What happens in A White Heron?

  • Sylvia is eight at the beginning of the story. She's described as "a child of nature" and has a deep affection for her cow, Mistress Moolly.

  • Sylvia meets a young hunter who collects birds as trophies. She admires him for his great kindness and sympathy, but doesn't understand why he kills the birds he professes to love.

  • Even though the hunter offers Sylvia ten dollars for the location of the white heron's nest, she refuses to reveal the bird's location.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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...

(The entire section is 1,912 words.)