Katharine T. Jobes (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2584

SOURCE: “From Stowe's Eagle Island to Jewett's ‘White Heron,’” Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 8, December, 1974, pp. 515–521.

[In the essay below, Jobes traces the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel The Pearl of Orr's Island on Jewett's art, particularly her self-definition as an artist.]

Sarah Orne Jewett pointed out the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Maine novel The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862) on her own writing and provided what has become the standard explanation of that influence. In her 1893 Preface to Deephaven, she acknowledges graciously that The Pearl of Orr's Island was the first work to show her how materials which she had known and loved from birth—Maine character, custom, landscape—could be used effectively in literature.

It was, happily, in the writer's childhood that Mrs. Stowe had written of those who dwelt along the wooded seacoast and by the decaying, shipless harbors of Maine. The first chapter of The Pearl of Orr's Island gave the young author of Deephaven to see with new eyes, and to follow eagerly the old shore paths from one gray, weather-beaten house to another where Genius pointed her the way.1

Jewett's explanation has generally been echoed without substantial change by critics and biographers concerned with literary influences upon her writing.

I wish to point out another way in which The Pearl of Orr's Island seems to have influenced Jewett's developing art, which she and her critics have not noted: besides showing her the general material which would prove congenial to her, it provided—in the Eagle Island episode of Chapter 16—specific material which she would use in working out her self-definition as an artist. The Eagle Island episode expresses Stowe's conception of the nature of the artist. It does so through a brief narrative in which a sensitive girl demurs at a boy's plundering a birds' nest at the top of a tall tree and in an authorial explanation of the narrative. Evidently stirred by the episode to express her own conception of the nature of the artist, Jewett rewrote it twice—in “The Eagle Trees” (1882) and “A White Heron” (1886)—discovering in the process her own increasingly clearly defined artistic nature.

In her Eagle Island episode, Stowe conceives of the artist as one of a class of beings of unusual spiritual sensitivity who serve an essentially ministerial function as “priests and priestesses of the spiritual life, ordained of God to keep the balance between the rude but absolute necessities of physical life and the higher sphere to which that must at length give place.”2 Their spiritual giftedness is innate:

But there are, both of men and women, beings born into this world in whom from childhood the spiritual and the reflective predominate over the physical. In relation to other human beings, they seem to be organized much as birds are in relation to other animals. They are the artists, the poets, the unconscious seers, to whom the purer truths of spiritual instruction are open.

Stowe precedes her explanation with an exemplum, structured upon theological dialectic, in which she develops the spiritual artistic tendencies by contrast with the physical or “natural” tendency of those of more worldly calling. (In those editions of The Pearl of Orr's Island with chapter titles, Chapter 16 is entitled “The Natural and the Spiritual.”) Stowe embodies the contrasting tendencies in Mara Lincoln and Moses Pennel. Mara is a gentle, idealistic, reflective creature of the spirit, the type of the artist/poet/seer; her playmate Moses is a vigorous, practical, active adventurer, the type of the natural man. They reveal their contrasting characters in a brief incident in which Moses climbs far up into a rugged old hemlock and plunders an eagles' nest, bringing its eggs down in his pocket. (“‘I played their nest was a city and I spoiled it.’”) Much as she loves and admires Moses, Mara is troubled by the eagles' distress and protests the spoiling. Though she is silenced by Moses' boyish bravado and belligerent rebuttal (“‘I wish I had a gun now, I'd stop those old eagles' screeching’”; “‘I am older than you, and when I tell you a thing's right, you ought to believe it’”), she will continue, Stowe predicts, to reflect upon the matter and will ultimately make Moses tremble before her sense of the right. Mara does indeed by the end of the novel exercise her spiritual suasion on Moses.

Stowe's own artistry in this Eagle Island episode is consistent with the conception she presents in it of the ministerial artist. She assumes the right to preach, taking her form—exemplum/explication—from the sermon and her dialectic structure from Christian theology. Her ministerial bent is not surprising, considering that she was daughter, sister, and wife to Congregational ministers and steeped in Calvinist theology.

In her two versions of Stowe's Eagle Island episode, Jewett retains the artist figure's sensitivity of spirit, but without theological formulation. The heart of the episode for Jewett is the instinctive sensitivity of the artist/poet/seer represented in the gentle Mara; Jewett stresses it in both her versions and uses the plot elements of the exemplum in order to do so. But Stowe's dialectic and didacticism were not natural to Jewett, who had not been bred, as Stowe had been, in Calvinism. Jewett's versions move away from the doctrinal and didactic toward the personal and lyric, seeking in the natural world familiar to Jewett the spiritual truths Stowe found in theology.

Jewett's first version, “The Eagle Trees: To J[ohn] G[reenleaf] W[hittier],” reveals Jewett reshaping Stowe's Eagle Island materials in several ways crucial to the success of the superior later version, “A White Heron.” First, she casts an historical poet whom she greatly admired, Whittier, in Mara's role of artist/poet/seer. In so doing, she retains Mara's qualities of gentleness and sensitivity but eliminates her theological connections. Whittier, as Jewett depicts him, does not take his poetic inspiration directly from God, like Stowe's artists (“ordained of God”), but rather from nature, which instructs him and has a metaphorical kinship with him:

Was it the birds who early told
          The dreaming boy that he would win
A poet's crown instead of gold?
          That he would fight a nation's sin,
                    On eagle wings of song would gain
          A place that few might enter in,
          And keep his life without a stain
Through many years, yet not grow old?
And he shall be what few men are,
          Said all the pine trees, whispering low;
His thought shall find an unseen star,
          He shall our treasured legends know;
                    His words will give the way-worn rest
          Like this cool shade our branches throw,
                    He, lifted like our loftiest crest,
Shall watch his country near and far.(3)

Second, by personifying the great pines and the eagles and by making them the principal seers and the sources of poetic inspiration, Jewett has nature assume the leading role in this version of the narrative. Stowe's trees and eagles, in contrast, are merely props to illustrate her thesis about human nature. Jewett's animation of nature, like her image of the poet, modifies Stowe's contention that inspiration comes directly from God; moreover, it breaks down Stowe's physical/spiritual or natural/spiritual dialectic. The changes are important, because they help Jewett expand the province of regional materials from being merely local color to becoming an integral part of her aesthetic, as expressed in “A White Heron” and other New England stories.

Third, she re-characterizes another aspect of Stowe's dialectic—the equation of boy/girl in the narrative with active/passive, door/reflector—by making the poet a “dreaming boy” and by having her persona consider (but reject) Moses' active role of storming the eagles' nest (stanzas 3 and 4):

High in the branches clings the nest
          The great birds build from year to year
And though they fly from east to west,
          Some instinct keeps this eyrie dear
                    To their fierce hearts; and now their eyes
          Glare down at me with rage and fear,
                    They stare at me with wild surprise
Where high in air they strong-winged rest.
I will not trespass in this place
          Nor storm the eagles' castle-walls,
Where winds have rocked the royal race
          And taught the note the young bird calls
                    Rejoicing as he seeks the cloud,
          And spreads his wings and never falls
                    Like weaker birds; but soaring proud
A king at heart, he conquers space.

In stanza 4 lies the germ of the girl-poet who assumes some of Moses' active and decisive role in “A White Heron.”

Finally, Jewett shifts the form of the Eagle Island material from exemplary prose narrative to lyric poetry. She is not a master of poetic form and diction, and she does not use Stowe's narrative elements coherently in “The Eagle Trees.” In order to treat the Eagle Island material successfully, she returns to prose narrative in the form of the short story. But the poetic version serves the functions of shifting the tone from didactic to lyric and of reinforcing the emphatic role of nature in the narrative.

Having made these preparatory revisions, Jewett is then able to make Stowe's material fully her own in “A White Heron.” The poet figure, Sylvia, is again a girl child, an “unconscious seer,” much like Mara in her gentle spirituality and lonely reflectiveness, but Sylvia is able to assume, too, Moses' active role of making the heroic climb up the tall tree and of deciding the fate of the bird, in this version a rare white heron. (The hunter who seeks the heron, though he is on the whole sympathetically portrayed, retains Moses' possessive and destructive qualities; he seems to Sylvy at first acquaintance to be “the enemy.”) Sylvy decides to save the heron instead of revealing him to her hunter friend and acknowledges in so doing her special kinship with nature. Her decision resolves a conflict which is not, as in Stowe's version, primarily dramatic and dialectic, but rather essentially private (in that Sylvy is seeking to define her own nature through her choice of allegiance) and lyric (in that Sylvy is reaching intuitively toward a highly personal and emotional union with nature).

Sylvy's nature points to a general conception of the artist quite different from Stowe's ministerial conception. Jewett's artist is not one of a class of passive spiritual mediums through whom God's truths flow to enlighten others; she is an active individual seeking to discover her own nature and its relationship to the world around her. Jewett images the discovery process in the difficult climb Sylvy makes up the tall tree “like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth”4 whereby she becomes a seer of “this wonderful sight and pageant of the world” and finally of the spiritual essence of the natural world, as it is represented in the rare and beautiful white heron. The transcendent effort of seeing nature and of determining to preserve it inviolate rewards the seer, Jewett hopes, with spiritual sustenance: “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!”

Jewett's solicitude for the lonely country child is deeply felt. She is much closer personally to her image of the artist than Stowe is to hers. Sylvy is not, like Mara, an imagined type of the artistic spirit described with authorial detachment; she is a surrogate self for Jewett, a portrait of the artist as a young girl, whom the author describes and sometimes even addresses feelingly. Jewett depicts Sylvy as thriving in the country after her early years of wilting in a manufacturing town. Jewett herself had received similar sustenance from the New England countryside as a child; her doctor-father had taken her with him on his rounds so that her health might benefit from the fresh air. She continued to receive sustenance—now imaginative and spiritual—in her adulthood from the countryside she had loved as a child, and she notes wistfully changes brought about by time and by outsiders.5 (The hunter in “A White Heron” is a city dweller who comes to the country with money and gun to try to possess and destroy its natural life.) And yet, like Sylvy, Jewett evidently found troubling the decision to commit herself fully—in her case in the form of her literary vocation—to preserving the New England countryside. In 1884, two years before “A White Heron,” she wrote the semi-autobiographical novel A Country Doctor, in which the heroine's conflict consists of whether to choose marriage or vocation. (She chooses vocation.) Still in the process of self-discovery, Jewett concludes her portrait of the artist not with an assertion, but with a question and a hope. The seer, the voyager on Jewett's great main-mast rooted firmly in New England, continuously looks out and questions and seeks.6

The successive versions of the Eagle Island episode record the growth of an independent artistic spirit away from her mentor. Retaining their common belief in the artist's sensitive spirit and their common use of New England materials, Jewett develops independently a quality of gentle questing in place of Stowe's earnest dogmatizing. She seeks in nature what Stowe finds in God. She speaks in lyric, poetic prose, while Stowe speaks in sermons. She envisions a wild, light, slender white heron instead of Stowe's protesting eagles.


  1. Sarah Orne Jewett, Preface to Deephaven (Boston, 1894), 3–4. See also Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, ed. Richard Cary, enlarged and rev. ed. (Waterville, Maine, 1967), 40–41; 84–85.

  2. The Pearl of Orr's Island: A Story of the Coast of Maine, 28th ed. (Boston, 1887), 179. Subsequent quotations are from pp. 178 and 177 of this edition.

  3. The concluding stanzas (6 and 7) of the 1882 text of “The Eagle Trees: To J. G. W.” quoted by Carl J. Weber in “Whittier and Sarah Orne Jewett.” New England Quarterly, XVIII (September 1945), 404. Stanzas 3 and 4 below are from the same source, p. 403.

  4. “A White Heron,” in The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Willa Cather, Mayflower Ed. (Gloucester, Mass., 1965), II, 16. Subsequent quotations are from II, 18, and II, 21, in this edition.

    In Stowe's Pearl, Moses is an actual sea voyager.

  5. See, for example, the 1893 Preface to Deephaven, p. 4: “it was easy to be much disturbed by the sad discovery that certain phases of provincial life were fast waning in New England. Small and old-fashioned towns … were no longer almost self-subsistent, as in earlier times; and while it was impossible to estimate the value of that wider life that was flowing in from the great springs, many a mournful villager felt the anxiety that came with these years of change. … The new riches of the country were seldom very well spent in those days; the money that the tourist or summer citizen left behind him was apt to be used to sweep away the quaint houses, the roadside thicket, the shady woodland, that had lured him first.” Jewett speaks here of her youthful anxieties; she professes to be more sanguine in 1893 about the survival of New England individuality. (Preface, p. 5.)

  6. In “The Child in Sarah Orne Jewett,” Colby Library Quarterly, VII (September 1967), reprinted in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Richard Cary (Waterville, Maine, 1973), Eugene Hillhouse Pool also reads “A White Heron” biographically, although somewhat differently. He argues that Jewett “chooses, psychologically, to remain a child with Sylvia,” because she clings so intensely to her memory of her father and his love and thus “repudiates the offer of mature, passionate love that would be inherent in any acceptance of herself as a mature woman.” (Appreciation, p. 225.)


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640

“A White Heron” Sarah Orne Jewett

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 interpretations and the effectiveness of Jewett's efforts, they agree that “A White Heron” is worthy of study.

Richard Brenzo (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2979

SOURCE: “Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia's Choice in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron,’” Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 36–41.

[In this essay, Brenzo explains the symbolism of Sylvia's climb up the pine tree.]

The use of a juvenile narrator or a child's point of view seems especially common in American literature (What Maisie Knew, Huckleberry Finn, “I Want to Know Why”). This technique provides a unique, often humorous view of the foibles of adult society, and, more profoundly, portrays the struggles of the child as he or she grows and tries to form a relationship with that society. In this tradition is one of Sarah Orne Jewett's finest stories, “A White Heron,” a thoughtful portrait of a nine-year-old girl who is suddenly forced to make a very difficult choice between a young man's approval and loyalty to herself and to nature. Because of the striking nature images—the forest, the pine tree, the heron, the hunted birds—and because of Sylvia's intense emotional response to the young hunter, a symbolic reading of the tale is inevitable, as most critical interpretations attest. Sylvia feels but cannot, of course, verbalize her awakening sexuality and growing self-awareness. However, Jewett's symbolic treatment universalizes and enriches the meaning of the girl's inner experiences.

Sylvia (her name derived from the Latin for “forest”) is a recent transplant from “a crowded manufacturing town.”1 Her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley, has asked the girl to come live with her at her small farm in the Maine woods. Sylvia finds it “a beautiful place to live in” (p. 141), and becomes so familiar with the woods that she can follow paths she cannot see, and finally becomes identified with the woods: “it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves” (pp. 141–42). Since Sylvia is “Afraid of folks” (p. 140) anyway, the solitude of the sylvan life is no burden. Several images underscore the fact that she is a shy, intensely private person. She is associated with her grandmother's cow, who loves to hide in the woods, with a hop-toad who tries to hide under the porch, and above all, with the white heron who dwells in a hidden nest in a remote swamp.

The story begins in the evening, as Sylvia walks the cow home. Just as she is thinking of “the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her” (p. 142), she is “horror-stricken” (p. 142) to hear a boy's “determined, and somewhat aggressive” whistle (p. 142). Before she can hide, Sylvia is accosted by a young man carrying a rifle. This “enemy” (p. 142) asks her the way to the road in a “cheerful and persuasive tone” (p. 142). When she fails to answer, he explains “kindly” that he has been hunting birds, and needs “a friend very much” (p. 143). Sylvia is even more alarmed when he “gallantly” asks if he can spend the night at her home before going “gunning” (p. 143) in the morning. Jewett's language in this section establishes several of the themes and ironies developed later in her story. Sylvia's initial reaction to the young man is fear, partially sexual in nature, as the ambiguity of his requests indicates. His hunting of birds echoes Sylvia's memories of being chased by the frightening red-faced boy, which in turn is an obvious symbol for a fear of rape. At the same time, the girl's new acquaintance is actually “kind” and “gallant.” Thus, Sylvia responds not only to what the youth is, but to what he (and his gun) represent; her fears have an internal as well as an external basis.

Interestingly, the author emphasizes Sylvia's sleepiness during this episode. Her awareness of external reality is blurred, so that her reactions are less objective and more emotional. Her waking consciousness is approaching a dream state. There is a dreamlike quality to much of the story's imagery.

Sylvia guides the young hunter to the homestead, where her grandmother's “long-slumbering hospitality” (p. 144) welcomes him to eat supper and remain overnight. It quickly becomes apparent that the youth is what he claims to be, a hunter of birds, an “ornithologist” (p. 147) who stuffs his specimens for display in his home. This also is a threatening idea for Sylvia, although the boy presents no overt physical danger. Her grandmother has already told the young man that “the wild creatur's counts her [Sylvia] one o' themselves” (p. 146), and that Sylvia is especially close to the birds of the forest. When the hunter asks if she has seen the white heron, her “heart gave a wild beat” (p. 147), for she has seen the bird in a bright, hot, swampy area, where her grandmother had warned her “she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more” (p. 148). Sylvia's identification with the things of the forest has moved from shadows and leaves to “creatur's,” then birds, and finally the white heron. The fate of the heron is tied to Sylvia's own destiny.

A further association of girl and heron comes after the boy offers ten dollars to anyone who can show him the heron's nest. He speculates, “Perhaps it was only migrating, or had been chased out of its own region by some bird of prey” (p. 148). Of course this sentence can apply to Sylvia and her recollection of being chased by the red-faced boy in her first region, the city. At any rate, the ten dollars has its effect on Sylvia, arousing thoughts of the “many wished-for treasures” (p. 149) it could buy.

The next day Sylvia and the boy go on a hunting expedition. Now the girl loses “her first fear of the friendly lad” (p. 149), but she is still unable to understand “why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much” (p. 149). Although she would like him better without his gun, she accepts his gift of a jackknife, thus associating herself with his own capacity for violence and bloodshed. Eventually her feeling for him becomes “loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young foresters” (pp. 149–50). The sexuality and self-awareness beginning to stir within Sylvia are adult emotions; however, their subconscious aspect is underlined by “asleep” and “dream.”

Sylvia is moving from an idea of sex as purely frightening and destructive, to a realization that generosity and kindness are also part of the male temperament. The author takes pains to show that the hunter has these virtues. Other traits are revealed by his words and actions. He is willing to devote considerable time and energy to his goal of shooting particular birds. He persuades with charm, and with gifts. He is described as a scientist, and although he enjoys the beauty of birds, he wants that beauty to be under his control and constantly accessible to him. The young man has become somewhat detached from his violent impulses, which he expresses through his love of shooting. Undoubtedly he is kind, gallant, and friendly, and these characteristics give him far more influence on Sylvia than a “great red-faced boy” could have. Yet he is a person determined to possess what he wants. This mixture of charm and forcefulness justifies Sylvia's continued ambivalent feelings towards him.

The tale's climax comes early the next morning, when Sylvia steals from her bed to find the nest of the white heron. For a lookout tower she plans to use “a great pinetree … the last of its generation” (pp. 150–51). Sylvia is sure she will see the whole world, and the nest as well, from the top of the tree. The girl believes this adventure will bring “triumph and delight and glory for the later morning when she could make known the secret! It was almost too real and too great for the childish heart to bear” (p. 151). These last words suggest Sylvia feels herself on the verge of a transcendent experience, or perhaps a vision, more suited for an adult. And the author adds a cautionary note: “Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfaction of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!” (p. 152).

Sylvia is about to make a choice between two modes of living, thinking, and feeling. Clearly, what is at stake here is not only the heron, but Sylvia's own being. In the words of Richard Cary, “To divulge the secret of the heron would be to divulge the secret of self; to destroy one would be to destroy the other.”2 For Sylvia, betraying the heron would mean giving up her closeness to the forest, a closeness which is a profound, essential part of her identity. But to satisfy the boy's wishes, such a betrayal will be necessary.

Paul John Eakin sees Sylvia's scaling of the pine tree as a symbol of knowledge and experience.3 Cary terms it a “rite of initiation leading to self-discovery” (p. 102). Fittingly, the climb takes place at dawn. The great tree is not only a road to knowledge and self-discovery, but also symbolizes the enduring strength of the past, not Sylvia's past in the stifling industrial town, but an ageless, archetypal past.

The way was harder than she thought; she must reach far and hold fast, the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree's great stem. …

The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. … It must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent.

(pp. 153–54)

There is a sexual relationship indicated here between the hard, lengthening stem and the girl who grips and encircles it. The sex act is the most profound way of representing Sylvia's love of and identification with all of nature. At the beginning of her climb the twigs catch her—another reminder of the pursuit of the red-faced boy and the hunter's shooting of birds. But later, the tree becomes a friend who aids her ascent, as well as a father-lover with a new “dependent.” Her subconscious fears of sex are lessened as a result of her climb.

At the end of her ordeal, Sylvia is, understandably, “trembling and tired but wholly triumphant, high in the treetop” (p. 154). Looking out towards the east, she sees not only the sea, but two hawks whose soaring makes her feel “as if she too could go flying away” (p. 155). To the west, she sees farms, villages, and churches, “a vast and awesome world” (p. 155). Atop the symbol of the past, she views, in the present, the world of nature and of men. For once in the story, these spheres are united in a total vision which is unmistakably spiritual and mystical.

But “was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height?” (p. 155). After this revelation of nature and mankind, Sylvia looks downward into the forest, her own habitat, to see the white heron, “like a single floating feather … with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck” (p. 155). This glimpse sustains the grandeur and serenity of her earlier vision. The heron is an essential part of Sylvia—her animus, her soul, or her sexuality, or all three. Yet the serenity of mood is fragile: “an arrow of light and consciousness from your [Sylvia's] two eager eyes” (p. 156) might make him disappear. Here again, the dreamlike, subconscious quality of Sylvia's perceptions is stressed. The heron calling to his mate presents an image of a calm, harmonious marriage, far different from the relationships with the hunter and the red-faced boy.

Sylvia's vision is interrupted by the chattering of the catbirds, and soon she struggles down the tree. As she walks back to the house she wonders what the youth will think when she tells him “how to find his way straight to the heron's nest” (p. 156). Yet when she sees him she cannot give away the location. Sylvia thinks of the great pine's “murmur” and the harmony she felt with the heron, and “she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away” (p. 158). Why? The author's ironic question whether the girl will “thrust aside” the advances of the “great world … for a bird's sake” (pp. 157–58) cannot be taken at face value. Since the heron's secret is Sylvia's own, to sell that secret to the young man for ten dollars would be prostitution, in several respects. The holiness of her communion with the heron transcends monetary considerations.

And yet the story is not quite over. Sylvia has seen the “great world” as an “awesome” totality as she sat in the great pine, but she has also seen it in the form of the young hunter. She can never regain her childish contentment. Despite her loyalty to the woods and the heron, she would have “served and followed him [the hunter] and loved him as a dog loves!” (p. 158). And perhaps because of her symbolic ascent of the tree, “She even forgot her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the piteous sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood” (p. 158). The images of defloration and death are no longer frightening, even if they are still strong. She continues to hear the boy's whistle, yet she remains a “lonely country child” (p. 158). And the author, at the end, urges “woodlands and summer-time” to bring their “gifts and graces” and “secrets” to compensate for the “treasures” Sylvia has lost (p. 158).

In light of the story's ending, it is difficult to evaluate Sylvia's experience. She has been true to herself and properly so; her vision is too intense and significant to be traded away. Her glimpse of the heron is also a glimpse of a perfect, harmonious marriage. We cannot regret her decision to reject the young hunter's offer, since her yearning for him is depicted as servile and unhealthy. Yet there is also sadness and a sense of loss here. Perhaps the union of the two herons can only symbolize an inner harmony (which Sylvia lacks at the end of the story), not an actual marriage, which may mean a choice between a charming young hunter or a violent “red-faced boy.” Her association with the woodlands cannot entirely replace heterosexual, human love, even when the relationship with the woodlands has sexual undertones. At the same time, Sylvia's vision from the top of the pine tree has literally broadened her horizons by showing the vastness of nature and its juxtaposition with human society. Perhaps she will not always have to lead an isolated life in a small area of the forest. The young man's haunting whistle is a constant reminder to Sylvia of the amorous mysteries of the adult world.

So the tale ends with Sylvia's conflicting emotions unreconciled. Several critics have seen this fictional conflict as a reflection of a similar struggle within Jewett herself. One such critic is Eugene Hillhouse Pool, who suggests the white heron represents the author's love for her father. The story thus shows how Jewett “chooses psychologically to remain a child with Sylvia.” Pool believes the author, as well as Sylvia, “repudiates the offer of mature, passionate love that would be inherent in any acceptance of herself as a mature woman.”4 Paul John Eakin feels the tale's symbolism is inadequate for expressing Jewett's “unresolved feeling.” “The image of violation and death provides an interesting contrast to the vision of life and beauty which the heron represents” (Appreciation, pp. 213, 214). Concurring with Pool, Ann Douglas Wood views Jewett's own rejection of marriage not as a sign of independence but as a shunning of adulthood,5 although she does not cite “The White Heron” in support of her opinion.

