bird, and would have easily let herself be swayed with his gifts and charming personality. But, Sylvia found solace in the country and learned to love the country life and everything about it: the nature, the animals, the birds, the freedom, the joy, and even the people. Yes, she only had a few friends and acquaintances, but I believe that this might have actually been Sylvia’s choice. I believe she (un)consciously tried to avoid everything that reminded her of the city life – the complexity of it, and the dire need for social acceptance everyone seemed to harbor. She was overwhelmed with the city life, and became afraid of people and social interaction. This actually might be the reason why she was initially afraid of the stranger when she first met him.
I believe she learned to appreciate the simplicity of life, thus allowing herself to enjoy in the smallest of pleasures, and with only a few people. I think that she regrets the loss of her friendship with the stranger, but I feel that she believes that she made the right choice by not helping him. She became much wiser and realized that sometimes you have to sacrifice some of the things that make you happy temporarily, so that you could be happy infinitely. In conclusion, Sylvia might be lonely from time to time, but she is certainly not lonesome; instead, she learned to harmoniously coexist with the nature that surrounds her and finally found her peace.
As far as her name is concerned, I think Jewett chose the name Sylvia because it further accentuates the connection between her main protagonist and nature, as the name originates from the Latin word Silva which literally translates to forest. Thus, the name Sylvia means someone who comes ‘from the forest’. In mythology, Sylvia means spirit of the forest, and the god of the forest was named Silvanus.