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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“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.

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