Does Sylvia reject “adulthood,” “mature, passionate love,” or “an image of violation and death”? This reader's analysis of the story supports Eakin's view. There is a type of dominating, threatening lover, represented in this story by the young hunter, and Sylvia's ambivalent feelings towards him are understandable. She is both attracted by his charm and repelled by the ruthlessness beneath it. She feels a need to be someone's servant—and to be loyal to herself above all. No doubt Jewett presents a particularly unfavorable view of love and marriage in this tale. She gives Sylvia no glimpse of a male who might respect her privacy and wholeness. Her only choice is to allow herself to be caught, raped, killed, stuffed, and put on display in a man's house, a provocative satirical image of the condition of late nineteenth century wives. Who can blame Sylvia, if, like Jewett, she makes the painful decision to reject this role and preserve her integrity and independence?


  1. Tales of New England (1894; rpt. Freeport. N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), p. 140. All subsequent references to the story will be from this text.

  2. Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962), p. 102.

  3. “Sarah Orne Jewett and the Meaning of Country Life,” American Literature, XXXVIII (Jan. 1967); rpt. in Richard Cary, ed., Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: Twenty-nine Interpretive Essays (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973), p. 214.

  4. “The Child in Sarah Orne Jewett,” Colby Library Quarterly, VII (Sept, 1967); rpt. in Richard Cary, ed., Appreciation, p. 225.

  5. “The Literature of Impoverishment: The Women Local Colorists in America 1865–1914,” Women's Studies, I, No. 1 (1972), 14.

Principal Works

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Play Days: A Book of Stories for Children 1878

Old Friends and New 1879

Country By-Ways 1881

The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore 1884

A White Heron, and Other Stories 1886

The King of Folly Island, and Other People 1888

Strangers and Wayfarers 1890

Tales of New England 1890

A Native of Winby, and Other Tales 1893

The Life of Nancy 1895

The Queen's Twin, and Other Stories 1899

Stories and Tales (novel and short stories) 1910

Lady Ferry 1950

The Country of the Pointed Firs, and Other Stories (omnibus volume) 1954

Deephaven, and Other Stories (omnibus volume) 1966

The Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett 1971

Novels and Stories 1994

The Dunnet Landing Stories 1996

The Irish Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett 1996

Deephaven (novel) 1877

A Country Doctor (novel) 1884

A Marsh Island (novel) 1885

Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls (juvenile fiction) 1890

Betty Leicester's English Xmas (juvenile fiction) 1894

The Country of the Pointed Firs (novel) 1896

The Tory Lover (novel) 1901

Verses (poetry) 1916

Sarah Orne Jewett Letters (letters) 1967

Theodore R. Hovet (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “America's ‘Lonely Country Child’: The Theme of Separation in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron,’” Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3, September, 1978, pp. 166–171.

[In the following essay, Hovet analyzes “A White Heron” from a Freudian perspective, determining that the work portrays both the conflict between urban society and the natural world and also the separation of the adult world from that of the child.]

When she was forty-eight years old, Sarah Orne Jewett thought back to 1857 and wrote, “This is my birthday and I am always nine years old.” As F. O. Matthiessen shows, the “whole fading world” of pre-Civil War America as it was manifested in Maine continued to hold “the center of her affections.”1 But Jewett's love of her childhood and the past grew into much more than an astute observation of regional characteristics and the delicate rendering of a vanishing people and culture. As “A White Heron” reveals, Jewett discovered in the contrast between the distant world of the nine-year-old girl and the immediate industrial America of her adulthood the social enactment of the psychological drama of separation, the separation from bodily union with a nurturing environment which each individual must undergo in the process of maturation.

This drama of separation portrayed by Jewett is best explained by Norman O. Brown in Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Brown's Freudian description of individual maturation rests on the premise that “the peculiar structure of the human ego results from its incapacity to accept reality, specifically the supreme reality of death and separation.” He explains that “the primal act of the human ego is a negative one—not to accept reality, specifically the separation of the child's body from the mother's body.” And, according to Brown, the “separation in the present is denied by reactivating fantasies of past union, and thus the ego interposes the shadow of the past between itself and the full reality of life and death in the present.”2 These fantasies of the past union motivate the individual to search for substitutes with which to recapture that “loved reality,” to engage in “an active attempt to alter reality” so as to regain the objects lost as a result of separation. The objects cannot, of course, be regained and thus the individual and the society as a whole are forced to sublimate, i.e., to substitute “nonbodily cultural objects” for the fantasy of bodily union. The quest for these objects by members of a society creates an essentially urban environment marked by “the new aggressive psychology of revolt against female principles of dependence and nurture.”3

Jewett's “A White Heron” clearly portrays a similar view of the human ego and social development. Sylvia, living in the woodlands, remains at a stage of psychological development in which she is dependent upon bodily union with a nurturing environment whereas the young man and “the great world” from which he springs are engaged in an aggressive search for the objects of lost union. Thus the story portrays the fundamental rift in the modern human consciousness which has been so imaginatively explained in Life Against Death.

Sylvia spends her first eight years in “a crowded manufacturing town.” There she is “afraid of folks” and feels that she is as dead as “the wretched dry geranium”4 that belongs to a town neighbor. She willingly leaves her parents to live with her grandmother on a farm in a remote area. On this tiny farm in the woodlands, the “old place” as the grandmother calls it, Sylvia (sylvan) finds in nature the “Great Mother,” a nurturing environment that she apparently never found in her biological mother.5 The woodlands provide Sylvia her only food, mostly milk and berries, and a sense of physical union she had never found in the city. She lives “heart to heart with nature”; and “the wild creatur's,” according to the grandmother, “counts her as one o' themselves” (pp. 168, 165). Sylvia concludes that it is “a beautiful place to live in and she should never wish to go home” (p. 162). The contrast of this life with that of the city is emphasized by her memory of the manufacturing town as a place where “the great red-faced boy” used “to chase and frighten her” (p. 163).

Into this primitive and feminine world blunders the young man, a redfaced boy grown mature and polished, carrying with him two dominant symbols of the modern world, money and a gun, with which to wrest his ornithological prizes from nature. The money, the economic surplus which creates cities, provides power over others. The young man will pay ten dollars to Sylvia for knowledge of the heron's whereabouts, a sum which she believes will make her and the grandmother “rich with money” (p. 170). The gun, one of the major technological achievements of the modern world, gives the young man power over nature as well. In short, the young man brings to the woodlands “the new masculine aggressive psychology” described by Brown.

The young man, who as an adult has by definition experienced the reality of separation, directs the aggression toward obtaining “nonbodily objects” which can be substituted, i.e., sublimated, for the lost union. But in the words of Freud, “after sublimation the erotic component no longer has the power to bind the whole of the destructive elements that were previously combined with it, and these are released in the form of inclinations to aggression and destruction.”6 Thus the young man's search for the lost objects of past union turns into a violent and destructive attempt “to alter reality” in the hope of regaining them. Sylvia witnessed “the sharp report of his gun and the piteous sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood” (p. 171). Sylvia cannot understand why “he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much” (p. 166). This violent attempt to alter reality in order to regain what has been irrevocably lost also affects the male's approach to the woman. Jewett strongly hints that the fate of the birds—killed, stuffed, and displayed—is symbolic of the fate of a woman in the hands of the sublimating male. For example, the young man's aggressive confrontation of Sylvia in the woods causes her to hang “her head as if the stem were broken” (p. 163), a picture which clearly reflects the appearance of the dead birds in the young man's game bag. One cannot help but comment on Jewett's perception of the violence implied in the aggressor's tendency to mount women (“quails” or “birds” to use popular slang terms) on pedestals.

The hunt (“the fiery hunt” one might call it) for objects from the lost world of the self brings the modern world of masculine aggression into Sylvia's existence and threatens to alienate her from nature. The young man extends to Sylvia for the first time the hand “of the great world” and stirs in her “the woman's heart, asleep in the child” (pp. 170, 166). “Alas,” the narrator interjects, ‘if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfaction of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest” (p. 168). The encounter in the woods between Sylvia and the young man becomes, therefore, an encounter of the adult with the lost world of childhood and, simultaneously, of modern society with the state of nature from which it has sprung. It is an encounter of the modern with its primitive past. As a result of this meeting, Sylvia is forced to affirm her relationship to nature and to face the realities of childhood. Viewed from Sylvia's perspective, the meeting is a confrontation of the old fashioned world of rural America with the forces of modern society.

To convey the significance of Sylvia's affirmation of her dependence on nature, Jewett turns to the mythic concept of what Joseph Campbell calls the “World Navel,” the symbolic center of the universe.7 This symbolic center is located in “a great pine-tree, the last of its generation” which is “like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth” (pp. 167, 169). Sylvia must climb this “tree of life” (one of the variant forms of the world navel) in order to locate the nest of the white heron, a climb which enacts the mythic trial by ordeal: “The way was harder than she thought. The sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree's great stem, higher and higher upward” (p. 168). Perched at the top of the great pine like the great bird she is seeking, her identification with nature as complete as the human condition allows, Sylvia can see, in a sense, the whole world: “There was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions. … Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages; truly it was a vast and awesome world” (p. 169).

But the mere physical world is not what Sylvia seeks. As the narrator puts it, “was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed such a giddy height?” (p. 169). The answer, of course, is no. Sylvia is initiated into the very secret of nature:

Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. And wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest, and plumes his feathers for the new day!

(p. 170)

Sylvia's vision encompasses the contrarieties of human existence—the golden light of the rising sun and the darkness of the swamp below, the natural world of sea and forest and the man-made world of towns and churches. These contrarieties are encompassed by the most fundamental one of all, the coexistence of birth and death. As the sun grows “bewilderingly bright,” Sylvia sees the heron rise out of the nest by the dead hemlock. Thus having climbed the tree of life, Sylvia has been initiated into what Campbell calls “the miracle of vivification,” “a culminating insight which goes beyond all pairs of opposites.”8 She has perceived that, to use Brown's words, “life and death are in some sort of unity at the organic level.”9

With this vision of the unity of existence before her, Sylvia refuses to commit the act that would separate her from nature forever. She does not “send an arrow of light and consciousness” which would frighten the heron. Her refusal to separate herself from her union with the natural world is affirmed by her refusal to tell the young man of the “dead hemlock tree by the green marsh” which marks the location of the heron's nest. By declining the “triumph and delight and glory” as well as the ten dollars which the young man would bestow on her for this knowledge, Sylvia rejects the values of the great world beyond the woodlands in order to preserve her timeless, heart to heart existence with nature. And she also preserves a unified sensibility by not, as the young man has done, employing her consciousness to help to alter a living force into a nonbodily symbol. “She cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away.” In short, she, by aligning herself with the mother she has found in nature, refuses to cross the threshold into adulthood and the stream of modern history.

In this seemingly simple tale, then, the encounter between Sylvia and the young man becomes an encounter between two stages of psychological and, consequently, historical development in America. The young man, one of the rising generations of Americans building the new industrial order, is engaged in what Brown calls “the immortal project” of recovering his own childhood, a childhood which is irrevocably lost in the past “state of nature.”10 The young man's quest for the beautiful birds which modern social forces are making increasingly rare captures precisely the neurotic wellspring of the pursuit of progress. It is, to again quote Brown, a “forward-moving recherche du temps perdu.11 In contrast, Sylvia reminds us of the passive, dependent timeless relationship to nature which exists before the crucial separation of child from mother, society from nature.

The outcome of the encounter is not encouraging. Sylvia possesses something of inestimable value, a recognition of our dependency on nature and the inextricable oneness of life and death. The young man also owns something of crucial importance, the scientific knowledge which potentially could increase human freedom by a purposeful action upon nature. But the value of what each possesses remains impotent without the other. Sylvia's knowledge of vivification is useless if it is not connected to purposeful action; the young man's technological and scientific knowledge is destructive without Sylvia's insight into the heart of nature. Sylvia “cannot speak” and the young man kills what he loves. And the story ends without an understanding by either character of what the other possesses. Sylvia suffers “a sharp pang” as the young man leaves “disappointed” (pp. 170–171). She remains the dependent child he can no longer be; he stays the aggressive adult she must become if she will live in the modern world.

Sarah Orne Jewett—the person who always felt nine years old even though she saw the great world and knew some of its great people—must have felt keenly the failure in “A White Heron.” Perhaps her stories, like Sylvia's vision of the bird, became for her the means of preserving the lost world of childhood which could not be incorporated into the busy society beyond South Berwick, Maine. Or maybe the stories are, like the stuffed birds of the young man, the symbolic nonbodily objects which resulted from her own search for the lost life of childhood she had shared with her father and her aunts before the Civil War. In either case, in some profound depth of herself, Jewett understood the child and adult in her were writ large in the pockets of wilderness left in rural America and in the “unsatisfactory activity,” as she once put it, of the cities.12 She also felt that the history of modern America was being increasingly determined by the failure to unite the meaning of the child and the adult. The story ends with the young man journeying off engaged in an endless and destructive quest for the lost world of childhood; Sylvia in the last words of the story, remains in the woodland, a “lonely country child,” a haunting reminder of the forgotten world of union with nature which nestles in the heart of the American behemoth.


  1. Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1929), pp. 30, 106. Richard Cary also describes Jewett's “unquenchable urge for things-as-they-were” and her “desire to remain a child” in Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Twayne, 1962), p. 19.

  2. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 159, 160, 162.

  3. Brown, pp. 281–282.

  4. “A White Heron” in The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), p. 162. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

  5. Brown briefly discusses the importance of the pre-Oedipal “Great Mother” to Freudian anthropology. See p. 126.

  6. Quoted by Brown, p. 174.

  7. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 40–46.

  8. Campbell, pp. 42, 44.

  9. Brown, p. 100.

  10. Brown, p. 84.

  11. Brown, pp. 84, 83.

  12. The Country of the Pointed Firs, p. 147.

Theodore R. Hovet (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “‘Once Upon a Time’: Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron’ as a Fairy Tale,” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 63–68.

[In the essay below, Hovet demonstrates how “A White Heron” employs the fairy tale structure as defined by Vladimir Propp.]

Sarah Orne Jewett's “A White Heron” is one of the most admired of nineteenth-century American short stories. It has frequently been praised for its delicate artistry and, more recently, for its treatment of the heroine.1 In spite of its enduring critical reputation, however, the structure of the story has not been carefully analyzed. As a result, Jewett's use of the fairy tale form has been neither recognized nor appreciated. The application of “the morphology of the fairy tale,” to use Vladimir Propp's phrase, not only describes the artistic structure of the story but also reveals how Jewett turned to the fairy tale in order to explore the mythic roots of the conflicts generated by the encounter of modern social forces with provincial America.

In his highly influential structural analysis of the fairy tale, Vladimir Propp has isolated “the chronological order of linear sequence of elements” in the fairy tale. This sequence arises out of the order of “the functions of the dramatis personae” in the tale. Function is defined by Propp “as an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of action.”2 Although the tale can move through as many as thirty-one such functions, many tales will end after twenty-two of them. Furthermore, many tales omit some of the functions, yet “the absence of certain functions does not change the order of the rest.”3 “A White Heron” follows the linear sequence of the first twenty functions described by Propp precisely. Jewett's story omits only the twenty-first and twenty-second functions and, as Propp predicts, these omissions in no way alter the sequence of the other nineteen functions. In the following analysis, the Roman numerals indicate the number of the function designated by Propp and the description of each function is quoted directly from his study. After each of these functions, a description is given of how the function appears in Jewett's story.


Sylvia, the protagonist in “A White Heron,” has left the home of her grandmother and entered a dark wood. This action conforms to the third category of absentation described by Propp in which a member of the younger generation absents herself from home.


Sylvia has been ordered to bring home the grandmother's cow, Mistress Mooly.


At this point in the story, according to Propp, “a new personage, who can be termed the villain, enters the tale.” In Jewett's story, Sylvia violates the interdiction by being tardy in bringing Mistress Mooly home. As a result, she encounters the new personage in the form of a “tall young man with a gun over his shoulder.” Sylvia thinks of him as “the enemy.”4


One of the first types of such reconnaissance is the location of precious objects. The young man with the gun is hunting for birds, particularly the valuable and illusive white heron. He immediately begins to elicit information from Sylvia: “Speak up and tell me what your name is, and whether you think I can spend the night at your house, and go out gunning early in the morning (p. 163)?”


The first type of “delivery” is a direct answer to the villain's question. Sylvia answers his question by giving him her name and leading him to her grandmother's house.


To do this, the villain assumes a disguise, often that of a handsome youth. In Jewett's story, the villain is disguised as a handsome youth. Sylvia's grandmother mistakes “the stranger for one of the farmer-lads of the region” (p. 163).


The grandmother turns her house over to the villain and Sylvia agrees to accompany him on his hunting expedition.


The fifth type of villainous function is that of plunder. The young man kills the birds of the forest who count Sylvia as “one o'themselves” (p. 165).


According to Propp, this function brings the hero into the tale. The hero will be one of two types: the seeker or the victimized hero. Sylvia is transformed from a passive child to seeker-heroine when the young man (the villain, it is important to remember) expresses his lack: “I can't think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron's nest” (p. 166).


Sylvia decides to climb a great pine-tree in order “to discover whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest” (p. 167). She will then reveal its location to the young man.


Sylvia rises before dawn to climb the pine tree. At this point in the fairy tale, Propp's analysis shows, yet another personage (the donor) is introduced to the story. In “A White Heron,” the pine tree becomes such a donor: “The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. … The old pine must have loved his new dependent … and the tree stood still and held away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east” (p. 169).


The first type of this function is the test of the hero by the donor. Sylvia must make a “dangerous pass” from an oak tree to the pine, and then struggle through the dry twigs (“angry talons”) and pitch of the lower branches of the pine (p. 168).


The first type of this function consists of the hero withstanding the test. Sylvia makes the dangerous pass and climbs through the lower branches of the old pine.


The tree now helps Sylvia climb to the heights: “the least twigs held themselves to advantage … and the tree stood still and held away the winds of that June morning” (p. 169).


As Propp explains it, “Generally the object of search is located in ‘another’ or ‘different’ kingdom. This kingdom may lie far away horizontally, or else very high up or deep down vertically.” Sylvia from the supernatural height of the pine tree (“a great main-mast to the voyaging earth”) can see “the vast and awesome world” (p. 169). Finally, she sees the white heron and watches it fly to its nest in the green marsh. The hero-seeker in Jewett's story has accomplished the quest.


The struggle in “A White Heron” is, as one would expect in a story by a nineteenth-century realist, psychological rather than physical. The villain (the young man) tries to bribe Sylvia. He'll make her “rich with money” (p. 170). Sylvia, despite great internal agony, successfully withstands the young man and refuses to reveal the secret of the heron's nest to the young man.


Since the combat has been psychological rather than physical, the wound received by Sylvia is internal. She suffers “a sharp pang” for withholding the information.


The young man leaves “disappointed” without having killed the white heron.


Sylvia has the secret of the heron's nest and thus her lack of companionship is supplied by nature. She and the heron “watched the sea and the morning together” (p. 171) and the woodlands bring their “gifts,” “Graces,” and “secrets” to Sylvia (pp. 170–171).


Sylvia has completed her quest and returns to the woodlands from which the villain had attempted to alienate her.

Many fairy tales contain two more functions: the pursuit and rescue of the hero.5 Jewett's story omits these two, although a shadow of their existence can be detected in the “haunting” of the pasture path by the memory of the young man and the possible rescue from that haunting by the “gifts and graces” of the woodlands. In any case, the sequence of the twenty functions in the story remains identical with those described by Propp and the tale logically concludes with the return of the hero.

Jewett's use of the structure of the fairy tale in “A White Heron” indicates far more than her love of childhood things or the employment of a convenient narrative device. The fairy tale, as Bruno Bettelheim has recently illustrated in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, has served society for a long time as a means of initiating people into their more deep-seated conflicts, anxieties, and fears. Fairy tales provide the psychological distance necessary to deal with this region of human experience. Jewett's “fairy tale” permits her to explore sexual conflict in a way that a more explicit short story could not. The young birds the ornithologist kills and stuffs are thinly disguised symbols of what awaits the young girl who succumbs to masculine control. Sylvia initially sees the young man as “the enemy” who has “discovered her” as he has discovered the birds. When he speaks to her, Sylvia hangs “her head as if the stem of it were broken” (p. 163), an image which mirrors the dead birds in the young man's game sack. Finally, the picture of the birds “dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood” (p. 171) presents a frightening symbol of the possible fate of the girl who succumbs to the sexual aggression of the male. There seems little doubt that a symbolic connection exists between the birds killed, stuffed, and mounted on the wall and the fate of the woman possessed by the modern American male and placed on the domestic pedestal. Sylvia's refusal to reveal the secret of the heron marks her refusal to place herself at the disposal of the masculine will. She withstands the attempt of the villain to destroy her feminine identity.

Moreover, fairy tales and myths can be, in the words of Michael Wood, “narrative vehicles for the display and displacement of what worries us.”6 Jewett, as Richard Cary has shown, was an unusually sensitive observer of “regional obsolesence” and “the invasion of rural standards” by an “urban industrial plutocracy.”7 She found much in this new order to distrust and fear. The gun and the money which the young man brings to the woodlands embody the imperialistic bent of industrial America. Sylvia's refusal to aid the young man not only protects her identity but also registers her rejection of a society which would convert nature into dead objects through technological force.

In the fairy tale, then, Jewett found the form which allowed her to explore parabolically the social and sexual tensions in nineteenth-century America. It also enabled her to convert regional materials into universal themes that illuminated the significance of modern cultural change. “A White Heron” is one of those rare tales which captures that almost imperceptible moment at which the human consciousness has to deal with the encroachment of the new upon traditional modes of thought and action. Once upon a time, the author tells us in her story, there yet existed a world in which a small girl could choose the nurturing power of nature rather than the materialistic exploitation of industrial America. Sarah Orne Jewett was one of the few nineteenth-century Americans who had the knowledge and sensitivity to cherish and depict that vanishing world.


  1. For a good survey of these critical views, see Richard Cary, ed., Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: 29 Interpretive Essays (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973). For a discussion of the heroine see Annis Pratt, “Women and Nature in Modern Fiction,” Contemporary Literature, 13 (Autumn 1972), 476–490.

  2. Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), p. 21.

  3. Propp, p. 22.

  4. “A White Heron” in The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1956), p. 163. Subsequent page references will appear in the text.

  5. That is if the tale ends after the twenty-second function. Some tales continue with the story through nine more functions.

  6. “Hi ho Silver,” New York Review of Books, July 15, 1976, p. 29.

  7. Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962), pp. 16–17.

Further Reading

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Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. Twayne, 1962, 175 p.

Critical biography by a notable Jewett scholar.

Frost, John Eldridge. Sarah Orne Jewett. Gundalow Club, 1960, 174 p.

Extensive biographical study of Jewett.

Matthiessen, Francis Otto. Sarah Orne Jewett. Houghton Mifflin, 1929, 159 p.

Early critical biography of Jewett.


Eakin, Paul John. “Sarah Orne Jewett and the Meaning of Country Life.” American Literature 38, No. 4 (January 1967): 508–531.

Briefly discusses “A White Heron” as a part of Jewett's general espousal of country life over city life.

Stevenson, Catherine Barnes. “The Double Consciousness of the Narrator in Sarah Orne Jewett's Fiction.” Colby Library Quarterly 10, No. 1 (March 1975): 1–12.

Analyzes the perceptions of the narrators in Jewett's Deephaven, “A White Heron,” and The Country of the Pointed Firs.

Additional coverage of Jewett's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 108, 127; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 71; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 74, 221; Something About the Author, Vol. 15; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; St. James Guide to Feminist Writers; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 22.

Michael Atkinson (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “The Necessary Extravagance of Sarah Orne Jewett: Voices of Authority in ‘A White Heron,’” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 71–74.

[In the following extract, Atkinson points out how Jewett portrayed the action in “A White Heron” from different viewpoints, including that of the main characters, the great pine tree anthropomorphized, and directly as the story's narrator.]

“A White Heron” seems a simple story of simple people, in a simple time. Seems. But if we look more closely, we see that Jewett has used diverse and unusual devices to give this much anthologized1 story the satisfying impact which puts us so at rest at its conclusion. In the next to last scene,2 for example, she uses authorial voice and privilege in genuinely extravagant ways: a tree's thoughts are reported and given weight, and the author not only urgently whispers counsel to the main character but later exhorts the very landscape and seasons of the year in pantheistic prayer.3 But these departures from “common sense” seem perfectly natural to us as we read the story, because they contribute so directly to the effect of the tale, the sense of which is a little uncommon. In fact, the work demands these extravagances.

“A White Heron” is a story of innocence, a theme calculated to move us deeply, loss of innocence being a mainstay of literature and myth from Genesis through Milton, Joyce, Salinger, and beyond—a theme of proven power. However, Jewett here writes not of innocence lost, but of innocence preserved, much rarer, yet in less obvious ways touching each of us in the corners of our lives where we remain uncalloused by experience, resignation, or cynicism. To make the story take, Jewett has to convince us emotionally that Sylvia's staying in the world of innocence is a positive step in her development as a person—not merely a cowering, a retreat, or a regression she must ultimately transcend.4 And it is to this end that she employs her extravagant means.

