"A White Heron," first published in 1886, belongs to the local color movement in American literature which flourished after the Civil War. Although it is primarily romantic in tone and theme, the story does depict Sarah Orne Jewett's New England setting in realistic detail, a strong element in local color writing.
Most of the story is conventional in literary technique, but Jewett's shifting point of view was not conventional at all in the literary period in which she wrote. In some ways, the unconventional point of view seems to anticipate the transition into modernism in American literature that did not occur until the 1920s.
Because of its numerous types of conflict, several themes can be found within the story, but "A White Heron" is clearly an initiation story. The primary theme concerns Sylvia's growing self-awareness. In the beginning of the story, Sylvia is a shy, lonely girl who has moved to the country to live with her grandmother. Sylvia finds peace in her natural surroundings, but her emotions become confused when the young hunter comes into her life, and she feels the first stirrings of romantic love. When the hunter offers her money to help him find the white heron, so that he can kill it and stuff it for his collection, Sylvia decides to help him. Her motivations are strong: She wants to earn his approval and wants to earn the money for her grandmother. Sylvia knows her own mind when she goes to the forest to find the heron's nest, but she has yet to know her heart or define her values.
After climbing the great pine, however, and sharing the heron's world at daybreak--among the tree tops of the forest and with the ocean in view--Sylvia is initiated into a spiritual union with the natural world and an understanding of her own nature and values. She will not play any role in the destruction of the beautiful heron, not for money and not for love.