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“A White Heron” Sarah Orne Jewett

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American short story writer, novelist, and poet. The following entry presents criticism on Jewett's short story “A White Heron” (1886).

“A White Heron” is one of Jewett's most well-known and often anthologized short story. In it, Jewett presents a nine-year-old girl's reaction to the intrusion of a young man into her feminine and natural world. The variety of narrative techniques, symbols, and imagery, as well as the ambiguous ending, have elicited much critical commentary by scholars. Several feminist scholars view this work as Jewett's rebellion against the realistic literature that male authors made the mainstream literature of the late nineteenth century. Although many of Jewett's short stories were first published in the Atlantic Monthly, the magazine's editor, William Dean Howells, declined this work for being too “romantic.” Thus this favorite work, which Jewett referred to as “her” and professed “to love,” was first published in 1886 in book form in A White Heron, and Other Stories.

Plot and Major Characters

“A White Heron” opens in the evening as young Sylvia is searching for a milk cow astray in the woods of New England. She is startled by the sudden appearance of a young man with a gun, who proclaims that he is an ornithologist and has come to this rural land to hunt, kill, and stuff birds for his pleasure. When he entreats Sylvia's aid, she leads him to her grandmother's farm. Sylvia has come to live with Mrs. Tilley to both escape the industrial city where her mother struggles alone to support the family and to be a help and companion to her grandmother. The young stranger both charms the grandmother and interests the granddaughter and enlists their help, by offering much needed cash, in locating the nest of a rare white heron. Although the next day Sylvia docilely accompanies the young man on his quest, they fail to find their prey. At dawn on the following day, Sylvia awakes and scales a massive and ancient pine in search of the heron and its nest. From her vantage point atop the tree, Sylvia glimpses the heron, its nest, and its mate, and she experiences an epiphany. When she returns to the farm later that morning, Sylvia guards her secret.

Major Themes

Jewett was known as a local colorist whose stories often portrayed the ordinary aspects of life in works where mood or atmosphere preceed plot in importance. While the colorist elements are evident in “A White Heron,” Sylvia's choice, or action of remaining silent, is the crucial element in the story. Commentators have interpreted Sylvia's choice between revealing or not revealing the location of the heron in various ways: expressing the conflict between urban/rural life, between child/adult perceptions of the world, or between male/female modes of artistic creation. Several critics see the work as a modern fairy tale in which the female declines to be rescued by a princely man, an ornithologist whose goal is symbolically to hunt and conquer women and display them in his home.

Critical Reception

Although contemporary commentators on “A White Heron” express qualified praise, it was not until the 1970s that critics seriously analyzed the story. Several scholars considered the possible influence of prior works, particularly Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel The Pearl of Orr's Island and Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story “Young Goodman Brown” on “A White Heron.” The fact that Jewett expressed the personal importance “A White Heron” held for her has caused critics to treat it as a personal artistic credo and feminist document. They analyzed feminist subtexts, reversals of traditional fairy-tale formulas and coming-of-age stories, flight imagery, and narrative techniques. Several scholars explored the story's psycho-sexual and other symbols using Freudian or Jungian methods. Although critics debate various...

(The entire section contains 52675 words.)

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Critical Overview