The world of innocence in which Sylvia lives is a frail one, lacking strength. Both the girl and her grandmother, innocents of youth and age, their cottage a virtual “hermitage” (p. 8), seem vulnerable in a number of ways, living in a balance that could be upset by Sylvia's return to the city or by the intrusion of even the genuinely nice young hunter/ornithologist who loves birds but kills what he loves, to preserve them, offering money to find the path to his prize.5 Our most immediate desire is that Sylvia remain in her innocent world, inviolate. But we also are made (by the impingement of threats from without) to want strength for her innocence that it might fend for itself—not a further retirement, but a compelling vision, an experience beside which anything promised by the thrill of infatuation for the hunter would pale.

And that vision is precisely what Jewett gives us in her management of the climactic scene, Sylvia's ascent of the great pine tree. As she climbs, our hopes and expectations are decidely mixed: the climb is frightening, but the vision from the top tantalizing; the heron must be seen, but (contrary to Sylvia's conscious purpose in climbing) the hunter must not be told. In short, we want for her a transforming vision, but fear she will fail to attain it or will squander it. Something more than a glimpse of the heron's nest is needed here—some transcendent way of seeing, beyond the capacity of Sylvia, or her grandmother, or the hunter, each of whom in turn has been a center of consciousness through which this story has been reflected so far. And it is to fulfill this precise need that Jewett gives us the following passage:

The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great mainmast to the voyaging earth; it must have been truly amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit creeping and climbing from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved its new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and held away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east

(p. 17).

Sylvia's courage summons a response from the tree, a deep and intimate bond of trust in which nature rises to the needs of the girl without her asking, actively caring for the child and her birdlike soul, rare and wonderful, now hidden, like the heron, deeply and inaccessibly in nature itself.

Thus, it is not just that Sylvia has transcended her former viewpoint, symbolized (in the story's next paragraph) by her looking down upon the sea and the flying birds, but that the entire fiction has transcended its human limitations—and thus stepped outside the limits of human relationship which lured and threatened Sylvia. The validity of her remaining in nature and not forsaking its trust for human relationship is confirmed by the sentience of the tree, the towering and deeply rooted presence of nature embodied. Sylvia's final decision to keep her bond with nature inviolate is both anticipated and justified as we experience not just nature from her point of view, but her from nature's. She is its creature and child.

But another voice also makes itself heard in this scene, the voice of the tale's teller herself. Heretofore content to let the story tell itself by reflection through the consciousnesses of girl, grandmother, and hunter, and now tree, the narrator cannot keep silent at this crucial moment. She calls out to Sylvia silently, directly.

There where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather. … And wait! wait! do not move a foot or finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours

(p. 19).

The narrator's voice is given great power here, because as she directs, so Sylvia sees the long sought heron, the climactic moment of the climactic passage. The narrator's calling counsel is as unexpected as the articulated feelings of the tree. But it serves to confirm with human wisdom what the tree would show with natural intelligence. And like the consciousness of the tree, the voice of the narrator transcends other viewpoints in the story. She speaks from a wisdom greater than that possessed by the reader or any character in the tale. She is “older” and wiser than the grandmother, and sees what the old woman does not, representing a true maturity of innocence. She gives a voice to the reader's hopes, and in doing so extends and legitimates them—not by addressing us and telling us how it is, but by calling (as we in our wisest innocence might call out) to Sylvia.

This sudden cry of the narrator also prepares us for her speaking out in her own voice again at the end of the story.6 She addresses our uncertainties by articulating them herself: “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell?” (p. 22). And then, closing the circle between the points of nature's intelligence and human wisdom, she addresses nature itself: “Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summertime, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!” (p. 22). The hushed and urgent whisper of this conspiracy of wisdom confirms for us the value of Sylvia's experience and her decision not to tell of the white heron, transferring maturity from the social back to the natural realm—profounder, deeper, never to be betrayed. Her innocence is preserved, extended; her soul is larger and steadier; and our experience, complete.


  1. The story, always a favorite, now appears in two of the three most widely used anthologies of American literature and in one of the most popular general literary anthologies: The American Tradition in Literature, ed. Sculley Bradley et al, 4th ed. (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1974), II, 285–294; Anthology of American Literature, ed. George McMichael, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1980), II, 197–203; Anthology: An Introduction to Literature, ed. Lynn Altenbernd (New York: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 55–63.

  2. Sarah Orne Jewett, A White Heron and Other Stories (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1886), pp. 17–20. Subsequent citations to this edition will be parenthetical.

  3. The complexity of emotions and perceptions in Jewett's narrations is the subject of a study by Catherine Barnes Stevenson (“The Double Consciousness of the Narrator in Sarah Orne Jewett's Fiction,” Colby Library Quarterly, 11, No. 1 [March 1975], 1–12). But the double consciousness Barnes discusses in “A White Heron” is limited to the imagistic conflict of land values with values of the sea and air—the attractions of the land-locked hunter in the forest versus the free, airy, and seaward domain of the heron. The metaphysical and rhetorical shifts of consciousness from human to arboreal and from report to exhortation are not discussed. The remarkable projected account of the tree's emotions seems to have escaped critical notice or scrutiny by Jewett scholars. Even Robert D. Rhode (“Sarah Orne Jewett and the Palpable Present Intimate,” in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: 29 Interpretive Essays, ed. Richard Cary [Watervill, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973], pp. 229–237), though he is concerned to show that the “special power [and] magic” of her art lie in the personification of “nature as a living force” (pp. 229–30), misses or omits this passage, the most radical personification in her work.

  4. That the resolution of the conflict is crucial for the author as well as for the reader is made clear by Eugene Hillhouse Pool, (“The Child is Sarah Orne Jewett,” in Appreciation, pp. 225–228). Taking a page from F. O. Matthiessen's biography of Jewett, Pool characterizes her life as “an uneasy middle road between childhood and adulthood”: exceptional devotion to her father versus independent feminist political inclinations, children's stories versus adult fiction. In this view, Sylvia's choice is Sarah's choice, the choice of a woman who would, on turning forty-eight, announce “This is my birthday and I am always nine years old” (p. 224). Pool finds the story is a good one because it “is the expression of a situation closely paralleling her own personal problems, and thus contains her deepest feeling and surpassing attention” (p. 225).

  5. “The woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love … [though] Sylvia would have liked him better without his gun” (p. 12). But whatever sexual implications might be suggested by a young hunter with a ready gun who asks to spend the night, causing Sylvia pangs of unexplained guilt, are only latent, and remain so throughout the story—though this tale is a clear instance of the myth of the feminine bond between ancient woman and her young charge being threatened by male intrusion, a configuration that traces back to Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, and beyond.

  6. For Paul John Eakin (“Sarah Orne Jewett and the Meaning of Country Life,” in Appreciation, pp. 203–222), however, the story falters here. He sees the rhetorical interjection as a flaw, an anxious and desperate gesture of support for Sylvia's decision offered by an author too involved in the story's values to let the choice stand on its own. “The rhetoric of emotion suggests that the neat, symbolic pattern of the story was inadequate to resolve the complexity of the artist's feelings which it contains” (p. 214). But Eakin's reservation, like Pool's praise (see note 4), interprets and judges the story primarily in terms of the writer's life, while the present study seeks to account for the strategies of the story in terms of their potential and actual rhetorical effects on readers.

Louis A. Renza (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “‘A White Heron’ as a Nun-such,” in “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature, University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, pp. 73–117.

[In the excerpt below, Renza discusses the pros and cons of a radical feminist reading of “A White Heron.” Furthermore, he explores the father-daughter relationship and the psychosexual imagery evident in the story.]

They shut me up in Prose—
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet
Because they liked me “still”—
Still! Could themself have peeped—
And seen my Brain—go round—
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason—in the Pound—
Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity—
And laugh—No more have I—

—Emily Dickinson

This is my birthday and I am always nine years old.

—Sarah Orne Jewett (circa 1897)

A child draws the outline of a body

She draws what she can, but it is white all through,

she cannot fill in what she knows is there.

—Louise Glück


The ideological climate established by recent feminist critical theories regarding the “revision” of women's fiction, its writers as well as characters, encourages and even requires us to read “A White Heron” as a latent feminist document. To be sure, the story itself does not seem to request this kind of reading. From its publication in 1886 to the present, most critics have codified it in terms of the “local color” binary. … But this codification too, called for by the story's topos, theme, and the literary-historical setting in which it appears, can be apperceived as a screen partially concealing a nineteenth-century woman writer's protest against a patriarchal American society which controlled her means of literary production as well as her legal social status. Such a society undoubtedly would have made Jewett feel little older than her story's nine-year-old “minor” protagonist.1

To support this feminist rereading of Jewett's story, we can first point to her undoubtable awareness of the nineteenth-century woman's movement. John Neal, a fellow Maine writer who died in 1876, was one of this movements' most outspoken and prolific proponents.2 Jewett herself was more than likely aware of Stanton's 1848 declaration at the Seneca Falls Convention; she was certainly aware of Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman and Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century, both of which were reviewed in 1855 by George Eliot, an author whose “major” works she owned in her library.3 Indeed, when she first began to write, Jewett had used the pseudonym “Alice Eliot,” a name Cary thinks derives from the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans.4 Do we glimpse even here Jewett's early wish to reclaim feminine literary authority for her writing? “Alice Eliot” could easily constitute a refeminization of “George Eliot,” itself representing the nineteenth-century woman writer's strategic use of a male signature to receive a fair reading of her works in a patriarchal society where women were precluded from being taken as “serious” writers.5 In any case, we also find Jewett making a coded feminist allusion to the ideal of “universal suffrage” in a previously cited passage from “River Driftwood”; or in the 1881 “From a Mournful Villager,” arguing that “the sanctity of the front yard of … grandmothers” once connoted woman's secondary status, her “restricted and narrowly limited life,” but now the “disappearance of many of the village front yards may come to be typical of the altered position of woman, and mark a stronghold on her way from the much talked-of slavery and subjection to a coveted equality.”6

But the most telling sign of Jewett's ongoing concern with the nineteenth-century woman's grievance against, and attempt to rectify her position in, patriarchal society occurs in her 1884 work A Country Doctor, a novel which she later said she liked the “best” of all her “books.”7 As many critics have noted, in depicting the relationship between Nan Prince, the protagonist of this novel, and Dr. Leslie, the country doctor who becomes her mentor, Jewett here indirectly represents her own relationship with her country doctor father.8 It is significant, then, that the story focuses on Nan's struggle to declare her female vocational independence, that is, to become a doctor in a male-dominated profession. As a child whose mother and grandmother have died, Nan becomes a member of Dr. Leslie's household. She eventually follows this childless widower on his rounds, just as Jewett did with her father, and gets smitten with the idea of becoming a doctor, an idea Dr. Leslie supports but, recognizing the difficulty she will encounter in trying to enter a male-dominated profession, encourages only cautiously. Nan ultimately realizes her desire, though not before she is made to doubt her vocational choice through the resistance of patriarchal males and females who think “a woman's proper place” is marriage. A woman, in fact, presents Nan with the greatest obstacle to realizing her vocational ambition. Nan's relatively wealthy paternal aunt Nancy, who lives in a city and whom Nan discovers after she has become an adult, not only tries to woo her away from the rural culture represented by Dr. Leslie, but staunchly maintains that Nan should get married.

The nineteenth-century feminist elements of A Country Doctor thus seem rather clear. On the one hand, we have a female protagonist who expresses her rights to enter a privileged profession from which women are systematically excluded and for which men are prepared from birth. Or as Nan herself remarks, given the same childhood backgrounds, still

“everything helps a young man to follow his bent; he has an honored place in society, and just because he is a student of one of the learned professions, he ranks above the men who follow other pursuits. I don't see why it should be a shame and dishonor to a girl who is trying to do the same thing and to be of equal use in the world. God would not give us the same talents if what were right for men were wrong for women.”9

On the other hand, Nan's reliance on a benign father figure (or on “God”) to help her realize her social equality with men, however much it may have indicated one of “the larger effects of socialization, which … may govern the limits of expression or even of perception and experience itself” for women in other periods,10 in this case reads like a gloss on Margaret Fuller. Unlike Nan's male suitor, for example, Dr. Leslie does not treat Nan as what Fuller termed an “article of property” or “an adopted child,” i.e., in the way nineteenth-century men treated women.11 Instead of treating the very young Nan with the deferential affection of a parent, “[he] did not like children because they were children” and thus comes to view her in the same light as one of his own “grown friends” (my italics).12 In Dr. Leslie, Nan finds that “good father's early trust” that gives one of Fuller's enlightened woman friends “the first bias” for her “self-dependence, which was honored [in her by her father],” though “deprecated as a fault in most women” by other men.13

One could argue, then, that in fact and fiction Jewett perceived the woman's struggle for “self-dependence” along the same lines as her New England feminist precursor. Fuller had noted how feminine autonomy found its “preliminary [in] the increase of the class contemptuously designated as ‘old maids.’”14 Unmarried herself, her closest friends women, most especially Annie Fields, Jewett represents Nan's desire to become a doctor as requiring the rejection of marriage, an institution that Fuller and other nineteenth-century feminists deemed a patriarchal means for keeping women from realizing their own “spiritual” potential.15 This desire is clearly that of a conscious feminist, although presented as that of a “New England nun.” Nan thus does not make her vocational choice before entertaining serious doubts and being attracted to the possibility of marriage.16 Moreover, in the sociohistorical context in which it appears, Nan's desire to become a physician also inescapably signifies a desire for a distinctively feminine as opposed to a general, i.e., less sexually conflictual, “self”-independence. Nan Prince's professional ambition clearly exists in precise opposition to established patriarchal norms of social behavior, an instance of which occurs when George Gerry, a prospective suitor, becomes threatened by her “unnatural” self-reliance: “It is in human nature to respect power; but all his manliness was at stake, and his natural rights would be degraded and lost, if he could not show his power to be greater than her own.”17

But although Nan represents the ideal of female autonomy in A Country Doctor, the “virgin” who, in Fuller's words, would escape “the very fault of marriage … [namely] that the woman does belong to the man,” her claim to social equality or the right to enter a male-dominated profession effectively buttresses rather than challenges the “power” of this patriarchically valued profession itself. Fuller had argued that the truly autonomous woman would remain radically “unrelated” to the established cultural roles valued by males. To become a doctor, after all, would hardly dispose of the elitist hierarchical comparisons Nan associates with patriarchal institutions: “Just because [one male] is a student of one of the learned professions, he ranks above the men who follow other pursuits.” Nan's wish to become a country doctor like Dr. Leslie mitigates her complicity with such institutional elitism but remains no less related to the latter. Even the confrontational aspects of Nan's feminist ambition, and therefore of Jewett's novel, could frustrate the realization of a non-heterosexual or “virgin” female autonomy. Such confrontation would amount to engaging or even wanting to accept patriarchal values—a more moderate feminist idea which Fuller opposed but which also has radical feminist ramifications, as we shall see—and thus would retard women's attempts to develop a totally “unrelated” feminine culture or value system.18

What better way, then, to promulgate transcendentalist feminist values to other women than in an innocuous story with a nonadult and therefore nonfeminist “virgin” heroine whose silent refusal to be conscripted by a patriarchal ethos is bound to go unnoticed by male readers as a radical feminist declaration of independence? Precisely because it “isn't a very good magazine story” to Jewett, “A White Heron,” like the white heron in the story, eludes the determinate demands of the patriarchal “great world.” In this sense, Jewett's story at once corroborates and exploits the fact that within a patriarchal society, women lead secret lives; that they have become used to concealing and suppressing their ideas; that instead of eliminating they should cultivate this secret apartness, that is, work to “leave off asking [men] and being influenced by them” and rather “retire within themselves” as women in “virgin loneliness.”19 Surely it is this “virgin loneliness,” apt to be misread as a sentimental, even narcissistic denouement, that Sylvia represents with authorial encouragement at the story's end: “Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!” (xxiii).

At first, to be sure, the story does not seem to reverberate with coded feminist “secrets” so much as with modest feminist allusions. The exception to this surface modesty may occur in the “canine servitude” that we have seen Annis Pratt argue Sylvia escapes, servitude to a hunter who here represents a rapacious patriarchal world that would make women as well as nature into objects of sexual and intellectual pleasure (see p. xxvii above). But with this possible exception, we do not need to rely heavily on feminist literary-critical tenets, such as Elaine Showalter's idea that women's fiction is a “double-voiced discourse, containing a ‘dominant’ and a ‘muted’ story” (the latter normally comprising the work's subcoded feminist connotations), to unearth the tale's images of female independence.20 The cultural world Sylvia inhabits is a de facto matriarchy. Her father is dead or has left her mother; Mrs. Tilley's husband is dead, her son Dan gone off to seek his fortune in the West. Conversely, not only are the two adult women spared direct relations with patriarchal families—and relations to aggressive males within these families as exemplified by Dan and his father who “did n't hitch” (xvii)—they actively head these households as if men were unnecessary. Mrs. Tilley runs the farm at what appears to be a subsistent if not profit-making level: a “clean and comfortable” place suggesting “the best thrift of an old-fashioned farmstead, though on … a small scale” (xvi). Sylvia's mother supports a “houseful of children” back in that “crowded manufacturing town” (xiv), presumably by working in a factory. If only in a working-class way, both women demonstrate they can perform the economic functions traditionally assigned to both sexes.21

But the clearest indication of a feminist thematic in “A White Heron” lies in the little girl's encounter with the hunter. However benign he seems, in teaching Sylvia “about the birds,” he also unconsciously comes to teach her “about the bees”—about a sublimated, aggressive male sexuality symbolized by his very project as well as the use of his gun. Where for the male critic, Sylvia's choice most often manifests her Thel-like turning away from the harsh realities of (a patriarchal American) society and/or sexuality, for the feminist critic this choice likely signifies a special brand of “heroinism.”22 By the end of the story, Sylvia, at the price of loneliness, has learned to recognize and avoid the ideologically coded willingness of even a “kind appealing” young male to violate a symbolically feminine and virginal nature for the sake of controlling “her,” i.e., making her part of his “collection.” As suggested by the etymology of her name (woods or forest) and her activities at the farm (“the wild creatur's counts her one o' themselves” [xvii]), this “nature” includes Sylvia herself.23 Thus, both heron and heroine exist as mere objects within the hunter's field of perception; in terms of Fuller's definition of the woman's situation in patriarchal marriage, each is an interchangeable “article of property,” items to be bought for ten dollars or seduced by the vague promise of romance. What Sylvia learns is that the hunter's quest for the heron “means murder” for herself as well as the bird; in turn, her identification with the heron comes to symbolize the desire of “the imprisoned girl-child to become a free adult.”24

Ultimately, Jewett's narrative isolates Sylvia as the sole signifier of feminist ideology. Her mother and Mrs. Tilley, who will “rebuke” the girl for not telling the heron's secret to the hunter, show how women can duplicate male social roles but not act radically independent of American patriarchal values. Both women are not “free” but clearly if involuntarily remain inscribed within a patriarchal situation that thwarts their desires. Mrs. Tilley, for example, would “ha' seen the world … if it had been so I could” (xvi). It is against this stratum of feminine options as much as against the hunter's project that Sylvia appears as a “minor” because disguised symbol of radical feminist ideals. Precisely because she appears as no more than a child, she serves as a metaphorical “free adult” woman in whom female readers can see their only marginal relation to patriarchal determinations of their secondary social place. Thus, the “muted” story within Jewett's “A White Heron” concerns a white or pure feminine heroine who at the narrative's “dominant” level is described as “paler than ever,” and thus subtly associated with the story's white heron. Or said another way, the little girl not only constitutes the story's secret and feminist anagrammatic title (white heron/white heroine), but also conveys its secret ideological life for those female readers who can revise what happens to her at the story's “dominant” or self-censored level. Like Annis Pratt, for example, such readers will immediately apprehend that Sylvia's feeling disappointment at not being able to “have served and … loved [the hunter] as a dog loves” (xxii-xxiii) signifies a deferred enslavement to a pejoratively construed patriarchal “great world.”

More important, a strategic “mimetism,” to use Mary Jacobus's term, pervades Jewett's representation of her feminist heroine's actions in the story. Mimetism entails the woman writer's “reproduction” of a “deliberately assumed” discursive practice pre-occupied by patriarchal values and myths about women; because she is unable to write “outside” a male literary tradition, there is no “alternative practice available to the woman writer apart from the process of undoing itself,” even with regard to representing female heroines.25 In this sense, we could argue that Jewett represents Sylvia with certain male-defined qualities in order to subtract them from or even reverse their assumed significance within the patriarchal ideological tradition which governs nineteenth-century literary representations. For example, by associating Sylvia with nature and especially the white heron, Jewett puts her in the role of the hunted object and thus seems to accede to the myth of the male as the active hunter, the traditional literary trope of males as the pursuers of women as well as natural creatures. Yet from the very beginning of the story, Jewett depicts Sylvia as a kind of hunter who becomes more successful in this activity than the hunter himself. She “had to hunt for” the cow, a female cow whose “pranks” she in turn assigns with “intelligent” or active meaning. Moreover, she knows the rural area around the farmstead as well as her uncle Dan whom Mrs. Tilley notes “she takes after”: “There ain't a foot o' ground she don't know her way over” (xvii). And in attributing to her an ability to find the white heron, an ability that makes the hunter all but dependent on her prowess as a hunter, the story subliminally defines Sylvia as an incomparable huntress and woodland explorer. In short, coupled with her “virgin” identity, these depictions allusively associate her with Artemis—a figure of radical feminine independence in the classical patriarchal tradition.26

This “muted” metamorphosis of a minor into a major female heroine, a metamorphosis that suggests both the ongoing feminist goal to live “outside” stereotypical patriarchal definitions of a woman's “proper place” and the story's own “secret” literary ambition, repeats itself in relation to two other patriarchal myths. One could argue that the hunter and Sylvia, for example, reenact the story of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In mythological tradition, Apollo is the archer, the overseer of birds (notably of the white swan), the inspirer of divine knowledge, and in Ovid's story, the love-obsessed god who pursues Daphne, a wood nymph, until she escapes from him by becoming a tree, thanks to the power of her river god father.27 The mysterious “handsome stranger” of “A White Heron” is an expert marksman with his gun, as “when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough” (xviii); an “ornithologist”; someone who knows all “about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves” (xviii); and a godlike figure to Sylvia who, even though he inexplicably “killed the very birds he seemed to like so much” (and so holds the power of life and death in his hands), looks up to him “with loving admiration” (xviii) and treats him with awestruck deference, “the young man going first and Sylvia following, fascinated … her gray eyes dark with excitement” (xix). Most especially, of course, the hunter is obsessed with capturing the white heron which, as we have seen in this feminist reading of the story, becomes all but synonymous with the “white heroine.”

But this last “muted” metamorphosis should alert us to how “A White Heron” itself becomes a marginal feminist version of a myth that effectively reduces the woman to a fixed or knowable natural object. The story quite clearly assigns Sylvia with Daphne-like attributes. Her name, her climbing the “great pine-tree,” her final (treelike) silent stance before the hunter, even the “woodlands” the narrative suggests she will indefinitely inhabit as the story ends, all allude to this girl's virtual transformation into a tree. Yet Sylvia's transformation results from but is not the result of the Apollonian hunter's quest; it originates not out of anxiety, the sense of patriarchal pursuit, but out of her desire to “see all the world” from the tree, a desire, then, which like her name precedes and eventually supersedes the hunter's invasion of the farmstead. Thus, like the tree itself, the tree she regards “wistfully” not as a vehicle of escape but as a positive adventure, “the last of its generation,” unaccountably left standing in the woods by (one assumes) past male settlers or shipbuilders, Sylvia remains beyond—or in Fuller's terms, “unrelated” to—the hunter's patriarchal code of understanding. But here she also replicates the status of the white heron that remains secret and literally beyond the hunter's vision. Sylvia alone climbs the tree, spots the heron and its secret nest, and ultimately refuses to divulge this experience to the hunter, i.e., to the patriarchal world both he and Sylvia's grandmother (as if she were a distraction from the confrontational sexual thematic of the story with its Apollo/Daphne allusion) represent.

In short, Sylvia's metamorphosis is variable, “free,” elusive to any “proper” code of understanding. Indeed, the trope of “metamorphosis” may be considered a means for women writers to undo more traditional tropes like metaphor or simile which, for example, would make us perceive Sylvia as a displaced Daphne-like figure with a relatively stable significance.28 No less than the story which allusively traces Ovid's, Sylvia becomes a site of purely possible signification, an interpretable “shy little” figure whose feminist significance remains secret but does not run away from male and female patriarchal readers.

