Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” the most popular of her short stories, is a prime example of a “local color” story in its depiction of the life of a particular region—in this case, her native Maine. Jewett explores the internal conflict that a transplanted city girl experiences between her newly acquired love for nature and her natural and awakening interest in the opposite sex. Sylvia, who knows where the rare white heron has its nest, must decide between an allegiance to the things of nature and the gratitude and friendship of the young hunter who seeks to add the white heron to his collection of stuffed birds.
In the first part of the story, Jewett establishes Sylvia as a “child of nature” who is somewhat wary of people. After having spent the first eight years of her life in a “crowded manufacturing town,” where she had been harassed by a “great red-faced boy,” she is now at home in the “out-of-doors.” Her grandmother, who rescued Sylvia from the city, believes that Sylvia had never been “alive” until her arrival at the farm. According to her grandmother, “the wild creatur’s counts her one o’ themselves.” In fact, when Sylvia first appears, she is driving home a cow named Mistress Moolly, which is described as Sylvia’s “valued companion.” Sylvia feels more at home with her “natural” society than she does with “folks.”
As a result, when she hears “a boy’s whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive,” she is “horror-stricken,” but the young man overcomes her fear and accompanies her to her grandmother’s farm. Having spent the day hunting, he seeks food and shelter for the night, and Mrs. Tilley obliges him. The young hunter discusses his collection of birds, listens to Mrs. Tilley talk about her son Dan’s hunting, and learns that Sylvia “knows all about birds.” He then offers ten dollars for information about the whereabouts of the white heron. The next day, Sylvia accompanies him as he hunts, and his “kind and sympathetic” behavior wins her “loving admiration,” although she cannot understand why he kills the very birds he professes to like.
The second part of the story concerns Sylvia’s decision to climb the “great pine-tree” in order to gain a vantage point from which she can discover the white heron’s nest, which she apparently plans to reveal to her new friend. Rising before her grandmother and the hunter, Sylvia sneaks out of the house and makes her way through the forest to the tall pine tree. After climbing the nearby white oak, she negotiates the “dangerous pass” from the oak to the pine and finally reaches the top, from which she can see both the “vast and awesome world” and the white heron’s nest, which holds the white heron and his mate. (Jewett thereby balances the two worlds: nature and the “outside” world beyond the farm.) When she returns to the farm, however, Sylvia will not reveal the location of the nest, despite the rebukes of her grandmother and the entreaties of the hunter, who thought he had won her over.
“A White Heron” is Jewett’s best-known short story and the only one to have an entire critical book written about it, Louis Renza’s “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature (1984). Though Jewett wrote many other stories at this level, this one has been most often anthologized, and it connects thematically with works that have much greater reputations, such as Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942).
Sylvia, a shy nine-year-old, is bringing home the milk cow when she meets a young ornithologist who is hunting birds for his collection of specimens. He goes with her to her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, has rescued Sylvia from a crowded home in the city, where she was languishing. The farm has proven a good environment for her. The handsome hunter, however, awakens Sylvia’s interest in a larger social life. He is friendly and sociable. He offers money and other rewards for information about where he can find the white heron he has seen. He spends a day with Sylvia looking for the heron’s nest, during which Sylvia comes to find him increasingly attractive, even though she is repelled by his killing birds. She knows where the nest probably is, but she hesitates to tell him.
On the second morning of the hunter’s stay, Sylvia climbs a nearby landmark pine at dawn to see the heron rise from its nest. She seems to have decided to help the ornithologist; however, at this point Jewett uses some special narrative devices to subvert Sylvia’s apparent intentions. Shifts in verb tense and point of view create an intimate unity between the narrator, the reader, and Sylvia herself. One effect of this unity is probably to help the reader share Sylvia’s enriching mystical union with nature that leads her finally to decide not to tell what she has found. Sylvia is not yet ready to surrender a life “heart to heart with nature” for the “great wave of human interest” represented by the hunter. Before she can return to the more various social life she has temporarily left behind to live on the farm with her grandmother, she must come to possess herself. For her, this can happen best in the comparative isolation of country life.
Though it is easy to read this tale as extolling a life close to nature over a richer social life in the city, Jewett’s story is more complex. Jewett herself lived alternately in the quiet, rural village of South Berwick and in the cosmopolitan social and literary life of Boston, and she often traveled to other cities (and several times to Europe). The story deals with several of Jewett’s major themes, one of which is the necessity, at some times and for some people, of withdrawing from social life into a simpler set of relations where the self can be fostered or renewed. The story does not imply that Sylvia will find a lifetime of happiness only on her grandmother’s farm—though indeed she may—any more than Thoreau’s discoveries at Walden Pond require that he live all the rest of his life there.
The ornithologist is attractive as well as a little dangerous; the wave of human interest he represents is, for most of Jewett’s characters, necessary to happiness. Sylvia simply is not yet ready to enter into the great stream of social life, and to do so too soon would threaten her ability to create and maintain a strong self. Were she to help the young man now, she would come to love and serve him “as a dog loves.” Such a love does not suggest the most rewarding kind of relationship between strong equals.