A White Heron Summary

"A White Heron" is a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett in which young Sylvia must decide whether or not to reveal the location of the white heron's nest to a hunter.

  • Young Sylvia feels more comfortable in nature than around other humans.

  • Sylvia meets a hunter who collects rare birds as trophies. She admires the hunter, but doesn't understand why he kills the birds he professes to love.

  • The hunter is excited to learn that Sylvia knows the location of the rare white heron's nest. However, even though the hunter offers Sylvia money, she refuses to reveal the bird's location.

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Last Updated May 7, 2024.

Introduction

“A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett is a short story published in 1886. Set in the northeastern woods in which Jewett grew up, the story explores transcendentalism—a philosophical movement that rejected social conventions in favor of the spirtual truths of the natural world—through the mind of Sylvia, its nine-year-old protagonist. It begins on a summer day when Sylvia encounters a hunter searching for a rare white heron. Told from an omniscient third-person point of view and peppered with rich descriptive narration, "A White Heron" operates as an allegory, t pitting society against nature and leaving Sylvia to decide between the two.

Plot Summary

“A White Heron” begins one June evening as a young girl named Sylvia herds a wandering dairy cow out from the woods and back to its pasture. Although the cow causes problems by consistently getting lost, Sylvia does not mind because she enjoys roaming the woods around the property, which belongs to her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley.

While making her way out of the woods, she hears the whistling of a young hunter walking down the path. Despite her efforts to hide, the man sees her and requests directions back to the main road. After she informs him the road is far, he explains that he became lost while hunting for birds and asks if she might have a place for him to rest for the night.

Though it has been some time since she last hosted a guest, Mrs. Tilley eagerly invites the young hunter in, offering him food and a place to sleep. Over dinner, Mrs. Tilley speaks fondly of Sylvia’s knowledge of the woods. The hunter shows interest, sharing that he is an ornithologist with an extensive collection of taxidermied birds and is only a few evasive species from a complete collection. He continues, explaining that he spotted a rare white heron in the area a few days prior and followed it to the woods by Mrs. Tilley’s property. When he says this, he looks towards Sylvia to see if she might know the bird he is searching for.

Sylvia’s heart skips a beat as she hears him describe the bird. She recalls an encounter with the white heron in a field of swamp grass but chooses not to inform the ornithologist of the incident. After Sylvia finishes daydreaming about the day she saw the white heron, the ornithologist claims he would pay ten dollars to anyone who could lead him to the rare bird. Later that night, Sylvia fantasizes about all the treasures ten dollars could buy.

The next day, Sylvia grows fond of the ornithologist as she follows him around the woods, listening to him divulge his extensive knowledge of the birds in the forest. Though she quickly grows fascinated, she recognizes she would like him more were it not for his gun. She feels a dormant, womanly side of herself falling in love with the ornithologist and considers helping him find his long-sought-after white heron.

At night, the sounds of the whippoorwills make it difficult for Sylvia to sleep, and she lays awake thinking about an old-growth pine tree that stands much taller than the surrounding forest. She wonders if she may be able to spot the white heron from the top of the old pine tree.

As the sun rises, she sets off to climb the tree. Once she reaches the top, she sees out to the ships at sail on the ocean as she scans the horizon in hopes of finding some sign of the white heron. While surveying the canopy, she sees a white speck rise from a hemlock below. It grows larger until it becomes something she can decipher: a white heron landing gracefully on a nearby branch. Mesmerized, Sylvia concentrates, careful not to disturb the bird or notify it of her presence. Sylvia admires the white heron’s graceful maneuvers and stays quiet as it calls to its mate.

After a moment of stillness, the songs of catbirds disturb the silence, and the white heron flies away. Sylvia now knows the location of the white heron’s nest and wonders what the ornithologist would think of her if she shared this information. She contemplates what to do as she descends the pine tree.

When she returns, the ornithologist and her grandmother question her about her whereabouts. Despite her admiration for the ornithologist and the wishes of her grandmother, Sylvia resolves not to share the hidden location of the white heron’s nest. She cares more for the birds' secrets and the forest's wonders than for money or her admiration of the ornithologist.

As time passes, Sylvia ponders the weight of her decision. She considers the gravity of choosing the wild world of the woods over the societal pleasures of friendship, acceptance, and money. Ultimately, she knows that whatever she lost by keeping the heron's secret was merely a sacrifice made to protect the priceless treasures of the woods, a place she knows she will never be alone.

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