But this “deliberately assumed” or traced revision of a classical patriarchal myth itself metamorphoses into a more major feminist revision of a less forgettable patriarchal myth. The tree that Sylvia climbs and which serves as the pivotal vehicle of her decision to save the heron obviously evokes comparison with the biblical Tree of Knowledge. In believing that “whoever climbed to the top of [the tree] could see the ocean … all the world” (xix), she assumes the trappings of an American Eve whose experience overturns the expectancies of the Puritan Judeo-Christian tradition that indicts the woman as the cause of Man's Fall, that is, because of her fatal curiosity about the Tree of Knowledge or Death.29 The knowledge that the little girl gains from the tree results in life rather than death, in moral integrity rather than duplicity. Indeed, the heron Sylvia saves bears comparison with the peaceful “bird of paradise” found in many matriarchal creation myths. In this sense her action, far from being a sentimental Christian, i.e., patriarchal, homily on the value of life in general, symbolizes the return of a repressed feminine intentionality of nature.30 Thus, both the story and Jewett's very writing of it could primarily concern this imaginary return to radical feminine origins or to a feminist perspective from which the “great pine-tree,” say, symbolizes a gynocentric Tree of Knowledge precisely in opposition to its phallocentric usurpation and distortion in Western biblical tradition. Or just as the girl alone climbs the tree and sees the heron, so Jewett's “shy little” story entails a “secret” rhetorical transumption by which women can reclaim a gender-exclusive relation to the origins of life or the Edenic Garden in the face of patriarchal propaganda which would reduce such “knowledge” to a Fallen or ontological fetishism of nature—or to mere ontological naiveté.31

Of course, the relatively quiescent surface of “A White Heron” emits only faint signals of this sexual-biblical war; yet they appear in ways which bear the most extreme feminist interpretation. In Sylvia's tree-climbing episode, we hear echoes of Milton's rendition of Eve's experience in Book V of Paradise Lost where, thanks to the intervention of Satan disguised as a handsome “Guide” or “one of those from Heav'n,” she dreams of being transported to the top of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge:

          Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath behold
The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various: wond'ring at my flight and change
To this high exaltation. …

(Paradise Lost, V, 86–90)

… when the last thorny bough was past … [Sylvia] stood trembling and tired but wholly triumphant, high in the tree-top. Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun … and toward that glorious east flew two hawks. … [They] seemed only a little way from the tree, and Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds. Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance … truly it was a vast and awesome world.


The passage from Jewett's story glosses the Miltonic passage with strategic, ideologically motivated differences. Where Milton's Eve tells Adam of her dream (as she will later tell him of her disobedient deed), Sylvia will not tell the Adamic hunter what “knowledge” she has gained from this “flying away” experience despite her initial intention to do so. In fact, Jewett's “Eve” climbs the tree voluntarily and literally awake (“She forgot to think of sleep” [xix]), whereas it is “Adam” who has rehearsed within a dream the temptation of a sinful if pleasurable “knowledge”: “The guest waked from a dream, and remembering his day's pleasure [i.e., to capture the heron] hurried to dress” (xxii). Jewett's Adam here represents the curiosity and desire for a kind of knowledge—of the heron he intends to kill and place in his ornithological collection—which almost, but not quite, seduces her feminist Eve into a Fall from her innocent relation to nature, and results in the latter's Fall as well, the reification of nature implicit in his stuffing birds. More, with his money and knowledge “about the birds” which, like Eve's knowledge after she eats the forbidden fruit, temporarily promotes an illusory or “vaguely thrilled” (xviii) intimacy with a sexual partner, he tempts the woman in this revised version of the biblical primal scene. Even Milton's masculine Satan, who produces Eve's dream by first disguising himself as a “Toad” (Paradise Lost, IV, 800), becomes neutralized and distanced as a tempter by the story's reduction of him to a mere “hop-toad in the narrow footpath” (xvii).

“A White Heron,” then, (re)tells the story of how an exceptional woman—exceptional since even Mrs. Tilley accedes to the hunter's intention to “cage up” nature—resists such temptation and becomes representative of the woman radically “unrelated” to patriarchal stories of her inferior station in the order of creation. The male story of Paradise Lost here becomes a pretext for the female story of Paradise Regained. From the vantage of a subtly allusive Tree of Knowledge which the girl climbs by her “free will” or by her own “great design [which] kept her … awake and watching” (xix)—not, then, as in the Miltonic Eve's patriarchally produced dream—Jewett's Eve literally sees the “sea” for the first time; she sees “the dawning sun … and toward that glorious east … two hawks,” images, like the child herself, resonating with prelapsarian echoes. In climbing this “great” tree, Sylvia encounters and triumphs over its phallic power and resistance to becoming occupied by a girl, “her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she” goes “round and round the tree's great stem, higher and higher upward” (xx). We could argue that the woman here symbolically overcomes the patriarchal tradition's phallocentrically privileged claim on all modes of knowledge and comes to know “a vast and awesome world” outside this tradition. And so, aside from the story's substituting a feminist heroic Eve for a dominant, privileged Adam, we find it also substituting the exclusive value of a feminine regenerative relation to a traditionally feminine nature for a woman-provoked Fallen relation to a traditionally patriarchal God. We could also argue that it performs these substitutions through the effective agency of a female authorial persona who appeals to this nature to assuage the necessary loneliness incurred by the vision of radical feminine independence, a vision that continually requires nature to “tell your secrets to this lonely country child!” (xxiii). Such an agency itself exists as a revision of Milton's surrogate male agency in Paradise Lost, the Raphaelite messenger of the Judeo-Christian patriarchal God who can promise Adam and Eve only a deferred surcease from their present spiritual loneliness, their alienation from a prelapsarian awareness of nature which in Jewett's story pertains only to the “disappointed” hunter.

As I have suggested, recent feminist critical theories not only license but request that we ascribe such unlikely, ideologically motivated revisions to texts written by women writers. These ascriptions pertain especially to fiction by and for women of the nineteenth century whose “feminism” would not likely lead them to be fully aware of the extent to which they indeed were revising patriarchal ideological norms of their social identity both within and outside their fiction. In this context, the implausibility of such revisions must itself be regarded as evidence for the “degraded” position of women in Western patriarchal society, a position Fuller registers when she paraphrases Plato's view “that Man, if he misuse the privileges of one life, shall be degraded into the form of Woman; and then, if he do not redeem himself, into that of a bird.”32 Through Sylvia's figurative and anagrammatic association with the white heron, Jewett clearly “mimics” this descent—but in order to create a space for the woman to declare her radical sociosexual independence. And further, she could be said to reinforce this strategic mimetism through her “elusive” (xix) representation of both heron and heroine. As we have seen, Sylvia becomes allusively associated with major feminine figures borrowed and revised from patriarchal tradition: Artemis, Daphne, and Eve. And were we to emphasize how Sylvia alone seeks and finds this white heron, she also would become a kind of Virgin Mary who here generates her own immaculate conception, namely through the agency of a Holy Ghost-like bird which both inspires her with a self-dependent vision of nature precluding intercourse with the values of “the great world,” and itself eludes the discursive designs of patriarchal understanding as symbolized in “muted” fashion by the hunter's ornithological intentions.33

At the very least, as the tree-climbing episode almost literally proves, Sylvia as feminist heroine does not exhibit any fear of flying, that is, of determining her relation to life in terms which transcend her attraction to patriarchal terms, the “fancied triumph and delight and glory for the later morning when she could make known the secret!” (xix). Quite clearly a “child … brought up amid the teachings of the woods and fields, kept fancy-free by useful employment and a free flight into the heaven of thought,”34 she exemplifies the ideal feminist “maiden” which Fuller had compared to a bird not unlike the “rare bird” that Sylvia becomes associated with in “A White Heron.” Mothers, Fuller had gone on to say, should never “clip the wings of any bird that … finds in itself the strength of pinion for migratory flight unusual to its kind.”35 As mother to her story which she also refers to as a “her” (see p. 71 above), Jewett seems to have written a tale whose thematic referent interchangeably metamorphoses into a “heron,” a “heroine,” and a “her.” Could there be a better way to demonstrate the “migratory flight” of a feminist literary text?


But at least three problems arise with this radical feminist revision of “A White Heron.” The first has to do with the way even a feminist criticism can just as easily interpret the “secret,” non-confrontational feminist propaedeutic and the story's allusive feminist revisions in terms of its as signs of an impotent capitulation to, co-option by, or perhaps de facto complicity with a patriarchal ethos. The second concerns the desire of such criticism to posit the feminist allegorical subtext of Jewett's production of her story as the “secret” site of its true textuality; this displacement occurs not only in defiance of the story's reduced and revised representational signs suggesting its own allusive feminist subtext, but also in spite or in the face of this criticism's awareness of the difference between the “muted” and “dominant” elements of the text in question. The third problem relates to a contemporary critical aporia, namely the necessity of any critical theory to reproduce the text it criticizes in its own blind and insightful terms. Thus, one can question the radical or, in Adrienne Rich's terms, “lesbian” feminist critic's tendency to replace patriarchal standards of major literature, standards which have been invoked to reduce the value of women's writing, by gender-exclusive feminist standards which willy-nilly place a greater value on the act of feminist critical revision than on the literary text thus being used as a pretext for this critical narrative. In what if any sense could we maintain that “A White Heron” “deconstructs” its radical feminist meta-narrative—after, that is, one acknowledges its “deconstruction” of patriarchal appropriations?

As regards the first problem, radical feminist criticism should be only momentarily thwarted by a reactionary feminist interpretation of “A White Heron.” Such an interpretation could doubtless stress the implausibility or even egregious misreading which our exposition of the story's feminist revisions clearly entails when compared with its spare narrative surface; could perhaps cite the story's own implausible elements such as the child heroine's temptation by a mere ten dollars, or the unrealistic possibility of romance with an older, at least adolescent, “young man”; finally could point to the genteel literary context in which Jewett wrote her stories, one of whose ideologemes was a sentimentalized notion of childhood innocence.36 Thus, the girl's silent decision, a represented silence that the narrative doubles by its own hesitant (“who can tell?”) paratactic silence regarding this decision, could be understood as a regressive retreat from any putative revisionary feminist thematic. Instead of indicating “redemptive possibilities” or proffering an alternative feminine social model to a profit-oriented patriarchal American society through, say, an ideologically charged domestic topos, a viewpoint Nina Baym adopts when reading American women novelists before 1868, the “muted” ideological silences of this 1886 story concerning a farm run by an elderly woman may exemplify what Baym terms the “decline of women's fiction into girl's fiction.”37 Or these silences may serve to corroborate Ann Douglas's thesis about the “feminization” of American patriarchal culture. Jewett's heroine, who effectively chooses to remain in her “hermitage” at the end of the story, and even Jewett herself who relies on Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a text virtually disregarded by late-nineteenth-century feminists concerned with more practical political matters, here seem to deserve the pejorative rubric of “New England nun” insofar as they privilege a sentimentalized, idealistic moral code and remain silent about the “real” social issues facing contemporary adult women.38

Yet with Nancy Miller, we could regard the story's silences as signs of its antipatriarchal inscriptions. We could “italicize” both them and the story's apparently “unmotivated and unconvincing” depiction of Sylvia and the hunter's romantic relationship and claim they are only “inaudible to the dominant [i.e., patriarchal] mode of reception.”39 The little girl's silence throughout the story and especially when she refuses to tell the heron's secret would then touch on what Gilbert and Gubar identify as the “aphasia and amnesia … which symbolically represent (and parody) the sort of intellectual incapacity patriarchal culture has traditionally required of women.”40 Similarly, even Sylvia's “vaguely” drawn erotic feelings toward the hunter, feelings that generate the dilemma which frames the girl's decision as decisive, also lead us to a feminist register of meaning. Such erotic themes in women's fiction, according to Nancy Miller, actually conceal and serve to repress the woman writer's own “impulse to power … that would revise the social grammar in which women are never defined as subjects.”41 Moreover, far from constituting a descent “into girl's fiction” or representing Jewett's genteel acceptance of her proper, which is to say minor, literary place, both the story's child heroine and its diminutive genre invite us to revise them along the lines of Adrienne Rich's interpretation of Emily Dickinson's abbreviated poems. Such poems constitute acts of “self-diminutivization, almost to offset and deny—or even disguise—[Dickinson's] actual dimensions as she must have experienced them,” that is, “under pressure of concealment” from a patriarchal world.42

Feminist literary criticism, then, compels us to regard “A White Heron” as a “muted” feminist story within an already “muted” feminist story. The heroine's dilemma concerns Jewett's own need to construct, in Myra Jehlen's terms, “an enabling relationship with a language that of itself would deny [the woman writer] the ability to use it creatively.”43 We saw evidence of this need in Jewett's A Country Doctor where Nan Prince's obstacle-ridden attempt to become a physician—a vocation, like writing, which was restrictively available to women in the nineteenth century—more than likely reflects the obstacles Jewett encountered in choosing writing as a serious vocation.44 Even the way Dr. Leslie encourages Nan to become a doctor resembles the way Jewett's father encouraged her to read books and especially “tell the things just as they are” when writing them. Significantly for our present discussion, the novel ends at the point where Nan has not yet begun a practice of her own—as if, that is, the choice of vocation and not the vocational practice itself were its primary topic.

We could argue that “A White Heron” internalizes this prevocational topic even more. In this context, Sylvia's refusal to tell the heron's secret locale to the hunter represents Jewett's own refusal to write a story she identifies as feminine (“she isn't a very good magazine story, but I love her”) in terms of the prevailing esthetic mandates of the patriarchal “great world” as represented by W. D. Howells and others. Howells's preference for social realism, for example, presupposes access to major social issues from which, as Virginia Woolf would later note, nineteenth-century women were barred.45 Jewett's story, then, here becomes definable as an inverted feminist work which allegorizes its very mode of production. Her remarks in the letter cited in the previous chapter (p. 71) suggest that as a “romance” that deals with “every-day life after all,” “she” gets written precisely not to become “a very good magazine story,” i.e., for the marketplace pre-occupied by male editors, but rather to secure a “room of her own” for “her” author. Moreover, even with regard to “her” diminutive literary genre, “she” reproduces or secretly parodies a mode of fiction ironically intended to guarantee “her” minor literary fate before Jewett's canonically minded patriarchal literary contemporaries and twentieth-century supersessors.46 For the very reason that “A White Heron” could so easily be reduced in terms of patriarchal literary standards, its secret feminist allegorization of its production suggests that Jewett herself partakes of the girl's “spirit of adventure [and] wild ambition” (xix). In other words, inscribed within the story is Jewett's wish to produce major literature.47

In the end, however, such speculation about the story's doubly subsumed feminist identity and its status as an allegorical prolegomenon to Sarah Orne Jewett's own “major” literary ambition belongs more to radical feminist criticism's discursive wish to transform “A White Heron” into an ironic minor literary text than to the “muted” sexual signals traced in the tale itself. A lesbian-feminist criticism like that espoused by Adrienne Rich must perform a supererogatory critical act that, even as it resituates Jewett's text within a recoverable “lesbian continuum,” contradicts that same secret (and not merely “muted”) feminist thematic which justifies the consideration of this text as a text of “major” feminist importance. Rich's perspective suggests that Jewett could not have written her stories except by converting the everyday moral and local color topics, topics with which she was most familiar as a restricted nineteenth-century woman, into the topic of the ways “women have always resisted male tyranny,” or the “compulsory” (for the woman writer) patriarchal topic of heterosexual romance.48 This perspective allows feminist critics alone to “ask how [a past woman writer] came to be for-herself and how she identified with and was able to use women's culture, a women's tradition”; and it allows women critics to “identify images, codes, metaphors, strategies, points of stress, unrevealed by conventional criticism which works from a male mainstream perspective.”49 Surely Sylvia's silent sacrifice of heterosexual romance with the hunter, not to mention her anxious memory of a “great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her,” reveals such a point of stress, and thus justifies a radical feminist revision of Jewett's story.

But as Annette Kolodny argues, even a would-be revisionary feminist critic “must … be wary of reading literature as though it were a polemic and hence treating it as [she] would a manifesto or political tract.”50 To claim that Sylvia's silence has immanent gender-significant meaning in and through the narrative is not the same as claiming it has imminent referential meaning for women alone given their common experience of an underground secret life in patriarchal society. More important, to claim that this silence is gender determined as opposed to simply gender inflected within “a male mainstream perspective” is to violate its secret semiotic confrontation with male culture and/or its “lesbian” declaration of independence from this culture. The self-conscious metaphoricity that this self-conscious feminist critique would attribute to Sylvia's silence denies the very condition in terms of which it only may be appealing to a radical feminist mode of reception. For only if this secret is radical could it appear “unrelated” to any “male mainstream perspective.” Or what amounts to the same thing, only if it can be read as if it were immediately accessible to such a perspective—after all, even patriarchal readers can apprehend the relative feminist significance of Sylvia's secret—can the story paradoxically signify its doubly secret or radically feminist scene of writing to women readers intent on constructing “her” coherent feminist subtext.

The danger for such criticism, then, lies in the way its self-conscious methodology risks opening up an irreconcilable breach between its own reflective act and the putative “lesbian” reading of the story which conditions this act on pain of its reduction to mere speculation. Such criticism must maintain the radical value of the story's esthetic surface, no matter how self-coherent and persuasive its ideological revision may seem to a feminist critical audience, lest it become exposed to itself as a de facto “polemic,” a polemic that by definition would be no better than the variable critical avatars of “a male mainstream perspective.” Can feminist criticism, for example, avoid transferring the meaning of Sylvia's silence from a patriarchal mode of reception to a feminist counterpatriarchal mode of reception whose “secret” significance ultimately depends on its contingent, literally and self-consciously maintained sexual inaccessibility to the male critic or reader?

Some recent feminist critics assert the impossibility of such a task. “In claiming value for the devalued term of an opposition,” according to Elizabeth Berg, “one still allows the opposition to remain in place and to perpetuate the same order of relations.”51 In its “French” form, a feminist literary criticism would bracket women's writing as determined by literal gender differences, whether of authorship or characterizations. “Writing” alone expresses these differences, hence remains inaccessible both to traditional patriarchal modes of understanding and to their counterpatriarchal feminist revisions insofar as they polarize women's “essential” sexual identity. But even this notion of “writing,” which views woman as a trope or a “reading effect … never stable, without identity,” is comprehensible, as Alice Jardine argues, only to “the woman (feminist) reader.”52 Thus, although a feminist critic can recognize that her criticism “remains imbricated within the forms of [patriarchal] intelligibility … against which it pushes,” she still insists on interpreting “a text that seems to do her arguing … for her,” a text which—as Luce Irigaray claims, for example—“can only signify an excess or a deranging power” vis-à-vis patriarchal modes of writing.53 It is the woman author's, critic's, and/or story's relation to what seems an always already prior patriarchal network of writing that prompts, and defines as such, the woman's perpetual deconstruction of such writing. In ideological terms, women's “writing” transumes rather than is consumed by naturalized images of women and women's writing purveyed by a repeated patriarchal discursive practice. Indeed, since the woman suppressed in society through patriarchal discourse constitutes a secret to herself as well as others, she has the unique if ironic ability to experience a dialectically privileged priority in relation to this discourse that would fix her identity to herself and other women.

“Mimetism,” then, can apply to radical feminist critical practice as much as to the text it purports to explicate in feminist terms. And what looks like the conspicuous antithetical relation between a self-conscious feminist methodology and the “reading experience” of “A White Heron” here becomes feminist criticism's mimicking, at the level of critical discourse, of the story's esthetic expression of a secret feminism. The radical feminist codification of Jewett's story in terms of a counterpatriarchal critical discourse signifies less a self-conscious disagreement with what a patriarchal criticism would say or misrecognize about this story than a dialectically regained distance in “excess” of such criticism. In this sense, Jewett's heroine serves as an emblem for feminist criticism itself. On the one hand, she “only followed [the hunter], and there was no such thing as speaking first” (xix). On the other, she climbs the tree in secret and establishes a secret relation to the white heron. In the same way, the postgendered feminist critic mimics the teleological direction of patriarchal critical discourse to the extent of sometimes seeming complicit with it; but given her inconspicuous, relatively secret—even childlike—status within such discursive practice, she can climb above its openly propagated intentionalities of literary texts, intentionalities which minimize the value of literary texts written by and about women. More, she can establish a secret relation to “A White Heron” itself that remains beyond the epistemological ken of patriarchal understanding and critical discourse. Both feminist critic and woman writer thus concern themselves with uncovering discursive rooms of their own, secret spaces in excess of whatever critical paradigms exist at some given moment in literary as well as social patriarchal history. If only from this perspective, it becomes possible for the woman's literary text to communicate “without identity” to “the woman (feminist) reader” alone.54

But this postgendered feminist criticism must still signify to itself its act of tracing male-associated critical practices. To its women readers, it must emphasize its own unconventional citations of what Rich regards as already unconventional codes, metaphors, and strategies that permeate all women's literature. Otherwise, it would once more engage in the equivalent of a heterosexual romance with patriarchal criticism, albeit an unwitting, unwilling, if also subtly reactionary one. As it becomes more and more potentially misreadable by its own women readers, such criticism must acknowledge its “secret” relation to male-identifiable modes of criticism, that is, in ways that not only suggest its transcendence of them but also ensure that patriarchal criticisms can never know male or female literary texts as women readers and critics have ironically learned to do from their “compulsory” or coerced familiarity with masculine epistemologies. Thus, even a postgendered feminist criticism comes to depend on the gender-inflected signatures of its practitioners or tends to thematize its deconstructions of patriarchal projections of literary texts in gender-specific terms. And if only for the sake of economy, it concentrates its attention on women's literature traditionally overlooked in patriarchal canonical histories, a literature it would inversely elevate to “major” literary status according to standards immediately accessible to and apprehensible by women alone. Such self-identifying marks of an otherwise “without identity” or postgendered feminist criticism suggest that even the practice of mimetism, or, as Mary Jacobus recommends, ceaseless deconstruction, assumes a relatively secured or centered self-image of “woman” to perform such operations and to realize the sophisticated desideratum of a radically secret or “lesbian” relation to a story, say, like Jewett's “A White Heron.”

But perhaps such deconstruction could also lead to the extinction of the “woman,” person or trope, as a pretext for subtly reprivileging or fetishizing the hierarchical binary of major and minor literature. After all, such a resurgent binary not only would bar male critics from custody rights over Jewett's story, but would ironically place these critics virtually in the same “minor” discursive position as feminist criticism would argue defines Jewett's in producing this story. In that case, who indeed could claim ideological custody of “her”? The question comes down to whether writers or critics, male or female, can ever arrive at a sex-less and not merely nonsexist relation to a literary text and the issue of literary canonicity it seems perpetually to broach.


We could take the “muted” feminist elements of Jewett's story as one among other signs of its phenomenological retreat from radical feminist as well as patriarchal appropriations. A novitiate in her rural “hermitage,” the little girl comes to exemplify the values of “virtuous womanhood,” the reformist self-image of so-called nineteenth-century protestant nuns setting out to “tame” the perceived antisocial proclivities of males who would undermine the moral fabric of the family and, by extension, society at large.55 These values, especially respect for the other, whether human or natural, are shown to endure in the face of male-caused crises, for example the conflict between Dan and his father; Dan's abandonment of the farm due to his wanderlust or fortune hunting; and the Civil War which perhaps accounts for the absence, i.e., death, of Sylvia's father, and her mother's need to support her family alone. Yet as seems quite obvious, Sylvia's choice has only a tangential sociological applicability to the situation of magazine readers in the city for whom male promiscuity and/or the disintegration of family values were more explicit concerns. In affirming Sylvia's life in the country (“Bring your gifts …”), the story's unidentified narrator also seems to affirm Jewett's stated preference for “persons [who] could make themselves quiet and solitary nests”—not unlike the white heron's “hidden nest”—“and never wish to go out into the busy world again.”56

Jewett's writing thus seems to retreat from even the modest feminist elements suggested by her story. And this retreat becomes more noticeable in her representations of suggested adult heterosexual relationships. Writing to Willa Cather, she would later argue that the woman writer was unable to write from the first-person position of a “man's character,” for to do so “must always, I believe, be something of a masquerade.”57 But this admission about her non-heterosexual imagination does not account for the way her third-person narrative representations of heterosexual relationships tend to be not only de-eroticized but blurred by certain verbal maneuvers which further mitigate the “otherness” of characters to each other and to the reader. George Gerry, the prospective suitor of Nan Prince in A Country Doctor, has a name as “two-dimensional” as Richard Cary argues Jewett's characterization of him is.58 In A Marsh Island, a novel published one year before “A White Heron,” Jewett has two male characters—Dick Dale, a city-bred would-be artist, and Dan, a country boy—vie for the affections of Doris Owen, the daughter of a farmer who functions as a benign patriarchal figure for all three characters. Doris eventually chooses to marry Dan, but not before Dale's relationship to her is characterized as one of “brotherly” affection and her relationship to Dan Lester is based on his familiarity with the Owens' culture and family, particularly his having been the last person to see “his playmate,” Doris's brother, “fall” during a Civil War battle.59 Even these alliterative names, Doris, Dan, Dick Dale, George Gerry, strike one as unimaginative, blurring their gender distinctions or else underwriting their unimagined otherness as characters—as if they were children within the protective confines of a family rather than independent adults.

