Sarah Orne Jewett Short Fiction Analysis
When a young reader wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett in 1899 to express admiration of her stories for girls, Jewett encouraged her to continue reading:You will always have the happiness of finding friendships in books, and it grows pleasanter and pleasanter as one grows older. And then the people in books are apt to make us understand ‘real’ people better, and to know why they do things, and so we learn sympathy and patience and enthusiasm for those we live with, and can try to help them in what they are doing, instead of being half suspicious and finding fault.
Here Jewett states one of the central aims of her fiction, to help people learn the arts of friendship. Chief among these arts is tact, which Jewett defines in The Country of the Pointed Firs as a perfect self-forgetfulness that allows one to enter reverently and sympathetically the sacred realms of the inner lives of others. In her stories, learning tact is often a major element, and those who are successful are often rewarded with epiphanies—moments of visionary union with individuals or with nature—or with communion—the feeling of oneness with another person that for Jewett is the ultimate joy of friendship.
“A White Heron”
“A White Heron,” which first appeared in A White Heron, is often considered Jewett’s best story, perhaps because it goes so well with such American classics as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942). With these works, the story shares a central, complex symbol in the white heron and the major American theme of a character’s complex relationship with the landscape and society. As a story about a young person choosing between society and nature as the proper spiritual guide for a particular time in her life, however, “A White Heron” is atypical for Jewett. One main feature that marks the story as Jewett’s, however, is that the main character, Sylvia, learns a kind of tact during her adventure in the woods, a tact that grows out of an epiphany and that leads to the promise of continuing communion with nature that the story implies will help this somewhat weak and solitary child grow into a strong adult.
Sylvia, a young girl rescued by her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, from the overstimulation and overcrowding of her city family meets a young ornithologist, who fascinates her and promises her ten dollars if she will tell him where he can find the white heron he has long sought for his collection. Childishly tempted by this magnificent sum and her desire to please the hunter, who knows so much of nature yet kills the birds, she determines to climb at dawn a landmark pine from which she might see the heron leave its nest. She succeeds in this quest, but finds she cannot tell her secret to the hunter. The story ends with the assertion that she could have loved the hunter as “a dog loves” and with a prayer to the woodlands and summer to compensate her loss with “gifts and graces.”
Interesting problems in technique and tone occur when Sylvia climbs the pine. The narrative tone shifts in highly noticeable ways. As she begins her walk to the tree before dawn, the narrator expresses personal anxiety that “the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest.” This statement seems to accentuate an intimacy between reader and narrator; it states the position the narrative rhetoric has implied from the beginning and, in effect, asks if the reader shares this anxiety. From this point until Sylvia reaches the top of the tree, the narrator gradually merges with Sylvia’s internal consciousness. During the climb, Jewett builds on this intimacy with Sylvia. Both narrator and reader are aware of sharing in detail Sylvia’s subjective impressions of her climb and of her view, and this merging of the subjectivities of the story (character, narrator, and reader) extends beyond the persons to objects as the narrator unites with the tree and imagines its sympathy for the climber. The merging extends further yet when Sylvia, the reader, and the narrator see with lyric clarity the sea, the sun, and two hawks that, taken together, make all three observers feel as if they could fly out over the world. Being atop the tallest landmark pine, “a great mainmast to the voyaging earth,” one is, in a way, soaring in the cosmos as the hawks soar in the air. At this point of clarity and union, the narrative tone shifts again. The narrator speaks directly to Sylvia, commanding her to look at the point where the heron will rise. The vision of the heron rising from a dead hemlock, flying by the pine, and settling on a nearby bough is a kind of colloquy of narrator and character and, if the technique works as it seems to intend, of the reader, too. This shift in “place” involves a shift in time to the present tense that continues through Sylvia’s absorption of the secret and her descent from the tree. It seems clear that the intent of these shifts is to transcend time and space, to unite narrator, reader, character, and the visible scene which is “all the world.” This is virtually the same technical device which is the central organizing device of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and the intent of that device seems similar as well. The reader is to feel a mystical, “transcendental” union with the cosmos that assures one of its life and one’s participation in that life.
A purpose of this union is to make justifiable and understandable Sylvia’s choice not to give the heron’s life away because they have “watched the sea and the morning together.” The narrator’s final prayer makes sense when it is addressed to transcendental nature on behalf of the girl who has rejected superfluous commodity in favor of Spirit, the final gift of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s nature in his essay, “Nature.” Though this story is...
(The entire section is 2478 words.)