This process of regression to a childlike mode of representation, or said another way, this tendency of Jewett's writing to drift away from even the “virtuous” or modest feminist thematic, or the conventional heterosexual one, that A Country Doctor and A Marsh Island respectively invoke in the most explicit terms indicates Jewett's wish to produce a radical minor literature. Such literature becomes minor by the way she imagines its production, for example in the way she traces and tries to mitigate the feminist resonances of her representations. One way to write as if she were a child or literally a minor writer, that is, an ungendered persona whose imaginations are fictively in the process of avoiding impressment by adult sexual codes, is to reproduce a predominant child/parent relation either within her texts or in the very mode of her producing them. The expressions of this relation remain, of course, only latently autobiographical. Thus, the apparent irony of the feminist reference to the little girl's feeling in “A White Heron” that she could “have served and followed [the hunter] and loved him as a dog loves” becomes neutralized for Jewett, if not for the feminist critic, when apprehended first against the fictional precedent of the male Dan Lester's having “followed [Doris] about like a dog,”60 and second against the precedent of her own childhood experience with her beloved father as he visited his patients: “I used to follow him about silently, like an undemanding dog.”61

In her fiction written roughly around the time of “A White Heron,” this relation becomes thematically expressed in the way that Israel Owen, for example, the patriarch who defines the values in terms of which the other characters in A Marsh Island are judged, justifies his daughter's erratic behavior toward Dan by what could be apprehended as a stereotypical view of women: “Women's a kind of game: you've got to hunt 'em their own track, an' when you've caught 'em they've got to be tamed some.”62 Embedded in this stereotype of the male as hunter and the woman as huntable object lies the father's defending his daughter as an unconventional character—a subject who can only be “tamed some” and for whom marriage, an option that she must concern herself with, “goes sort of against [her] natur'.”63 To Dr. Leslie in A Country Doctor, Nan Prince also exhibits “untamed wildnesses” as she is growing up.64 As Nan's de facto father, he too appreciates his de facto daughter's difference from the other “village children,” regardless of their gender; he thus tells Mrs. Graham, his longtime confidante in Oldfields who will later serve as Nan's reading companion, that given Nan's native “self-dependence and unnatural self-reliance,” it “is a mistake for such a woman to marry. Nan's feeling toward her boy playmates is exactly the same as toward the girls she knows.”65 In both cases, then, though to different degrees, Jewett represents fathers whose “untamed” daughters they exempt from patriarchal institutions or conventions which these fathers thus only appear to represent by virtue of their social and/or sexual identities. And in the case of Dr. Leslie, as we have already seen, this exemption leads to the daughter's entering an elite profession by the end of the novel, but a profession which has not yet removed her from the “old fields” of his “country doctor” world.

Nan's daughterly relation to Dr. Leslie and his mode of professional practice quite obviously reflects Jewett's relation to her father and his homespun poetic advice to her to “tell the things just as they are,” that is, in terms of her regionalist experiences or her familiarity as a woman with “every-day” topics. But A Country Doctor suggests that this relation itself can become the primary focus of Jewett's writing. In “A White Heron,” for example, Jewett-as-narrator, just like Dr. Leslie with Nan, allows Sylvia time to absorb the “gifts and graces” and “secrets” of nature by herself or before she will have to enter “the great world” of heterosexually defined relationships prefigured by her experience with the hunter. In this sense, the narrational modus operandi of the story thus internalizes the father/daughter relation.

But even supposing that a child/parent relation not only effectively displaces adult heterosexual and antiheterosexual representational occasions in Jewett's writing, but also generates the conditions which facilitate a phenomenological scene of “minor” writing at a step removed from being understood as a scene of minor or major feminist righting, why would a woman writer adopt a paternal as opposed to maternal authorial relation to a little girl character? Certainly Jewett's avowed “love” for her story—for “her”—suggests such a maternal relation.66 Biographically speaking, though Jewett seldom refers to her in letters, her relation to her mother, an intelligent woman who encouraged her children to read,67 hardly seems to have been troubled. And yet in the two novels and story under consideration, mothers and mother figures play secondary roles, and even appear as obstacles to their daughter's or daughter figure's “untamed wildnesses.” The materialistically motivated Mrs. Owen, with her “undercurrent of dislike,” encourages a match between Doris and the wealthy Dale, then accepts Dan as a mate for Doris when she learns he has inherited property.68 Aunt Nancy, as I have suggested, functions as A Country Doctor's melodramatic antagonist in attempting to make Nan abandon her vocational ambition for marriage. Mrs. Graham, who Cary thinks functions as Nan's mother and was in fact modeled after Jewett's mother,69 exercises only an indirect influence on Nan and serves as a foil to Dr. Leslie who has a more central fatherly relation to her, as when she predicts the girl “will be a most lovely, daughterly, friendly girl, who will keep you from being lonely as you grow older.”70 And of course the otherwise benign Mrs. Tilley, the mother-substitute grandmother in “A White Heron” who in feminist terms could help the daughter gain her independence from her actual mother without devaluing the latter, “rebukes” Sylvia for her silence or failure to speak the language of “the great world.”71 Indeed, in this story and A Country Doctor, the mother per se literally vanishes from the text. Sylvia has left her mother and siblings to live with a grandmother from whom the girl becomes figuratively separate. Nan's mother dies in the first pages of the novel, her maternal grandmother a few pages later. Thus are emphasized Sylvia's exclusive relation to the narrator, and the widowed and childless Dr. Leslie's exclusive fatherly relation to Nan.

Doubtless we could account for Jewett's aversion in these works to representing the mother/daughter relation in neo-Freudian as well as ideological feminist terms. In a patriarchal society such as Jewett's, the father and not the mother holds privileged (“phallic”) access to its forms. The girl thus wishes to identify with her father rather than with the socially castrated mother whom she can “resent” and come to “turn away from … altogether.”72 Or in more strict psychoanalytic terms, at the oedipal stage, a stage which establishes the paradigm that will govern her future adult relationships with men and women, the girl but not the boy “can transfer her sexual attentions from her mother to her father [and] can want first his phallus, and then by … analogy, his baby”73—or in the displaced sexual medium of a female literary artist, “his” text. But such a situation need mandate not so much the girl's resentment as her ambivalence toward the mother since, as Nancy Chodorow has argued, the daughter can more easily identify with her mother than the son with his father; only the son, that is, must give up or postpone the narcissistic project of wanting the mother.74 In the normal course of ego development the girl must liberate herself from her infantile or egoless relation to the preoedipal mother so that at the oedipal stage she can desire the father's phallus, the symbol of power (rather than object of envy) which allows this liberation to occur.75 The girl here splits her “internal image [of the preoedipal mother] into good and bad aspects” and goes on to free herself or gain self-identity from this “overwhelming” mother by “project[ing] all the good-object qualities … onto her father as an external object and onto her relationship to him.”76 But again, this transference of “libidinal” attachment from preoedipal mother to oedipal father does not require the devaluation of the female child's sense of her feminine identity; on the contrary, her love for her father literally depends on her prior relation to the mother, so that this love does not take place “at the expense of, or [as] a substitute for, her attachment to her mother.”77

As her other works—especially The Country of the Pointed Firs—and her benign relation to her mother show in fact, so these explanations show in theory that the mother/daughter relation exists as a viable option for Jewett to have adopted in reproducing a “minor” relation to writing. If she privileges the father/daughter relation in these three works, it probably concerns more her wish to postpone her identification with adult or postoedipal mother figures than some outright aversion to such figures. For an adult woman, of course, such postponement would entail a fantasized regression, a replay of the little girl's energic transfer of love onto the father and also a return to a time when she could still postpone her “real” conscription into an adult womanhood which, as her women friends and close relationship to her two sisters show, she otherwise accepts and even embraces.78 In imaginative terms, mother figures like Mrs. Owen, Mrs. Graham, Aunt Nancy, Sylvia's mother and grandmother signify the inevitability of the daughter's fate to become an adult woman. This fate, no doubt, seems all the more onerous because of its patriarchal restrictions and/or the possibility of the girl's becoming a mother herself with its attendant losses, as suggested by Mrs. Tilley's “family sorrows” and Sylvia's mother's economic plight in supporting her family by herself.79 Conversely, a father figure like Dr. Leslie, though identifiable with this same fate, signifies a threshold situation for the daughter, that is, only the possibility of entering a world of adult heterosexual relationships. Indeed, Dr. Leslie's “country” practice entails a choice not to enter this world, for he rejects the advice of his medical colleagues to realize his scientific abilities in the city.80

Thus, we can argue that both Nan's prevocational status at the end of A Country Doctor and Sylvia's choice effectively to remain a preadolescent in “A White Heron” reflect their exclusive relations to “fathers”—the narrator in the case of this story. Such relations serve as screen images, in psychoanalytic terms, of these daughter figures's respective desires to return to and remain within that transitional psychosexual space between preoedipal and oedipal self-identity. Jewett's fictional fathers allow Nan, Sylvia, and to a lesser extent Doris (Mr. Owen accepts the possibility of her relationship to the cosmopolitan Dale even as she comes to choose the world of her father's Marsh Island through the brotherlike Dan) to glimpse and even choose “the great world” of adult heterosexual relationships, but in the end also to retain their preadult “untamed wildnesses” or identities.

Yet for Jewett, clearly, the presence of a father figure in either a representational or a concealed narrational sense must strike an incestuous semiotic note as well as connote, if only unconsciously, literal sex differentiations to an adult woman writer who so exclusively privileges the father/daughter relation. One could argue that the incest taboo functionally precludes, for example, her production of a text as “his” substitute “baby,” in Mitchell's words. But at the same time, such oedipal repression of a fantasized, fictionally mediated project of regression still leads the daughter to seek male substitutes, especially the adult “man … to give her [her father's] baby.”81 That this project appears as a project is clear from the way Jewett not only represents her heroines's choices of an exclusive father/daughter relationship over other adult hetero- and non-heterosexual options, but stresses these choices by banishing literal fathers just as much as mothers, without, nevertheless, erasing the crucial function of the father figure. In order not to write a “baby” text, in other words to distance her own awareness of the exclusive father/daughter relation, she tries to make it a substitutive or only allusively inscribed relation, in this way pushing its immediate connotations of adult sexual differentiation out of representational sight.

Thus, like her mother, Nan's actual father is dead but substitutively present through her patronymic name, Prince. This patronymic further reminds us that her daughterly relation to Dr. Leslie is nonbiological, nonmandatory, hence a “distant” relation, also emphasized by the fact that he neither tries to adopt her legally nor assumes the conventional role of the authoritative patriarchal father in bringing her up. Moreover, Nan in effect rejects her patrimony by refusing to live permanently with her paternal Aunt Nancy, and in this way becomes distanced even further from her already dead father. A similar distancing relation obtains in “A White Heron” where a surnameless Sylvia, whose father may be dead but is in any case absent from the narrative, lives with her maternal grandmother, i.e., without a grandfather and apart from a mother whose husband the narrative would have had to account for as it does for Mrs. Tilley's husband. Even in A Marsh Island where a father plays a dominant role, we could argue that Doris's attraction to Dick Dale and Dan, both of whose fathers are dead, concerns, as we have seen, a “brotherly” duo that reminds us how in this patriarchal world the father/daughter relation has less value than what would have been a more primary father/son relation.

Still, as Mr. Owen and Dr. Leslie show, even the distanced substitute father figure can turn into a signifier of the daughter's inevitable transformation into an adult woman in fact (marriage) or in effect (vocation). Simply for a prose writer to “name the behavior of an individual,” according to Sartre, involves “naming it to all others” who, at least in the case with Jewett's two novels, are synonymous with an adult understanding of these works.82 Such naming, the sheer fact of representing father figures, inevitably must affect her very imagination of these works' putatively regressive projects. In an autobiographical sense, this “adult” recovery of the father as a median figure who helps introduce the daughter to nonpejorative heterosexual “behavior” but mitigates the necessity of her conforming to it equally applies to Jewett's representation of her substitute daughters. For example, on one level the already distanced daughter Nan's distanced relation to her patrimony works to repress—but in order, here, to express—the absent presence of a pure or preadult father/daughter relation. But on another level, Dr. Leslie's support of her vocational desire—albeit a desire that must lead to a self-reliant kind of heterosexual adulthood—and her rejection of her patrimony would each risk reminding Jewett of her own situation as a writer, namely of her country doctor father's support of her vocation, and of the patrimony which, from the beginning of her career, allowed her to regard writing as “not a bread and butter affair with me.”83

If the literal-minded “substitute” strategies of the two pre-“A White Heron” novels conspire to make fragile Jewett's desire to produce literature as a “minor” as opposed to an adult woman writer, that is, through a mantra-like projection of the father/daughter relation, such does not appear to be the case with “A White Heron” itself. Here, we have argued, a purely narrational or anonymous father/daughter relation helps constitute the story's “minor” mode of production. Or here Jewett relies on writing per se, writing in the (Lacanian) “name of the father” or of the linguistically dispersing Symbolic, to misrecognize the adult associations tied to any explicit representation of the father/daughter relation; to shred potential Imaginary identifications with maternal or paternal figures; in short, to elude “the biologistic reduction of the Law of the Dead Father to the rule of the actual, living male” or what amounts to the occasion of adult gender differentiations, even of a feminist or counterpatriarchal cast.84 The Lacanian notion of “writing” can help us see how the story disperses rather than substitutes an explicit paternal position, if only to include this (non)position in a repressed or unconscious manner.

Doubtless we can attempt to rewrite “A White Heron” in terms of such “wild” psychoanalytic behavior. But if writing, in the words of Geoffrey Hartman, attenuates all “fixative spectral event[s],” and instead induces the writer to accept “the (absent) father … basically … the mediacy of words [and] a genuine recognition of difference,” we will need to question even our identification of Jewett's anonymous, only surmisably paternal narrator as the fixed locus from which she inscribes a dyadic father/daughter relation in this story.85 Writing endlessly refracts rather than compulsively repeats Imaginary projects like Jewett's; at the very least, writing in the name of the father should avert any unconscious desire to fetishize this “(absent)” paternal muse. In writing, then, Jewett cannot produce a guaranteed, unmitigated “minor” literature. Since writing precludes “some unique reduction to … one fixative spectral event,”86 she cannot use it to reestablish even a discursively defined daughterly relation toward a metafatherly narrator who—just like the elliptically androgynous neo-Freudian father who represents, even as he displaces, the preoedipal mother for the little girl,—would regressively postpone her identity as a gender-differentiated, adult woman writer.

If Jewett cannot “write” from any secured position of the absent father, in this way becoming interchangeably “his” daughterly amanuensis, neither can she even indirectly represent this static but reversible dyadic relation through a writing-induced identification with Sylvia alone. This identification becomes apparent through her substitute narrator's “pathetic” interjections throughout the story (e.g., “look, look! … wait! wait! … little girl” [xxi]; through her avowed “love” for “her,” the heroine-identified story itself; and through Jewett's middle-aged birthday confession of feeling “always nine years old,” the age of Sylvia. Indeed, this identification verges on explicit self-reference, hence subject to Jewett's adult understanding and the demise of her “minor” project, that is, to write as if she were a minor shielded from adulthood by the protective father. Her own father died in 1878, a father whose poetic advice (“tell the things”) we find her reiterating throughout her life—a father thus quite literally associated with her writing per se. If we date her own life from the date of her father's absence or death, she would have been virtually the same age as Sylvia when writing “A White Heron” in 1886.

In short, we could maintain that just as Sylvia can “look upon the cow's pranks as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek” (xiii), so does Jewett need to deploy “writing” in relation to her feminized text. “Writing” serves to repress by dispersing and defetishizing the recognizable verbal sites of the father/daughter relation which would otherwise regenerate an apperceivable specular project, a compulsive narcissistic quest that in effect would promise to repeat her ensuing oedipalized growth into a sex-differentiated adult woman. Thus, the writing of “A White Heron” at best can realize her project to produce a “minor” literature only subliminally, whether because of the sexual-ideological allusions and possible readings of her text, or because of her own psychic temptations to specularize the dyad that would veto this “adult” semiosis.

In a sense, the precedent for examining “A White Heron” in such terms is afforded by A Country Doctor. There Jewett retreats from her father/daughter substitutions by “writing” and not only by mere representational distancing. There she inscribes her “minor” project by virtually tearing up her proper name, a “specular name” whose “repetition … gives rise to texts that seem to be anagrammatic or to conceal an unknown-unknowable key, a ‘pure’ signifier.”87 Nan Prince's very name suggests the father/daughter relation. “Prince” signifies both a patriarchal surname and superior masculine status in relation to other males, precisely the formulation used by Nan to defend the woman's right to enter a male-dominated profession (pp. 75–76 above). The feminine name “Nan” constitutes a diminutive form of “Nancy,” the adult name by which the narrative refers to the already distanced mother figure, Aunt Nancy. “Nan Prince” thus virtually signifies daughter and father.

We could also maintain that since “Sarah” means “princess,” Nan's last name reflects Jewett's unconscious paternalization of her first name, a paternalization rather than heterosexual masculinization since “Prince” points to a daughter's barely disguised sense of the father's privileged, capitalized—but not King-like—identity in relation to other adult males who are effectively excluded from this relation. Thus, “Nan Prince” figuratively tears up its already submerged “specular” allusion to a father/daughter relation and instead inscribes Jewett's own “unknown-unknowable” self-reference to a more intimate, more linguistically concealed father/daughter relation. Indeed, Jewett's actual but unused first name was Theodora, the feminization of her father's name Theodore. Quite literally, then, she would always be writing her name in the name of her absent father; or what here comes down to the same thing, she would always be reinvoking a relation whose unconscious “repetition” in a fictional character like Nan Prince remains as concealed from her as from friends and readers bound to identify her in terms of her sex-differentiating first name, the feminine “Sarah,” and the patronymic “Jewett.” Jewett's very signature thus helps her reproduce a childlike authorial anonymity, an absent father/daughter relation, which, far from indicating a “muted” feminist grievance, here momentarily eludes would-be feminist and patriarchal ideological conscriptions alike.


Turning the dead father into the Dead Father, Jewett unconsciously deconstructs her story's potentially adult, which is to say potentially “major,” sexual-ideological signs precisely in the act of writing “her.” But Jewett's text must also deconstruct this deconstructive project lest it confess the adult perspective from which she desires to produce a pure minor literature. Otherwise, “A White Heron” would again become subject to the adult or major hierarchical codes of ideological significance that always have engendered this desire, codes which the story already seeks to displace by the more neutralized and neuterized binary thematic of a child's versus an adult's (Mrs. Tilley's as well as the hunter's) relation to nature. To be sure, “A White Heron,” as we have seen, invites the imposition of such adult codes. But it does so in a way that throws the burden on the reader, as if leaving the writer a space, albeit only momentarily since even this space can be ideologically reappropriated—for example, by feminist narratives of the woman writer's situation—in which she alone can sense the in-significance of her representations.

Thus, Jewett's text relies on a series of word-scattering tropes inviting, according to the conventions of her time, closures both simple and sophisticated. On one level, for example, Sylvia's decision not to tell either the hunter or Mrs. Tilley the heron's habitat strikes us as an adult decision in a possibly antipatriarchal as well as probably moral sense. Yet both the narrator's rhetorical question (“who can tell?”) concerning the value of this decision and the girl's silence which “represents” it suggest its provisional status for the story's anonymously removed writer. More crucial is the narrative ellipsis between the time Sylvia climbs down from the tree intending to tell the stranger the heron's secret—she thinks about “what he would think when she told him” (xxii)—and the dramatic last scene where “she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away” (xxii). Again, the reader can attribute her change of mind to morality, sentiment, and/or American transcendentalism, in short the conventional ideological respect for nature indigenous to the historical and geographical situation of the story. But considering Jewett's avowed awareness of the conventions of “realism” surrounding this story's resistant “romance” identity, this ellipsis, marked as such by the text's spacing, signifies a narrative silence which not only duplicates Sylvia's in the next scene, but equally points to a withheld space in which the decision occurs not to represent her decision-making process, i.e., to let the reader do the decision making instead of the writer. Moreover, in the next scene the reader becomes further distracted from the elliptical or absent locus of “real” decision making when the narrative displaces Sylvia's decision by implying that it took place before her initial silence as she faces both her “fretfully” rebuking grandmother and “the young man's kind appealing eyes” (xxii). Only after this first silence, the putative result of her (unrepresented) thoughts when returning to the farm, does Sylvia remember “how the white heron came flying through the golden air” or the narrative suggest why she “cannot … give its life away” (xxii).

Such motivated rhetorical spacing occurs especially in relation to Jewett's inscription of the father/daughter relation. We could argue that Jewett first identifies and disidentifies with Sylvia by means of her name. The surnameless “Sylvia” stands as a torn up homonymic of “Sarah”—“S———a(h)”—a phonetic surrogate which the narrative deemphasizes by having Sylvia, no less than the two adults, refer to herself as “Sylvy.” Such unnaming or even nonnaming reinvokes even as it invokes the father-as-author/daughter-as-character relation. It allows Jewett to unimagine herself en passant in the place of Sylvia, just as “writing” allows her to unimagine a paternalistic relation to the girl when as narrator she effectively adopts the position of Sylvia whom she helps discover the heron (“Now look down again, Sylvia … there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again” [xxi]) and both underwrites and identifies the moment the little girl makes her (contextually indeterminate) decision: “No, she must keep silence!” (xxii). Able to serve as a conduit through which the reader has the illusion of an unmediated apprehension of Sylvia in such scenes, Jewett's “pathetic” narrator also literally displaces the reader's proximity to the girl's thoughts or actions. This rhetorical strategem interposes a space, a space occupied by a narrator bound to be overlooked as such and so still a space to the writer, that protects both the girl and the writer's relation to her from being regarded in adult, i.e., in explicit child/parent, terms, Moreover, in the scene where Sylvia climbs the tree, the narrative deploys an elusive spatiolinguistic imagery which refracts further the implicit child/parent relation between Sylvia and the narrator. Here the narrator adopts a childlike position and places Sylvia in the parental position by describing the girl at the top of the tree as if perceiving her “from the ground” (xxi).

Incipient metaphors and metamorphoses reducible to metonymies that displace the former's only possible and in any case prerepresentational objectifications of the father/daughter relation, such define the tropological strategies of “A White Heron,” its flight from adult determinations becoming as “elusive” as the bird it represents.88 The story assiduously multiplies the various metaphorical adumbrations of this relation beyond the narrator's relation to Sylvia. For example, we have already seen how the narrative rhetorically tends to identify the “pale” heroine with the heron. Her birdlike associations are made explicit: when she climbs the tree, “her bare feet and fingers … pinched and held like bird's claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up” (xx). Atop the tree, “the solitary gray-eyed child” with a “brave, beating heart” like a bird's sees hawks with “gray feathers” and feels “as if she too could go flying away among the clouds” (xxi). But the possible metaphorical identification between Sylvia and the heron occurs most clearly when both of them perch on similar trees: “[the heron] comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. And wait! wait! … for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours” (xxi).

This juxtaposition, this literal metonymy verging on metaphor or metamorphosis of Sylvia and the heron, could easily resolve itself into a metaphor of the father/daughter relation. Sylvia's “longed-for white heron” that here flies “beyond” her is not only male but assumes a royal or “crested” appearance to the girl and the narrator. He adumbrates a kind of princelike father figure previously discussed, in this story a figure to whom the daughter will—on the basis of a privileged, literally exclusive and privately witnessed relation to him—express more “loyalty” than to the adult hunter, the would-be heterosexual substitute of the father. At the same time, however, the vulnerability of the heron to the hunter, his obvious but also unconscious dependence on her for protection from adult designs and sheer survival, puts him in a childlike relation to her. Moreover, just as the reader begins to focus on this “close” spatiosymbolic identification of the heron and heroine in this scene, one also encounters the fact that he “goes by” and perches on another tree. In short, their potentially metaphorical relation literally becomes metonymical or contiguous. Even this relation gets displaced onto another when the heron “cries back to his mate on the nest” (xxi), a displacement which further subsumes yet one more possible father/daughter relation. After all, Sylvia must first “look down” to see “the white heron's nest in the sea of green branches” (xxi). Atop contiguous trees, then, both Sylvia and the male heron, like parents, are in the process of looking down to this necessarily smaller-appearing—and so childlike—“mate.” Another white heron whose sex we can infer as female and whose nest will lead the reader quickly to suppose she is a mother or mother-to-be (since no young are mentioned), she nevertheless remains representationally sexless, thus a possible if improbable (hence “secret”) adumbration of a daughter figure.

Jewett's story also traces this configuration with its other protagonistic “character,” the “great pine-tree.” As we have seen, Sylvia's name etymologically associates her with this tree; but more important, no less than the “longed-for white heron” the tree appears as an object of desire for her, especially at the moment she begins to climb it:

She had always believed that whoever climbed to the top of it could see the ocean; and the little girl had often laid her hand on the great rough trunk and looked up wistfully at those dark boughs that the wind always stirred, no matter how hot and still the air might be below. Now she thought of the tree with a new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover whence the white heron flew, and mark the place … ?


As I argued earlier, just as this tree becomes the means by which she sees the white heron, so in thematic terms does her implacable, tree-like silence become the means by which the reader apprehends the value of “A White Heron” itself.

But it is the narrative's deployment of the trope prosopopoeia, here, which “marks the place” or traces the Imaginary locus of “A White Heron.” The male-personified tree resembles the trees Jewett in her earlier sketches often regards in parent/child and particularly fatherly terms: poplar trees that look like “a little procession of a father and mother and … children out for an afternoon walk”;89 a tree that, although apparently “stunted and dwarfed” when young, comes to “grow tall and strong, and in [its] wealth of usefulness [has become] like some of the world's great men who rose from poverty to kingliness. … The great tree is a protection to a thousand lesser interests.”90 In fact this “great tree” could easily be “an ancient pitch pine,” the kind which Jewett likes “better than any trees in the world.”91 Clearly, the “stately head” of the “great” masculinized pitch pine in “A White Heron” that “towered above” all other trees in his vicinity (xix) could similarly connote attributes of fatherly “kingliness.” Metaphorically speaking, like a father who “must have loved his new dependent,” the “old pine” (xxi) also protects the little girl from “lesser interests” by exclusively taking her above the “hot and still” world synonymous with both the hunter's and Mrs. Tilley's human society.

But whether pertaining to the heron or the tree, this rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia humanizes and virtually makes present its non-human referent even as it invokes an “imaginary or absent person … represented as speaking or acting.”92 If it here invokes the absent father in relation to a little “solitary” daughterlike girl, Jewett's narrative also absents an already absent father by assigning the “old pine” with grand-fatherly connotations. Moreover, the narrative (dis)places this (absent) fatherly tree in relation to “the white oak tree that grew alongside” it (xx), in other words, in the same manner as the heron with his mate. Again the spatial arrangement of the two trees metonymically situates Sylvia and the paternal object above a smaller and non-sex-denominated object. The unpersonified oak tree's nestlike features (a bird nests there and Sylvia herself “was almost lost among the dark branches and the green leaves” [xx]), along with its much lesser physical size, also could suggest a maternal figuration. Indeed, we could maintain that in climbing this tree to get to the pine tree, Sylvia in effect outlines the daughter's process of eclipsing the mother (the mother whose presence in family romance interferes with the girl's exclusive claims on the father) here represented by the oak tree, one of whose “upper branches chafed against the pine trunk” (xx). Yet the tropological scattering of this relational situation also allows us to surmise that this genderless “white oak” represents an elusive signifier of the daughter, like Sylvia and like the white heron's mate in relation to their en passant (merely possible) father-personified signifiers.

In both cases, Sylvia as transcending the mother or as retracing her own daughterhood, the narrative focus here remains on the daughter's experience of the transition from a mother to father nature, an experience that will become doubled in her sighting of the white heron. This transition, this interchangeable occupation of the roles of father to daughter or daughter to father in the crucial scenes of the story and which we could thus cite as “her” displaced Imaginary scene of writing, ritualistically repeats an absent primal transfer of the daughter's affection from preoedipal mother to oedipal father. This transfer is fraught with the possibility that the tropologically subsumed father might disappear altogether, that is, might cancel the project before it has even begun to realize the daughter's regression to a presexual self-identity: “There, when [Sylvia] made the dangerous pass from one tree to the other, the great enterprise would really begin” (xx). Akin to a regression from a more immediate symbol of regression, the absent-fatherly pine tree itself constitutes only a transition to the absent-fatherly white heron whom Sylvia at this point in the story cannot be certain she will see.

In the second place, the very tropes which elicit this regression to a preadult-alias-preadolescent moment of self-identity could defeat this project by also serving as memos of co-possible configurations of adult sexuality. Who can miss not merely the general significance but the phenomenologically evocative details of Sylvia's climbing the phallic tree? She begins “with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame”; once begun, “the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree's great stem” until the “tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up” (xx). And once up the tree, quite clearly, she experiences a kind of climax, first with the two hawks, when she feels “as if she too could go flying away among the clouds,” and then with the equally phallic white heron at the moment when to Sylvia he “grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last … with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head.” Such libidinal investments of the two central fatherly tropes of Jewett's story could be regarded as paradoxically lessening its psychosexual associations. For example, they also serve to displace the little girl's “vaguely thrilled” sexual relation to the adult hunter whose gun poses an explicit phallic threat to her and explicit sexual issue to “her,” the narrative itself. Whereas the hunter's “determined, and somewhat aggressive” whistle (xv) and “the sharp report of his gun” overtly threaten Sylvia even by their very sounds, the tree's “sharp dry twigs” that “scratched her like angry talons” (xx) and the heron's sudden resurrection from the “dark hemlocks” (xxi) lead her to experience a sex-muted exclusive relation to nature in the guise of a radically sublimated absent father who, in the merely speculative terms of the narrative, “must have loved his new dependent.”

Representationally, her closest physical contact with a phallus-associated figure occurs with the tree, that is, an inanimate object least associated with adult human sexuality. Similarly, as we have seen, the narrative displaces the phallic heron's epiphanic appearance before Sylvia by calling attention to his relation to his mate, his “cries” of love for another, an exclusive relation which, insofar as it also signifies a possible sexual relation, gets dispersed when “the solemn heron goes away” because “of shouting cat-birds” (xxi). More important, Sylvia's climactic apprehension of the heron's resurrected appearance occurs through metonymized or peripheral representations rather than as a focused metaphorical epiphany: “a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger” (xxi). Both Sylvia and the narrator do not properly focus on him until his sexual motion, as it were, has become quieted into the visually neutralized image of him “perched on a pine bough not far beyond.” Indeed, the force of this scene as a climactic scene for the little girl's sublimated sexual desire, an unconscious desire to lose her virginity and thus enter the world of adolescence, has all along been deprivileged by prior narrative information that she “had once stolen softly near where [the heron] stood in some bright green swamp grass” (xvii) and that “where you saw the white heron once you will see him again” (xxi).

In short, the narrative's sex-lessening tropological movements, not to mention the girl herself, identify “her” as a “harmless housebreaker” (xx) into the sexual thematic associated with producing adult literature, a thematic the story simultaneously traces and withdraws from. No doubt we could add “emphasis,” in Nancy Miller's words, to this withdrawal, just as we could revise Sylvia's climactic experience with the heron according to the aforementioned radical feminist positions. We could even displace it by an archetypal interpretation of this experience. Thus, Sylvia's climbing the “great main-mast to the voyaging earth” (xx), itself an archetypal figuration of primal intercourse between the sky and earth, leads to her divine, Leda-like rape by a swanlike heron from which she gains a transcendental or sacred vision of nature that she is incapable of communicating (hence, her silence) to the profane ears of the hunter and Mrs. Tilley.93 But such an interpretation already constitutes a sublimation of the more phenomenologically contingent sexual connotations of the passage. And insofar as the story withdraws from this sexual thematic by reiterative tropological options, its absenting projections of the absent-father/absent-daughter relation, whether in terms of the trans-parental narrator, personified tree, or white heron, outline the narrative's project to tell its story from the Imaginary perspective of a time before such feminist and/or archetypal codifications would become necessary.

In this sense, the “lonely country girl” at the end of the story stands as the story's own desire for preoedipal or sex-less self-identity. If the girl's climbing the fatherly tree connotes anything, it is the “tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of” the narrative's “whole frame.” In the same way, Sylvia's private climactic experience with the fatherly white heron allegorizes the narrative's own autoerotic impulses, its exclusion from this representational scene not only of the hunter and Mrs. Tilley but also of the reader who putatively witnesses it with the narrator. As we have argued, the narrator's “look, look!” preempts the reader's position, his or her direct apprehension of the girl's here climactic moment. The narrator effectively keeps this scene private in the process of writing it. And insofar as the narrative attempts to situate itself in a time before sexual time began, this narrational masturbatory activity can also deny the supersession of masturbation within a woman's psychosexual history, its reduction to secondary status in adult women subliminally cognizant of its regressive, i.e., not vaginal, significance.94 Indeed, this narrational figuration of a private masturbatory act “in the name of the father” can be considered yet another strategy for returning to the locus of the preoedipal daughter's effort “to differentiate her body from her mother's and to establish herself as an active, autonomous source of satisfaction.”95

We can argue, then, that in “A White Heron” Jewett inscribes her wish to realize a sex-less site of literary production by substituting her heroine's experience with the heron, whom she chooses over the adult male hunter and Mrs. Tilley, and by means of tropes that objectify the father/daughter relation in veritably unconscious ways. But this objectification remains participial rather than “fixative.” If Sylvia's tree climbing surrealistically outlines climbing the father from a child daughter's point of view, it also outlines a would-be daughterly writer's writing in terms of the metonymical proximity of an absent paternal figure “who” will allow her to grow up—just as Sylvia literally grows up when climbing the tree—in a way that quells any adult definitions of sexual self-identity. As long as she writes in terms of this adult-excluding dyad, Jewett can play at writing, can write as if she were indeed a “minor” writer in the same way that Sylvia plays with the cow as “amusement with a good deal of zest.” She can even inscribe her name through the story's three protagonistic images: S-y-l-v-i-a as S-a-r-a-h; heron as anagram of Orne; the tree as a veritable family tree, a “great main-mast” metonym of the “Jewett” patrimony as first established by early patriarchal shipbuilders.96 Significantly, this patrimony gives Jewett financial independence—a room of her own, as it were—to write without working and more important without getting married or entering “the great world” of heterosexuality and/or its feminist discontents.

On the one hand, the absent father allows such unconscious anagrammatic inscriptions to take place—here the scattered inscription of her name that signifies Jewett's desire to identify herself as a “minor” writer of this story once and for all. But on the other hand, as we have seen, this absent father requires constant invocation of his minimum still small voice, resurrected through submerged metonymies and prosopopoeias as well as narrational silences, lest “he” disappear and thus frustrate this project by leaving it open to adult sexual determinations—including Jewett's own—and leaving it also minus the (only past) father/daughter intentionality which once defined the production of “A White Heron.” In short, here the issue of adult sexuality becomes coterminous with the issue of the story's possible textuality before others, a quite literal textuality that supersedes her “writing” and will lead Jewett defensively to remark, “But I love her,” after she has written the story. As an allegory of its own production, “A White Heron” ultimately encounters the materiality of discourse interfering with its thus only contingent allegorization. Jewett's identification with Sylvia, for example, would reflect her desire to gain a “secret” relation to her story in the same way that the girl herself witnesses, but for some indefinite reason cannot tell, the white heron's secret: “What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb?” (xxii). Like Sylvia, Jewett cannot give away the secret father/daughter relation of the story without at the same time giving “its life away”; she cannot express without destroying her private relation to a paternal muse that “came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together” as she writes, that is, her unconscious memory of the pristine moment or “morning” of the girl's transition from preoedipal to oedipal daughter. The story, in fact, “forbids” these allegorical doublings. Jewett's identification with Sylvia remains possible, contingent, en passant; for otherwise it would betray the serious or explicit rather than secret “minor” intentionality of a story that in effect was being written by a minor, and not merely in the sense of one who, as a woman in patriarchal society, has a minority social self-identity.

In the same way, the relation between “writing” and its residual representational correlatives remains asymmetrically allegorical, allegorical in the sense of a discourse subsuming but not negating another discursive possibility. It is this possibility that makes Jewett's sex-lessening tropological maneuvers in “A White Heron” inadequate as ways to produce a totally pure minor literature. While it helps to neutralize all the imminent adult-alias-sexual ideological conscriptions of her text, writing in the name of the absent father in this particular intentional context cannot fully account for “her” coterminous exposure to other kinds of adult appropriations, especially those pertaining to the story's appearance as a literary text. Here the sheer exteriority of the written text makes it subject to such appropriations. And in turn, they make the “secret” intentionality of “her” production—an intentionality which constitutes this story's very “life,” and which allows Jewett to “love her”—a continuing project that Jewett will have to reproduce in terms of these deferred possible readings.

In the end, to transpose the absent-father/absent-daughter relation to these other unaccounted-for discursive possibilities may lead us to regard Jewett as a kind of nun after all. “A White Heron” absolves her from identification as a genteel, reformist, or an ideologically protesting “New England nun.” Instead it identifies her as a woman writer who would suspend the discourses of the great and busy world by constructing a verbal “hermitage” or scripting a private prayer. Or more precisely, “she,” the story itself, would suspend discourses of any kind that strive to enlist “her” in a “great enterprise” greater than Jewett desires to propose here. Like the “shouting cat-birds” that chase away the white heron, these discourses would vex her project to produce a pure minor literature “in the name of the father.”


  1. Shulamith Firestone has emphasized this issue in her The Dialectic of Sex, a relevant version of which appears in her “On American Feminism” collected in Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran, eds., Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (New York: Basic Books, 1971), esp. 486. Many feminist critics have discussed the woman writer's ambivalent situation in nineteenth-century patriarchal society wherein she could effectively produce only “minor literature,” that is, literature conforming to male stereotypes about women's “proper place” or “nature.” See, for example, Elizabeth Winston, “The Autobiographer and Her Readers,” in Estelle C. Jelinek, ed., Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 95. I am also indebted to Mary Kelley for her work on “literary domestics,” American woman novelists of the nineteenth century, which situates this issue in a specifically American cultural context. See her Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

  2. Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1975), 65. Flexner also argues that by “1848 [one year before Jewett was born], it was possible for women who rebelled against the circumstances of their lives to know that they were not alone” (77). Sheila M. Rothman also discusses the changing social milieu after the Civil War of women and the woman's movement in her Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1978).

  3. Donovan, Sarah Orne Jewett, claims that “Eliot … was never a favorite, though Jewett's library included all Eliot's major works” (4). Jewett's objections to Eliot were likely on literary rather than ideological grounds (see Donovan, 24).

  4. Letters, Cary, 17, fn. 3. Cary suggests that Jewett may have chosen this pseudonym “from George Eliot, whose life and works she wrote about.”

  5. Elaine Showalter, “Women Writers and the Double Standard,” in Woman in Sexist Society, 325–27. Also see her A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), esp. 19 ff. and 36 et passim.

  6. Quotation from “River Driftwood” occurs on p. 60, above. “From a Mournful Villager,” 120–21; my italics. The issue of “suffrage” for women was complicated and even displaced—hence made more difficult for women—by the issue of abolition. Ellen Carol Du Bois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), discusses how the postbellum problem “for feminists was how to make progress for women suffrage in the face of abolitionists' reluctance to support them” (77).

  7. Sarah Orne Jewett, A Country Doctor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884). Jewett's preference for this novel is noted in the Webers' Bibliography, 10.

  8. Matthiessen quotes Jewett's own connection with this novel's father figure in Sarah Orne Jewett, 75–76.

  9. Jewett, A Country Doctor, 282–83.

  10. Annette Kolodny, “Some Notes on Defining a ‘Feminist Literary Criticism,’” Critical Inquiry 2 (Autumn 1975):76. Flexner, Century of Struggle, discusses the somewhat tenuous political or practical influence of Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century on the century's woman's movement (66). I am here more concerned with its literary-ideological influence on Jewett's production of “A White Heron.”

  11. Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers, ed. Arthur Fuller (Boson: John P. Jewett, 1855), 63, 72, et passim.

  12. Jewett, A Country Doctor, 52–54.

  13. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 37 and 40; see pp. 120–21 for Fuller's example of a “bad” father who cares only to restrict his daughter's education. Fuller's enlightened friend Miranda and her relation to the “good” father are usually considered to represent Fuller's own early upbringing by her father. Paula Blanchard agrees with but also expresses some reservations about this connection in her Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution (New York: Delacorte Press / Seymour Lawrence, 1978), 215–18.

  14. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 96.

  15. For a discussion of female friendships in the nineteenth century, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (1975);9, 11, 14, et passim. Smith-Rosenberg notes that “homosocial” relations between women were encouraged by men; on the surface, that is, they posed no homosexual or gender-separatist threat to the patriarchy. Donovan, Sarah Orne Jewett, 13, briefly discusses Jewett's “life-long monogamous partnership” with Annie Fields. Showalter, “Women Writers and the Double Standard,” 331 and 329, discusses how male critics and writers denigrated Victorian women writers by referring to them as “old maids” or “spinsters,” women who did not confirm and conform to the patriarchal image of women as guardians of an idealized domestic life.

  16. Jewett, A Country Doctor, 307.

  17. Ibid., p. 295.

  18. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 176, 129, 158.

  19. Ibid., p. 121.

  20. Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” in Elizabeth Abel, ed., Writing and Sexual Difference, Critical Inquiry 8, no. 2 (Winter 1981):204.

  21. Berthoff, Fictions and Events, makes an analogous if patriarchally coded point about the women represented in Jewett's later work, Pointed Firs. For the women left to face the “blight that has settled on the region” by themselves, “the only choice, the sacrifice required for survival, is to give up a woman's proper life and cover the default of the men to be guardians and preservers of a community” (250; my italics).

  22. The term is Ellen Moers's from her Literary Women (Garden City: Doubleday, 1976), 122 ff. For a male critic like Berthoff, Fictions and Events, 250, Sylvia's choice entails her defensive desire to preserve the farmstead or region from the “grossness” of American society as represented by the hunter's “offering her money.”

  23. Martin, Harvests of Change, alludes to this etymology (144). For a discussion of Sylvia as a figure of nature within a patriarchal paradigm, see Chapter 3, pp. 121–22, below.

  24. Moers, Literary Women, 250–51.

  25. Mary Jacobus, “The Question of Language: Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, 210.

  26. Fuller constantly alludes throughout Woman in the Nineteenth Century to ideal virgin and/or “self-sufficient” women in classical literature: for example to Sappho (47–48), the Sibyl (99), Cassandra (105–6), and especially the “Muse and Minerva” (115–16) as well as “Ceres” (121). As W.K.C. Guthrie notes in his The Greeks and Their Gods, rpt. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 101, the Greek goddess Demeter (in Roman mythology, Ceres) was assumed to be the mother of and sometimes Artemis herself, “an earth goddess, associated essentially and chiefly with the wild life and growth of the fields, and with human birth.” In any case, Jewett's allusive association of Sylvia with a major feminine mythic figure, albeit inscribed within a patriarchal tradition, could easily outline an exclusive feminine declaration in ways beyond my present argument. First, it appeals to the authority of this tradition, but only in the guise of its honorific, presently defunct or historically out-of-sight influence. Alluding to this inoperative literary-patriarchal tradition, the connection with Artemis effectively dis-associates Sylvia from a restrictive patriarchal conscription of this goddess and frees her to become an image for oppressed women of all times. Second, Jewett's use of this classical allusion, however subtle, amounts to her de facto declaration of woman's ability to know and make use of this learning, that is, her (here demonstrated) ability to conceive new and not simply reproduce “proper” meanings—in short, like Fuller's classical allusions, it is a demonstration of woman's intellectual capacities in the face of stereotypical male assumptions and restrictions concerning them (cf. Rothman, Woman's Proper Place, 29 et passim).

  27. Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, rev. and ed. by Henry Nettleship and J. E. Sandys (Cleveland: World, 1961), 43.

  28. On the feminist use of “metamorphosis,” see Nina Auerbach, “Magi and Maidens: The Romance of the Victorian Freud,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, 294–97. Cf. Deleuze and Guattari's view of this trope's use by the “minor” writer, pp. 33–34, above. For a conservative view of how literature displaces myths by “credible” or “realistic” if still unconscious reconstructions, see Northrop Frye, “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement,” Fables of Identity, esp. 34–37.

  29. Judith Fryer, esp. 6, purports to use this “American Eve” framework in examining certain novels by male writers, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

  30. Annis Pratt, “Women and Nature in Modern Fiction,” argues that Sylvia's quest for the heron makes her emblematic of an ontological relation to nature decisively inaccessible to and different from the teleological paradigms of patriarchal quest literature and notions of self-identity (450; see p. xxvii, above). Annette Kolodny, “Turning the Lens on ‘The Panther Captivity’: A Feminist Exercise in Practical Criticism,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, 343 et passim, also touches on this issue in discussing how this captivity narrative reveals “male figures of greed and violence … repeatedly breach[ing], or attempt[ing] to breach, the precincts of the lady's various Dream Gardens, her romantic trysting place, her person, and … her wilderness abode.” In the same vein but with a particular focus on criticism, cf. Baym, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood.”

  31. Mary Daly, Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 74–89, provides a context by which we could assert that the tree is a feminist archetype and the heron a possibly counter-patriarchal image inversely analogous to patriarchal “rapes” of matriarchal orders. Fryer, Faces of Eve, quotes Otto Weininger to show patriarchal notions of woman's ontological naiveté: “Woman has no relation to the idea, she neither affirms nor denies it; she is neither moral nor anti-moral: mathematically speaking, she has no sign; she is purposeless, neither good nor bad … she is as non-moral as she is non-logical” (8). His depiction ironically turns out to be true for some feminist theorists discussed later.

  32. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 102.

  33. Fuller had argued that the pejorative representation of Eve in the Judeo-Christian tradition had been superseded by the transcendent representation of the Virgin Mary (47 and 56). Susan Gubar, “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, argues that the Virgin Mary allusion in women's literature might be viewed as a “revisionary metaphor” reclaiming the power of creativity for women (261).

  34. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 135.

  35. Ibid., p. 175.

  36. One could argue that this ideological privileging of childhood permeates the writings of Howells and especially Twain, notably in the latter's “Old Times on the Mississippi.” Childhood as a topos is also a “regionalist” ideologeme and could reflect the way Jewett's story reflects or even exploits the late-nineteenth-century American audience's interest in nostalgic representations of simpler if past modes of American life. In this sense, it seems no coincidence, perhaps, that as Matthiessen notes (Sarah Orne Jewett, 60–61), Jewett published a poem in an Atlantic Monthly of 1875, the edition in which Twain published the fifth section of “Old Times on the Mississippi.”

  37. Nina Baym, Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 196.

  38. Contrary to Baym and Mary Kelley, Ann Douglas discusses and criticizes the “feminization of American culture,” the cooption of women writers, reduced to “sentimental” concerns in their fiction, by the patriarchal-clerical Christian tradition: The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), esp. 254 ff. Also cf. Cheri Register, “American Feminist Criticism: A Bibliographical Introduction, in Josephine Donovan, ed., Feminist Literary Criticism (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1961), who argues that for “women like George Eliot and the Brontës, writing something other than sentimental novels was a rebellious act, and necessarily ideological and time-bound” (10).

  39. Nancy C. Miller, “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction,” PMLA 96, no. 1 (January 1981):36 and 39.

  40. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 58; my italics.

  41. Miller, “Emphasis Added,” 41.

  42. Adrienne Rich, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Adrienne Rich, Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 166 and 162. Coppélia Kahn, “Excavating ‘Those Dim Minoan Regions’: Maternal Subtexts in Patriarchal Literature,” Diacritics (Summer 1982), argues that contrary to male critics who assume genres to have universal significance, the “feminist reader consciously notes the gender perspective of this genre, and tries to learn from it about the working myths of patriarchal culture” (41). For a further discussion of the diminutive imagery used by women writers and its significance in their works, see Moers, Literary Women, 244 and 245. In this present context, it is ironic that Matthiessen, a male critic, maintains that Jewett and Emily Dickinson were for him at the time of his critical biography of Jewett “the two principal women writers America has had” (Sarah Orne Jewett), 152.

  43. Myra Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” Signs 6, no. 4 (Summer 1981):583.

  44. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 221–22, associates these vocational options available to women. Also see Rothman, Woman's Proper Place, 30 ff.

  45. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929; rpt. 1957), 74 et passim. Showalter also addresses this issue throughout her A Literature of Their Own, as does Annette Kolodny, “A Map of Rereading; or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” New Literary History II (Spring 1980), esp. her discussion of Susan Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers,” 460–63. Howells himself judged literature according to how it raised broad questions about life and society without giving self-serving “romantic” answers: “What is our religion, what is our society, what is our country, what is our civilization? You cannot read [Tolstoy] without asking yourself these questions, and the result is left with you.” W. D. Howells, “On Zola and Others,” collected in Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, Robert Penn Warren, eds., American Literature: The Makers and the Making, Vol. 2 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), 1370.

  46. See n. 2, pp. 213–14, below.

  47. Cf. Gilbert and Gubar's discussion of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and of other women writers who inscribed their coerced but revolutionary status as writers within their works: “[the woman writer through her characters] produces a public art which she herself rejects as inadequate but which she secretly uses to discover a new aesthetic space for herself. In addition, she subverts her genteelly “feminine” works with personal representations which endure only in tracings, since her guilt about the impropriety of self-expression has caused her to efface her private drawings just as it has led her to efface herself” (Madwoman in the Attic, 81). As I will try to argue, feminist critical narratives such as Gilbert and Gubar's themselves purport to be “secretly” gender-inflected discourses. For a further discussion of this issue, namely the virtual exclusion of male readers from a feminist if not feminine text, see Kolodny, “A Map of Rereading,” esp. 463–65, and her “Reply to Commentaries,” 588–89, in the same volume of New Literary History.

  48. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs 5, no. 4 (Summer 1980):652 et passim. For Rich, of course, the notion of “lesbian continuum,” the subliminal resistance of all women in past and present patriarchal societies refers to “a range—through each woman's life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman” (648). Not only has “heterosexuality” been imposed on women as a norm to which they must conform, so has “heterosexual romance” for the woman writer; male critics, according to Rich in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, privilege such representational romances as a “key to [the woman artist's] life and work” (158).

  49. Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 158.

  50. Kolodny, “Some Notes on Defining a ‘Feminist Literary Criticism,’” 90.

  51. Elizabeth Berg, “The Third Woman,” Diacritics (Summer 1982), 19.

  52. Alice Jardine, “Gynesis,” Diacritics (Summer 1982), 58. The difference between French and American feminisms becomes apparent when we see an American feminist critic like Josephine Donovan use the concept of an “authentic” feminine identity. See her “Afterword: Critical Re-vision,” in Feminist Literary Criticism, 77 et passim. French feminist critics, on the other hand, seeming to adopt what to radical American feminist critics resembles a neoconservative position, would basically if reservedly agree with Julia Kristeva's warning in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds., New French Feminisms: An Anthology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), “that certain feminist demands revive a kind of naive romanticism, a belief in identity (the reverse of phallocratism), if we compare them to the experience of both poles of sexual difference as is found in the economy of Joycian or Artaudian prose. … I pay close attention to the particular aspect of the [avant-garde] work … which dissolves … even sexual identities” (138).

  53. Jacobus, “Question of Language,” 211, 210.

  54. Cf. Kolodny's discussion of the relation between feminist criticism and male critical paradigms like Harold Bloom's, in “A Map of Rereading.” Also cf. Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, 73, and Mary Daly's feminist antimethod and/or self-conscious subversion of male-dominated discourses in Gyn/ecology, 22–29. In a different but no less revolutionary context, Deleuze and Guattari also argue for the sabotaging of the “major language” (see pp. 31–33, above).

  55. See Rothman, Woman's Proper Place, 21–23.

  56. Letters, Fields, 106.

  57. Ibid., p. 246.

  58. Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett, 141.

  59. Sarah Orne Jewett, A Marsh Island (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885), 181, 168. Dale explicitly notices the “patriarchal character to the [Owen] family” (109).

  60. Ibid., p. 156.

  61. Letters, Cary, 19, fn. 19. One should also note that Jewett's father practiced ornithology. Frost, Sarah Orne Jewett 22.

  62. Jewett, A Marsh Island, 92.

  63. Ibid.

  64. Jewett, A Country Doctor, 270.

  65. Ibid., pp. 133, 137.

  66. Cf. Coppélia Kahn, “Excavating ‘Those Dim Minoan Regions,’” who argues that feminist criticism should apply itself to discovering the maternal subtext of literary works, that is, should read “the text as the scene of interplay between infantile fantasy and manifest content” wherein the former “emanates from early childhood, when the child's most important relationship is with the mother” (36).

  67. Frost, Sarah Orne Jewett, 22–23.

  68. Jewett, A Marsh Island, 26, 64, 156, 154.

  69. Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett, 138.

  70. Jewett, A Country Doctor, 134.

  71. For the significance of the grandmother in the girl's process of developing self-identity, see Elizabeth Abel, “(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women,” Signs 6, no. 3 (Spring 1981):427.

  72. Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 96 and 57. In a way relevant to the position I will soon take, she also makes a “revised” Freudian perspective attentive to “the Minoan-Mycenean pre-Oedipal phase so crucial for femininity” (109 et passim).

  73. Ibid., p. 97.

  74. Nancy Chodorow, “Being and Doing: A Cross-Cultural Examination of the Socialization of Males and Females,” in Woman in Sexist Society, 186.

  75. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 123. Chodorow goes on to stress that the girl's turning away from the mother to the father “is at most a concentration on her father of a girl's genital, or erotic, cathexis. But a girl never gives up her mother as an internal or external love object, even if she does become heterosexual” (127). Rich, of course, disagrees with Chodorow's heterosexual orientation (“Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” 636). For another clinical corroboration of the Chodorow-like position, see Irene Fast, “Developments in Gender Identity: Gender Differentiation in Girls,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 60 (1979): esp. 451 and 457.

  76. Chodorow, Reproduction of Mothering, 123.

  77. Chodorow, “Being and Doing,” 191, 192; Reproduction of Mothering, 127.

  78. Frost discusses Jewett's especially close relation to her older sister Mary (Sarah Orne Jewett, 75–76).

  79. Larzer Ziff, The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation (New York: Viking Press, 1966), 283, discusses the negative attitudes of women toward childbearing in general.

  80. Jewett, A Country Doctor, 120, 122.

  81. Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 97.

  82. Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? 16. Cf. n. 39, p. 211, below, the passage cited from Barbara Herrnstein Smith's “Contingencies of Value.”

  83. Letters, Cary, 30.

  84. Jane Gallop, “The Ghost of Lacan, the Trace of Language,” Diacritics (Winter 1975): 24, a review of Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism. For further discussion of Lacanian psychoanalysis from a feminist viewpoint, see Gallop's The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), and Anika Lemaire's feminine if not feminist consideration, Jacques Lacan, trans. David Macey with preface by Jacques Lacan (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), esp. 82 ff., where she discusses Lacan's notion of “the Name of the Father” as “paternal metaphor” or “representative of the law which founds humanity, [whose] speech must be recognized by [from the child's position, the preoedipal] mother.”

  85. Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Psychoanalysis: The French Connection,” in Geoffrey H. Hartman, ed., Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 92.

  86. Ibid.

  87. Ibid., p. 94.

  88. I use Roman Jakobson's definition of these tropes from his “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles,” in Critical Theory since Plato, 1113 and esp. 1114. My discussion of “A White Heron” from p. 102 to the end of this chapter follows in spirit, at least, the critical principles used by Roland Barthes in his examination of Balzac's “Sarrasine” in S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), especially where he claims to initiate “a process of nomination which is the essence of the reader's activity: to read is to struggle to name, to subject the sentences of the text to a semantic transformation. This transformation is erratic; it consists in hesitating among several names. … The connotator refers not so much to a name as to a synonymic complex whose common nucleus we sense even while the discourse is leading us toward other possibilities, toward other related signifieds: thus, reading is absorbed in a kind of metonymic skid, each synonym adding to its neighbor some new trait, some new departure” (92).

  89. Jewett, “River Driftwood,” 19.

  90. Jewett, “A Winter Drive,” 169. One could add to this list of trees as parental tropes. In “An October Ride” she notes how “old pines” stand “a little way back watching their children march in upon their inheritance, as if they were ready to interfere and protect and defend” (98; my italics). Or again from “A Winter Drive,” “It seems as if the tree [like an internalized cathected parent] remembered what we remember; it is something more than the fact of its having been associated with our past” (167).

  91. Jewett, “A Winter Drive,” 178.

  92. Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 83.

  93. Cf. Joseph Campbell who argues that in primitive societies, certain birds possess divine attributes which humans can attain by a kind of ritualistic imitation; thus, in climbing the tree, we could say, Sylvia metaphorically defines the place around it as holy ground, as a true “hermitage” or spiritual retreat consecrated as such by her vision of the heron. To quote from Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (New York: Viking Press, 1951; rpt. 1960), 167, “In many lands the soul has been pictured as a bird, and birds commonly appear as spiritual messengers: angels are modified birds. But the bird of the shaman is one of particular character and power, endowing him with an ability to fly in trance beyond all bounds of life, and yet return.” Other “mythic” interpretations could be made of this after-all epiphanic moment with the white heron. Is it an allusion to the appearance of the New Testament angel—or even the Holy Ghost (Jewett was an Episcopalian), i.e., the Father's absent presence—announcing the Immaculate Conception to a Virgin Mary figure who will give birth to her own sacred innocence?

  94. See Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 107: “The pre-Oedipal girl abandons her mother as love-object. … At the same time, she is likely to give up her clitoris too … her manual masturbation of it. She wants nothing to remind her of the wound to her narcissism—neither her all-responsible, ‘castrated’ mother, nor her own ‘little penis.’ The two go together. The girl realizes that she cannot possess her mother, hence the clitoris loses its active connotations, and when its sensitivity reemerges at puberty it is likely to be in a masturbatory role with passive aims … now either auto-erotic or as a preliminary to vaginal penetration.”

  95. Mary C. Rawlinson, “Psychiatric Discourse and the Feminine Voice,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 8 (1982):172.

  96. Jewett often alludes to South Berwick's shipbuilding past economy throughout her writings. See Jay Martin who discusses this topic in relation to an added section of Pointed Firs, “The Queen's Twin,” (Harvests of Change, 143). Frost also mentions this shipbuilding patrimony in Sarah Orne Jewett, 1–3.

Elizabeth Ammons (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5601

SOURCE: “The Shape of Violence in Jewett's ‘A White Heron,’” Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 6–16.

[In the essay below, Ammons discusses the myths, narrative form, and themes of the story.]

Let us imagine that we live in a culture where time is a cycle, where the sand dollar lies beside its fossil (as it does). Where everything is seen to return, as the birds return to sight with the movement of the waves. As I return to the beach, again and again.

Imagine that in that returning nothing stands outside; the bird is not separate from the wave but both are part of the same rhythm. Imagine that I know—not with my intellect but in my body, my heart—that I do not stand separate from the sand dollar or the fossil; that the slow forces that shaped the life of one and preserved the other under the deep pressure of settling mud for cycles upon cycles are the same forces that have formed my life; that when I hold the fossil in my hand I am looking into a mirror. … We are aware of the world as returning, the forms of our thoughts flow in circles, spirals, webs; they weave and dance, honoring the links, the connections, the patterns, the changes, so that nothing can be removed from its context.1

And now let us imagine that into this web—into this timeless cycle of birds and waves—walks a man with a gun.

I start with this quotation from the witch Starhawk because I want to suggest that “A White Heron,” on one level an interesting but “easy” story about the irreconcilable conflict between opposing sets of values: urban/rural, scientific/intuitional, civilized/natural, masculine/feminine, on a deeper level represents as radical—as sinister—a challenge to complacent heterosexual ideology as do the imaginings of a witch such as Starhawk. Indeed, it will be my contention that the arguments of “A White Heron” and of Starhawk, “birds” separated by a century (Jewett's story was published in 1886, Starhawk's book in 1982), have things in common. Specifically, after talking briefly about “A White Heron” as creation myth and as historical commentary, I will be arguing three things: that “A White Heron” is a story about resistance to heterosexuality; that the form Jewett adopts to express her idea is, quite appropriately, the fairy tale; and that despite her protests to the contrary Jewett shows in this fiction her ability to create conventional “plot”—that is, to use inherited masculine narrative shape—when she needs to.

Perhaps the most obvious meaning of “A White Heron” comes from the female creation, or re-creation, myth Jewett offers. The story presents a little girl whose world is entirely female. No brother, father, uncle, or grandfather lives in it; the men have feuded and left or died. Only she and her grandmother inhabit the rural paradise to which the child was removed after spending the first eight years of her life in a noisy manmade mill-town, the strongest memory (and perfect symbol) of which is a “great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her” as she walked home through the streets at night.2 In the country with her grandmother she is safe. Named Sylvia (Latin for “woods”) the girl feels that “she never had been alive at all before she came to live on the farm” (p. 228). Her grandmother says: there “never was such a child for straying out-of-doors since the world was made!” (p. 228). Clearly Sylvia is nature's child, a pristine or first female, repelled by the city but so at home in the woods that the birds and animals share their secrets and the earth itself, her true grand/mother, embraces her with gentle breezes and soft lullabies. Walking home through the woods one night (compare this with the experience she remembers from the city), she listens “to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure” and senses “in the great boughs overhead … little birds and beasts … going about their world … [and] saying goodnight to each other in sleepy twitters. … It made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves” (p. 229). As her grandmother boasts, “‘the wild creatur's counts her one o' themselves’” (p. 230).

The whimsical and yet serious incarnation of this magical “natural” place to which the child has been restored, appropriately by her maternal grandmother, is a cow. Symbol of bountiful female nurture—a cow is a walking udder, a warm mobile milky mother (of a different species from us to be sure, but as this story shows, difference in species is not an important distinction to make in life)—the cow represents what the city is not and what the woods, healthy, wild, domestic, maternal, stands for in “A White Heron.” In fact, Jewett opens the story by concentrating on the bond between this exaggeratedly female animal and her “little woods-girl” (p. 229). The two of them, the mature female (Mistress Moolly the cow) and nine-year-old Sylvia, amble together through the woods away from the western light (which means toward the rising moon, the heavenly body associated with women) in a wending nightly ritual of hide-and-seek that is almost a dance, the two partners know their steps so well. Played with the wild but milky Mistress Moolly, this game of finding each other, situated as it is at the very opening of the story, serves as a metaphor for the whole realm of matrifocal happiness into which Jewett draws us. In this world females—human, bovine, it does not matter—can find each other. They can live together in fertile self-sufficiency and contentment, much as Jewett herself, of course, lived happily with her sisters and women friends within a complex and satisfying network of female support and intimacy into which men might wander, like the nameless intruder in this story, but always as strangers and never to stay.

Read historically, this Adamless Eden represents a response—mythic, spiritual—to the dramatic changes taking place in the lives of middle-class white American women toward the turn into the twentieth century. On the one hand, the middle-class nineteenth-century ideology of separate masculine and feminine spheres excluded women from competition and success in the public arena—medicine, commerce, high art, and the like. The ideology of separatism severely confined and limited women. At the same time, however, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg points out in her classic study of middle-class, white, nineteenth-century female friendship in America, separatism strengthened women by honoring female bonding and intimacy. As Smith-Rosenberg explains, “women … did not form an isolated and oppressed subcategory in male society. Their letters and diaries indicate that women's sphere had an essential integrity and dignity that grew out of women's shared experiences and mutual affection and that, despite the profound changes which affected American social structure and institutions between the 1760s and 1870s, retained a constancy and predictability.”3

Smith-Rosenberg's identification of the 1870s as the beginning of the end of this period of continuity for women highlights the fact that “A White Heron,” written in 1881, celebrates the ideology of separatism at the time historically that it was beginning to fall apart. As Josephine Donovan notes, the story speaks to “the profound ambivalence women of the late nineteenth century felt as they were beginning to move out of the female-centered world of the home into male-centered institutions.”4 Sylvia confronts and is tempted by the possibility of a new and traditionally masculine ethic for women. The hunter invites her to participate in his project. She can, like her sisters in the ranks of stenographers and typewriters smartly decking themselves out in shirtwaists and suit jackets to invade the nation's offices and boardrooms, bastions of male privilege and power previously off limits to women, identify with men. She can join the great masculine project of conquering and controlling (“harnessing”) nature and agreeing on money as the best measure of worth and most effective medium of exchange between human beings. She can, in short, even though she is female, join in the great late nineteenth-century game of buying and selling the world.

She can—but she won't. Sylvia, and clearly Jewett as well, finds in the ideology of female separatism, despite its limitations, a better environment for women than that offered by the new ideology of integration, or identification with masculine values. The older ideology values compassion over profit and cooperation over competition. While the perfect bird for the ornithologist is a dead one, the perfect bird for the child is alive. Sylvia, choosing the past over the future, the bird over a ten dollar gold piece, says no to the temptation represented by the glamorous young scientist so eager to make a girl his partner. In the last paragraph the narrator concedes that the choice is not easy: “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell?” (p. 239). The young stranger with a gun is beautiful and powerful. “He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy” (p. 239). The stranger has great allure: the future is tempting. Indeed, Sylvia's grandmother is converted. But Sylvia is not. She may change when she is older; of that we cannot be certain. But the moment this story captures is the moment of her resistance. The moment of her saying no.

That resistance, I now want to argue, is not simply historical, not simply a matter of saying no to shirtwaists and coffee breaks. It is a matter of Sylvia's saying no to the erotic stirrings she feels for the handsome young man. Sylvia's resistance, in other words, is resistance to the institution of heterosexuality itself, which as Adrienne Rich explains with great care in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” is the sine qua non of patriarchy. Rich argues: “If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would seem logical, from a feminist perspective at least, to pose the following questions: whether the search for love and tenderness in both sexes does not originally lead toward women; why in fact women would ever redirect that search; … and why such violent strictures should be found necessary to enforce women's total emotional, erotic loyalty and subservience to men.” Rich urges scholars to examine “the societal forces that wrench women's emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from woman-identified values” and states bluntly that “heterosexuality, like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution.5 Prescribing and enforcing heterosexuality, she argues, is the essential task of patriarchy. Without that manipulation of women into transferring emotional and erotic allegiance from the mother to a man the system would crumble. Women would be free to remain woman-identified, emotionally and erotically, throughout life. For patriarchy to work society must realign woman's original, “natural” emotional/erotic attachment to her same-sex lover, mother—a complicated maneuver that Jewett, no less than Rich, understands.

Seen in this light “A White Heron” represents an anti-bildungsroman. It is a rite-of-passage story in which the heroine refuses to make the passage. Choosing the world of her grandmother over the world of the alluring young man, Sylvia chooses not to pass over into the world of adult female sexuality as it is defined by the culture. The nine-year-old child, a girl about to enter puberty, refuses to enter into the transaction that everyone—the hunter, her grandmother—expects her to make.

“A White Heron” says that heterosexuality requires the female to offer up body itself as prey. All Sylvia has to do is offer up the body of the bird—a free, beautiful creature like herself—to the hunter and she will receive in return money, social approval, and the affection of a man. Clearly the heron in this story symbolizes the heroine, and the exchange Sylvia is expected to make at the age of nine, with her heart set throbbing by the handsome young man, is the transition from childhood to the threshold of womanhood, the wrench from little girl identification with the mother (in this case the maternal earth itself) to big girl identification with a man. Sylvia is expected to offer her freedom, her true nature, indeed life itself to a predator, who will pierce, stuff, and then own and admire the beautiful corpse. (Ornithology as a metaphor for male heterosexual predation is one of the brilliant strokes of “A White Heron.” The combination of violence, voyeurism, and commercialism contained in the gun-wielding science, the goal of which is to create living death, is chilling.)6 Tempted—and Jewett does make the hunter with his money and charm and social privilege tempting—Sylvia says no.

In “A White Heron” Jewett creates a threshold story about choosing not to step across. Sylvia won't give the bird over to the hunter, won't give her self over to him, won't enter the body-for-money bargain the culture expects of her. She chooses the world of her grandmother, a place defined as free, healthy, and “natural” in this story, over the world of heterosexual favor and violence represented by the hunter.

Jewett's choice of a fairy tale to tell this story of resistance is perfect since one major purpose of the classic, white, western fairy tale is to teach heterosexuality.7

To illustrate, let me sketch the standard female coming-of-age story of fairy tale. A girl is stolen, taken, or in some other way separated from her mother and removed to live a lonely life (often deep in a secluded woods) where her only friends are birds and animals and her caretaker is an old woman. Until puberty the heroine stays in this magical and emphatically female world. (Rapunzel lives in the country with only the witch for company; Little Red Riding Hood journeys back and forth between her mother and grandmother; even Snow-White surrounded by men dwells in an ultra-domestic, “natural” place where the men are literally littler than the female.) Then near or at puberty the prince arrives: handsome, rich, heterosexual. His job is to rescue the heroine. He is to carry her away from this sylvan world, now carefully defined by the story-teller as wicked, aberrant—the realm of the dark, the evil, the overpossessive mother: in short, the witch. The tale ends—we've all read it: “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Little Snow-White,” “Little Red Cap”—with the virile prince (often he is a hunter) delivering the heroine from this perverse same-sex realm into the luxury and “safety” of the heterosexual world.

These traditional fairy tales in which a sexy young man saves a sexually awakening heroine from an ugly witch assert the triumph of heterosexuality over matrisexuality. They show the transformation of the maternal realm, via the witch, into a sick (that is, a dangerous) place for a girl to stay past puberty. The normal, “healthy” thing to do is to follow a man out of it.

In obvious ways Jewett's story fits this paradigm. When “A White Heron” opens we meet a little girl who has been separated from her mother and taken to live in a lonely cottage deep in a woods. There her only friends are her grandmother and the birds, plants, and animals who have become her companions. Especially there is the cow, who plays hide and seek with Sylvia and is her “valued companion” (p. 227); but also there is the toad Sylvia plays with on the cottage path the night the young man comes (a jocular version of the young man himself on Jewett's part?), the heron and his mate, and the tree, personified as “his” (p. 236), which Sylvia climbs to see the bird. (I will return to the gender of both the tree and the bird.)

The woods, the lonely cottage, the grandmotherly caretaker, the isolated heroine, the humanized plants and animals: Jewett sets the stage perfectly for the rescuing prince to appear. And he does. As in conventional fairy tales (“Rapunzel,” for example) Sylvia is at first afraid of him. Significantly, he shows up immediately following her memory of the ugly red-faced boy who “used to chase and frighten her” in town (p. 229). Still in the grip of this memory, the “little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird's whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy's whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive.” Sylvia feels that “the enemy had discovered her” (p. 229). But then, true to traditional fairy-tale transformations, the girl quickly overcomes her fear of the handsome stranger who, as if by magic, has dropped into her world. It takes only one day until Sylvia “watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (p. 233). Sylvia is ready to realign her passionate energies: she will offer up the bird to the stranger. She will cooperate in his project of making blood drip from its body so that he can stuff, own, and admire the carcass as “his.”

Thus far Jewett's story follows fairy-tale logic,8 but only thus far. Having evoked the classic female rite-of-passage drama of fairy tale, Jewett proceeds to deconstruct the very story she evokes. She writes her own fairy tale about female rite of passage and the theme she dramatizes, in contrast to inherited tradition, is resistance to the passage prescribed.

Supplied with all the appropriate totems and symbols (the deep woods, the symbolic animals, the pre-pubertal age of nine) Sylvia moves right to the brink of the passage into heterosexuality. She even enacts ritualistically that passage—journeying away from her grandmother's house to the outer edge of that maternal space, the place where it stops and some other territory begins. There, in unmistakably phallic imagery, Jewett shows her climbing a huge pine which seems “to lengthen itself out” as she mounts (p. 236) and causes her body pain as she embraces it and climbs. At the top of this ascent which sends “tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame” (p. 235) she is able to see new worlds and societies (the sea, ships), and she has a glorious glimpse of heterosexual harmony (the herons). The journey into this new region is difficult but breathtaking. Sylvia is “well satisfied” (p. 238). Enacted symbolically and in nature the passage into heterosexuality looks marvelous.

But that journey, Jewett's story insists, is not the journey available to women in real life or in real time. The tree Sylvia climbs is very unusual.9 It holds in its majestic branches fragile nests; along its mighty arms run all sorts of living creatures. Jewett tells us that the pine “was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth,” and clearly it is sentient and caring. “It must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit [Sylvia] creeping and climbing from higher branch to branch. … The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths and even the sweet-voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and held away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east” (p. 236). In contrast to this lover, the male encountered by Sylvia in real life kills things. He is committed not to supporting life but to conquering and destroying it. The tree, Jewett is careful to tell us, is “the last of its generation” (p. 234). It is a relic from the past, an imagined possibility, an unrealistic (after all it is not even human) encounter.

The realistic encounter is the hunter, the ornithologist—the male who expects Sylvia to participate in his project of killing, stuffing, and appropriating the beautiful bird. Obviously the heterosexual experience existing for Jewett's heroine in real life derives not from nature but from invented human values of conquest, profit, and ownership. Stated simply, what Sylvia can choose, can literally buy into, is a system of carnal exchange in which the female represents game—the prized carcass—in the material power struggle between males.

This explains, I think, why the heron is male. In the first place, of course, it might simply be too obvious to make the bird female. The equation between Sylvia and the heron is clear enough without making them both female (its whiteness and her virginity, the wildness of them both, their closeness to nature and their shyness, etc.). The difference in gender makes Jewett's symbolism a little less blatant. Far more important, however, the maleness of the heron calls attention to the fact that the heterosexual contest as defined by the human male finally exists not between male and female, but between male and male—with the female as bait, weapon, spy. In heterosexual materialist society (which is what the alluring bird-stuffer represents) males aggress on each other—kill each other off (as the hunter wishes to kill the heron)—through the female, whose job it is to execute and display not her own but a man's authority and superiority.10 Loyal to “her” man, the “good” woman helps carry out his assault on other males by finding out and carrying back the enemy's secrets, breaking up his home, and luring him into deadly space where “her” man can eliminate him—all of which is exactly what the ornithologist expects Sylvia to do for him.

Finally, of course, the heron is male in Jewett's story because ultimately the heterosexual contest is not simply through the female, but for her. The competition exists to establish which male will “win” the female. This game gets played in “A White Heron.” Who will win Sylvia's allegiance, the heron or the hunter? Ironically, by showing the heron victorious, Jewett shows victory falling outside and antithetical to the human system the hunter, the introducer of the game, imports into the woods. In the end, when the male bird “wins” Sylvia's loyalty (even though he is oblivious to it—or so we assume), the victory translates into a victory—a “win”—for antimasculine values, for the values of Mother Earth.

As a fairy tale “A White Heron” argues against the maturation script assigned by the culture. To renounce matrisexual bonds for heterosexual love, this story says, is not to follow nature, as traditional fairy tales so artfully—and we should notice, nervously—insist. It is to ally oneself against nature, even against life. (Were Sylvia to follow the script the hunter and her grandmother promote, the heron would be dead.) Heterosexuality in “A White Heron” is no better or worse than matrisexuality. Nature contains both. What is bad—wrong—is the lie perpetuated in fairy tale after fairy tale that the human institution of heterosexuality is either natural or good, or for that matter inevitable. That fairy-tale fiction, Jewett's rewrite says, is a masculine plot. Literally. Which is why, I want to suggest in conclusion, Jewett could but usually chose not to write conventional “plot.”

“A White Heron” has plot. Although Jewett lamented as a young writer, in a famous bit of posing, that she could not construct plot, “A White Heron” shows that she very well could and would. She wrote to Horace Scudder at the Atlantic Monthly when she was twenty-four: “But I don't believe I could write a long story as … you advise me in this last letter. In the first place, I have no dramatic talent. The story would have no plot. I should have to fill it out with descriptions of character and meditations. It seems to me I can furnish the theatre, and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there never is any play!”11 “A White Heron” not only shows Jewett's considerable dramatic talent; it conforms to classic inherited western plot structure. Sylvia lives happily with her grandmother (exposition). A stranger arrives who wants her to violate her own principles and show him where the heron nests (conflict). She falls in love with that stranger (complication). She decides she will deliver the bird to him (climax). She reverses that decision and loses the man's flattering attention (resolution). The story, dramatically organized in terms of protagonist and antagonist, contains all the elements of conventional linear plot development: exposition, conflict, complication, climax, resolution. Indeed, structure could hardly be tighter. “A White Heron” is an almost perfect example of traditional “mainstream” western narrative structure.

That traditional inherited structure strikingly resembles the perceptual mode of men described by some modern psychologists. In In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (1982), for example, Carol Gilligan explains that male and female developmental journeys and goals are not the same; we are taught to take different routes and to arrive at contrasting destinations. She finds that “while men represent powerful activity as assertion and aggression, women in contrast portray acts of nurturance as acts of strength” and says that men and women, translating these different definitions of successful development into pictorial images, tend to visualize their lives in very different terms. “The images of hierarchy and web,” Gilligan says, “drawn from the texts of men's and women's fantasies and thoughts, convey different ways of structuring relationships and are associated with different views of morality and self.” They “inform different modes of assertion and response: the wish [of men] to be alone at the top and the consequent fear that others will get too close; the wish [of women] to be at the center of connection and the consequent fear of being too far out on the edge.”12 As I have argued elsewhere, conventional western written narrative such as Jewett lamented not being able to reproduce corresponds in important ways to the hierarchical mode described here by Gilligan. Created by men, standard dramatic structure is linear (starts at one point and moves forward to another point); pinnacle-oriented (moves by stages or steps, often clearly identifiable, to a climactic top point); asymmetric (the high point usually occurs between the middle and the end); and relationally exclusive rather than accumulative (relationships compete with and replace each other to keep the action moving forward). The result is narrative structure that works on a ladder principle: action and tension mount as we progress through the fiction to its climax, its high point, situated close to the end.13

This traditional, masculine, narrative progression precisely describes the shape of “A White Heron,” a story about rejecting patriarchal prescriptions. In effect Jewett literally moves Sylvia through the very plot the girl must decide whether or not to be part of. To use Gilligan's images: onto Sylvia's world of web, a pattern grounded in affectional reciprocity rather than aggression, is superimposed a new pattern: one of hierarchy or ladder. Based not on relationality but on aggression,14 this pattern is essentially masculine. Whereas Sylvia has been accustomed to meandering in loops and spirals with Mistress Moolly the cow, upon the stranger's arrival she is thrust into a new structure. It is one that formally, in the way it literally mounts toward its climax, reproduces the ethical and psychosexual journey that a girl heading into puberty is supposed to take. She is supposed to abandon her matrisexually structured life for a phallically dictated one. In “A White Heron” Sylvia tries the new pattern out. When she climbs the tree she actually scales the story's climax: content and form coalesce completely. Jewett makes Sylvia the protagonist of a plot classically masculine in its tight linear, climax-oriented structure.

After testing the pattern, after putting on the male-focused identity expected of her and traveling along the plotted line laid out for girls in heterosexual patriarchal culture, Sylvia resists. She returns to her circles of earthbound meanders with the cow—as does Jewett. Having perfectly reproduced traditional male-defined narrative structure she writes against it in her ultrafeminine last paragraph, full of flowery, personal invocations and hovering apostrophes. This flossy feminine paragraph rips the fiction formally very much as Sylvia's contrasting rhetoric—her complete silence—has already torn up the hunter's plot. Thematically and formally the conclusion of “A White Heron” rejects the shape of violence—the masculine plot—it has reproduced in order to challenge.15

“This is my birthday,” Jewett wrote in 1897 at the age of 48, “and I am always nine years old.”16 To be nine years old in Jewett is not to be “arrested.” It is to be poised on the edge of the most important decision a woman makes in life, whether or not to stay in the magical yet “natural” realm of the mother. In fairy tale terms, that is the realm of the witch and deciding to stay not only means deciding against the prince; it means deciding in favor of the witch. That figure in a nine-year-old, to come full circle and quote Starhawk as I end, is not a midwife or a hag. “She is the Maiden, the Virgin … belonging to herself alone, not bound to any man. She is the wild child, lady of the woods, the huntress, free and untamed—Artemis, Kore, Aradia, Nimue. White is her color.”17 Sylvia, Jewett's fairy tale says, is her name.


  1. Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), pp. 15–16.

  2. Sarah Orne Jewett, “A White Heron,” in Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, ed. Mary Ellen Chase (New York: Norton, 1981), p. 229. All quotations from the story are from this edition.

  3. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs, I (Autumn 1975), 9–10.

  4. Josephine Donovan, New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983), p. 109.

  5. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp. 182–83.

  6. Richard Brenzo reads the profession similarly when he says that, symbolically, the ornithologist represents the choice for Sylvia of being “caught, raped, killed, stuffed, and put on display in a man's house.” See “Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia's Choice in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron,’” Colby Library Quarterly, XIV (1978), 41.

  7. For an excellent essay discussing this as well as other basic characteristics of traditional fairy tales from a feminist point of view, see Ellen Cronan Rose, “Through the Looking Glass: When Women Tell Fairy Tales,” The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, eds. Elizabeth Abel, Marianna Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland (Hanover, N.H.: Univ. Press of New England, 1983), pp. 209–27.

  8. For interesting mention of the story's revision of “Cinderella” see Donovan, pp. 109–10. Also valuable as general discussions of the story are the essays on “A White Heron” in Gwen Nagel, Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984); George Held, “Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at ‘A White Heron,’” pp. 58–68; and Gayle L. Smith, “The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron,’” pp. 69–76.

  9. Possibly this stately, life-supporting tree was inspired by Jewett's reading of an odd book by P. A. Chadbourne called Instinct: Its Office in the Animal Kingdom and Its Relation to the Higher Powers in Man (1872, 1883), which she mentions with enthusiasm in a letter in 1872. (See Richard Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett Letters [Waterville, Maine, Colby College Press, 1967], p. 24.) Chadbourne talks in detail about the unbroken connection between human life and the life of the rest of the planet and argues that we are all—plant, animal, human—part of one vast complex system of interdependence. He seems to believe that if we allowed human nature to realize itself (instead of fighting against our “nature”) we might create a human world that functioned as well as the natural one. He states, for example: “Every tree is a community of individuals” and says that trees depend on their environment to live but they also, his comparisons to coral and nests imply, give back to the community by supporting others. Whether or not Jewett had in mind this discussion in Chadbourne, her tree in “A White Heron” is just such a living organism, independent and yet fully integrated into and participating in the network of life around and in it. See P. A. Chadbourne (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1872, 1883), pp. 56–57.

  10. The parallels here to Thorstein Veblen's theory of sexual economics are obvious. See Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899).

  11. Cary, Letters, p. 29.

  12. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 167–68, 62.

  13. In this paragraph I borrow heavily from an earlier discussion of Jewett. See Ammons, “Going in Circles: The Female Geography of Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs,Studies in the Literary Imagination, XVI (Fall 1983), 83–92. On Jewett's aesthetic also see Josephine Donovan, “Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes toward a Feminine Literary Mode,” Critical Essays, pp. 212–25.

  14. See Gilligan, pp. 172, 46–47.

  15. For a book-length deconstructionist reading of Jewett's story which offers as a feminist interpretation the psychoanalytic (and unquestioningly heterosexual) thesis that at the heart of this story is a “secret father/daughter relation” (p. 114), a thesis based on the “surmise” that the story's narrator is paternal (p. 102), see Louis A. Renza, “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

  16. Annie Fields, Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 125.

  17. Starhawk, “Witchcraft and Women's Culture,” Womanspirit Rising, eds. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 263. I have written about witches in Jewett at length (though I say very little about “A White Heron”) in “Jewett's Witches,” Critical Essays, pp. 165–84.

Terry Heller (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Communion in Jewett's ‘A White Heron,’” Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 182–194.

[In the following essay, Heller explores Jewett's use of tense shifts, apostrophes to objects in the story, and direct address by the narrator, techniques that were found in sentimental fiction of Jewett's time but which she largely eschewed.]

Readers have observed duplicity in the rhetoric of Sarah Orne Jewett's “A White Heron” (1886). On the one hand the story realizes a number of the conventions of realistic narrative, yet on the other hand there are several violations of these conventions, especially at the level of narrative voice. The violations consist of odd shifts between past and present tense, apostrophes to objects in the story, and direct addresses by the narrator to the reader and to Sylvia, the main character. Narrative activities such as these tend to be seen as violations of the rhetoric of realistic fiction for at least two interesting reasons. First, they are most commonly found during the nineteenth century in the sentimental fiction of “women's” magazines. For example, they occur frequently in Jewett's early magazine fiction that appears in The Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. In such locations these rhetorical devices nearly always contribute to a moralizing tone, when “good” values or sentiments are enjoined upon the reader or a character. Second, as Wayne Booth illustrates in Part 1 of The Rhetoric of Fiction, such techniques were increasingly suspect among Jewett's realist contemporaries because they seemed to subvert what was becoming the central “rule” of realistic narrative, that the narrator who is not a character should seem invisible: “The novelist must not, by taking sides, exhibit his preferences. … He has … to render and not to tell. …” (Ford Madox Ford in Booth 25).

It is worth observing that Jewett gradually abandoned using tense shifts, direct addresses, and apostrophes, so that they appear rarely in the fiction she collected into books. “A White Heron” is virtually the lone exception among her better-known works, and it remains her single best-known and most popular piece of fiction. These two observations would tend to suggest that her choice to use techniques here that she had generally abandoned by the time she wrote this story was in some way a right choice. This story has held its own in a literary climate that has not, on the whole, been favorable to Jewett's works.

The apparent duplicity of Jewett's rhetoric in “A White Heron” has contributed to critical ambivalence about the story. We can see such a response in Jewett's difficulties finding a magazine publisher for what is now her most famous story. William Dean Howells, who published a number of Jewett's stories, rejected this one because it was too romantic (Griffith 22). In response to this rejection, Jewett wrote to her friend Annie Fields: “Mr. Howells thinks that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more; but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all. It must be the fault of the writers that such writing is dull, but what shall I do with my ‘White Heron’ now she is written? She isn't a very good magazine story, but I love her, and I mean to keep her for the beginning of my next book …” (Held in Nagel 58).

The early reviewers responded at least indirectly to this duplicity. They tended, even in praising the story, to belittle it with qualifications. For example, the reviewer for Overland Monthly said the story “is perfect in its way—a tiny classic. One little episode of a child life, among birds and woods, makes it up; and the secret soul of a child, the appeal of the bird to its instinctive honor and tenderness, never were interpreted with more beauty and insight” (in Nagel 34). While this is high praise, the author cannot resist using qualifiers—“in its way, tiny classic, little episode”—and referring to Sylvia as an “it.” This language, especially neutering Sylvia, contrasts starkly with Jewett's personifying the story itself as female in her letter.

The doubleness of Jewett's rhetoric has earned negative criticism from recent critics, such as Richard Cary (101–02) and Josephine Donovan (70–71), and excuses about Jewett's lack of control from readers such as George Held (in Nagel 58–60). Even the most interesting among the defenders of Jewett's rhetoric, Elizabeth Ammons, finds herself caught in its doubleness. However, turning to Ammons' reading of the story opens a rich perspective from which to consider what Jewett may have accomplished with her double rhetoric.

Ammons does not set out to defend Jewett's narrative technique, but she finds herself doing so when she explains the strange last paragraph in which the narrator says a number of puzzling things that seem not to connect very well with the rest of the story. Nine-year-old Sylvia has found and communed with the white heron that her visiting ornithologist so desires to add to his collection of stuffed specimens, but she has refused, despite strong temptation, to tell him where he can find the bird. Jewett's narrator ends the story with exclamations and apostrophes:

Dear Loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in the day, that could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves! Many a night Sylvia heard the echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path as she came home with the loitering cow. She forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the piteous sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood. Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summertime, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!


The narrator pities Sylvia's sharp pang when the disappointed hunter leaves never to return. She explains that after this day Sylvia forgot his killing birds and, instead, missed him and dreamed of his return. The narrator asks a startling question when she wonders which is the better friend, after reminding the reader of Sylvia's now forgotten horror at the dead birds, for the story seems to have been saying all along. “Of course the birds were better friends!” But the narrator goes on to concede that Sylvia has lost “treasures” by being more loyal to the bird than to the man, and so admonishes woodlands and summer to compensate Sylvia for what she has given up. In this final passage Jewett seems to complicate matters that we might have thought simple and settled after we see Sylvia refuse to betray the heron to the hunter.

Ammons' position is that this paragraph illustrates Jewett's resistance to masculine impositions: “Having perfectly reproduced traditional male-defined narrative structure she writes against it in her ultrafeminine last paragraph, full of flowery, personal invocations and hovering apostrophes. This flossy feminine paragraph rips the fiction formally very much as Sylvia's contrasting rhetoric—her complete silence—has already torn up the hunter's plot” (Ammons, “White Heron” 16). Ammons' language seems curiously violent and ambivalent, and also rather exaggerated here. It does not appear that she really approves of this “flossy feminine” paragraph that rips and tears. Furthermore, this paragraph “sticks out” in the story much less prominently than Ammons seems to imply, for Jewett has introduced unrealistic rhetoric earlier in the story. When Sylvia climbs the pine tree and communes with the heron, the narrative rhetoric completely does away with several major conventions of realistic narration. Before examining Jewett's narrative rhetoric in more detail, it will be helpful to place the story as a whole within the rich and enlightening context that Ammons provides.

Ammons characterizes a masculine plot as the traditional linear form including in this order: exposition, conflict, complication, crisis, climax, resolution. What does Ammons mean when she labels such a plot as masculine? This is the most common plot form in fiction because writing, publishing, and reviewing fiction have been dominated by a patriarchal ideology which favors plots that reflect conventional masculine gender roles. Traditionally, industrial man's function in life has been to go outside the family into another world and to struggle there until he succeeds or fails at some enterprise. Novel plots tend to imitate this significant masculine motion. In another essay Ammons contrasts this sort of plot with what she sees as the feminine plot of The Country of the Pointed Firs. That novel she sees as structured outward from a central location in space, time, and meaning, so that it forms a web of circular movements and social ties (Ammons, “Pointed Firs” 84–86).

In “A White Heron,” says Ammons, Jewett did a perfect imitation of a masculine plot in representing Sylvia's quest for the heron. Furthermore, this plot appears in the context of a fairy tale of feminine coming of age, but with a difference. In most such tales the young woman is rescued from the clutches of an evil older woman by a handsome young man. Ammons says the meaning of this plot is that when a girl reaches puberty, she is supposed to give up her attachments to her mother and girl-friends for heterosexual love (Ammons, “‘White Heron’” 10–14). In Jewett's version the rescue fails because the young woman can have a better life by staying longer with older women, both her grandmother and Mother Nature. So, while following a traditional, masculine plot line, Jewett subverts the traditional events of one version of that plot. The final paragraph of the story is part of Jewett's subversion—with a feminine flourish—of the male plot. That plot should end when Sylvia rejects the hunter in favor of the heron, but Jewett extends it with her “flossy feminine” intrusions.

I think that Ammons is probably right to argue that in this story Jewett works against some patriarchal plots and ideas. We see a resistance of this kind in Jewett's comments on Howells' rejection of the story for his magazine. What he thinks is “real” in everyday life is not “really” all there is to see there. Jewett insists that “romance” is also “real.” A detailed examination of Jewett's style would show that her rhetoric in this story works continuously against the masculine structure with which she organizes the events. Several critical essays that examine language and style in the story vividly demonstrate how much “fantasy” the story contains: rational cows, thinking pine trees, and a child who reads animals' minds (see especially Smith in Nagel). Furthermore, the quest plot is elaborately framed with a long introduction that sets up multileveled oppositions between the two paths open for Sylvia's immediate future. The strange final paragraph extends and closes the frame. About half the story's length is given to narrating Sylvia's quest, though rhetorical heightening may make this proportion seem greater.

Ammons, then, finds doubleness in “A White Heron.” Jewett subverts a masculine plot by changing the way it ends and, also, with feminine rhetoric. I could not agree more except that I believe Ammons misunderstands or underestimates the extent and force of that rhetoric. Let us then turn to a close examination of the development of Jewett's unrealistic rhetoric in “A White Heron.”

From the very beginning of the story, as Jewett's readers have pointed out, there are elements of the fanciful and of fantasy that form an undercurrent counter to realistic narrative. In the opening, for example, the narrator takes a childlike view of the milk cow's motives and behavior. This move unobtrusively but decisively identifies the reader with Sylvia's point of view, showing why she values the cow's companionship and what she gains from it. The narrative rhetoric gradually becomes more obtrusive, however, beginning with an arbitrary tense shift, proceeding through a direct address to the reader, and climaxing when Sylvia meets the heron in a complex set of tense shifts and direct addresses.

The first arbitrary tense shift breaks the narrative flow on several levels, including the grammatical level where it catches the reader's attention. It occurs as Sylvia drives the cow homeward. She thinks about her old life in town and remembers something unpleasant:

[T]he thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees.

Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird's whistle, but a boy's whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive. Sylvia left the cow to whatever sad fate might await her, and stepped discreetly aside into the bushes, but she was just too late. The enemy had discovered her. …


An unpleasant memory disturbs Sylvia's quiet and benign relations with the cow. The shift to present tense coincides with the reappearance of that threat in the present, forcing her actually to abandon her friend. This move to present tense signals disruptions in the narrative: in time, mood, and plot development. Except for time, these disruptions belong to a traditional plot in that they introduce conflict. If we assume that the shift is a deliberate rhetorical choice rather than a lapse revealing Jewett's lack of expertise or control, how can we explain it? What positive effects may be gained from this shift?

Clearly the tense shift is not necessary to introduce conflict. And as a device for heightening tension at the moment of introducing conflict, it seems “cheap” and clumsy. Surely Jewett was well aware of this. The risk seems unnecessary, unless there is something really important to be gained. Were this the only such anomaly in the story, we could not make much of an argument in its defense. But since more such anomalies will follow this one, we can begin here to think about how they work on readers.

If we take the tense shift as thoughtfully chosen by the narrator, then we are forced to see the narrator as potentially a force in the story. Wayne Booth, for one, has pointed out that overt attempts to control a reader's reactions tend to expose a narration as an artificial construct (The Rhetoric of Fiction 205). By arbitrarily shifting tense, Jewett's narrator becomes visible, or comes into existence as an artificer. The narrator reveals to the reader one of her powers, to change the time relations between reader and story. Were we readers inclined simply to surrender to the rhetorical force of using the present tense, we would find ourselves more consciously participating in the enactment of narration.

The disruption of arbitrarily shifting the verb tense is likely to be felt as both right and wrong simultaneously. Past tense narration is, after all, only a convention of telling. It is exceedingly difficult to read any narration while maintaining a sense of its pastness, for the story is realized in the “present tense” of our acts of reading. Jewett's shift calls attention to the “real” condition of our reading. Insofar as we have allowed ourselves as readers to become intimately involved with Sylvia's contentment in her country refuge, we and she have entered the same experienced time. Insofar as the shift to present tense is felt as right, it draws us into deeper identification with Sylvia and, perhaps, with the narrator. We experience the violation of the dominant grammatical tense at the same instant that we share Sylvia's shock at the violation of her rural peace. Our sharing with the character is deepened and is pointedly placed in the same time as her shock, the present of our act of reading.

There is, of course, little reason to grant so much rhetorical power to the placement of the word “is” in a position where we expected “was” unless other more weighty parts of the story support these ways of handling this anomaly. While the major justification for this reading comes in the climactic scene with the heron, I must delay our discussion of the key scene a little longer in order to examine Jewett's second major disruption of the narrative flow. Doing so will show how she sets up the climactic scene and will allow an exploration of another kind of disruption, the address to the reader.

Jewett's narrator addresses the reader directly early in Part II of the story. The address occupies the position of a transition between Sylvia's going to the tree and beginning her climb:

[S]he stole out of the house … listening with a sense of comfort and companionship to the drowsy twitter of a half-awakened bird, whose perch she had jarred in passing. Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfaction of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!


Like the tense shift, this exclamation seems out of place and unnecessary. The previous sentence, in which Sylvia jars and disturbs the bird, effectively conveys the danger into which she is entering. She has found the young bird collector very attractive, and she is tempted to turn away from the comparatively isolated rural life in which she has blossomed for a year, back toward the more masculine, urban life that threatened to prevent her becoming a complete self. Though this turn would be a mistake, the story also conveys in several ways that such a turn is inevitable. Eventually, Sylvia must rejoin the larger human community, but only after she has successfully grown into a self in the way that seems best to suit her—on the quiet, slow farm with her grandmother. Because the story fairly obviously conveys these attitudes, it is superfluous for the narrator to make such a statement. Yet the narrator makes the statement and underlines its oddness by addressing it directly to the reader.

Surely Jewett was well aware of how this statement would jar the tone of the narrative, calling attention to itself and to a growing relationship between narrator and reader as observers in an eternal present of the narrated events. One further sign of Jewett's self-consciousness is that this second major departure from narrative distance echoes the first one. It disturbs the narrative as Sylvia disturbs the bird. It comes at a moment when Sylvia is in danger, though this time she is less aware of her danger. Indeed her lack of awareness seems to generate the address. We readers and the narrator think the same thought. This seems to me the main rhetorical effect of the address. It is as if the narrator and the reader looked each other in the eye and understood our agreement as we watch Sylvia ignorantly moving toward an undesirable fate. The address produces and explicitly acknowledges a moment of sympathy between two consciousnesses who are concerned for Sylvia. The narrative voice, then, claims to speak for the reader, voicing what should be the reader's thought. This amounts to an assertion of communion between narrator and reader as we contemplate Sylvia.

I have been describing how the two most disturbing, early diversions from a third-person, past-tense narration might work in “A White Heron.” The shift to present tense and the direct address could be moves toward establishing the narrator and reader as self-conscious co-creators of the narration. Both intrusions could reduce the distance in time and mental location between narrator and reader; they could tend to move us into the same imaginative space and time. If we are willing to trust the author's skill, if we give in to these odd elements rather than resist them as signs of narrative weakness, we may at least find ourselves more disposed to let go of the conventional boundaries that tend to divide narrator, character, and reader from each other in realistic narrative. A close reading of Sylvia's adventure on the pine tree will show what we readers have to gain if we follow through with the disposition Jewett may have created.

Sylvia's climb, as we have seen, takes place in the context of a specific danger to her well-being. She goes to the pine to locate the heron: “[I]f one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest” (234)? Sylvia has conceived the notion of taking all the world at once into her consciousness. If she succeeds, then she will be able to give a piece of that world to the attractive young hunter who wandered to her home two nights before. But, as the first address to the reader shows, the story has so controlled our reactions to the hunter and to Sylvia that we readers and the narrator want Sylvia to resist his desire to find the white heron. To give the heron away has become tantamount to sweeping away the progress she has made in discovering herself; it will amount to giving herself away, a great error, since she is as vast a world as the one she will see from atop the tree, and neither world really can be known in an instant. Her problem, as she climbs the tree, is that she has not yet discovered that she will lose herself if she flows now with the great wave of human interest that is flooding her little life for the first time. Jewett emphasizes this danger during the climb by repeatedly describing Sylvia as birdlike: her hands and feet like claws, her climbing upward as in first flight, her being at home in the trees, her desire to fly. And images emphasizing her paleness connect her specifically to the heron, as do images that connect both her and the heron with the rising sun.

Jewett prepares the reader for the strangeness of Sylvia's meeting the heron with more fantasy like that which opens the story. However, we do not see the tree from Sylvia's point of view as we did the cow. Here the narrator pointedly asks us readers to share with her imagining of the possible thoughts and actions of the pine:

The tree … must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit creeping and climbing from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet-voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and held away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east.


Sylvia is to the tree as her blood is to her, “coursing the channels of her whole frame” (235). Sylvia and the tree seem one in consciousness and desire, though she may not herself be aware of this oneness. Contributing freely to her vitality, unconscious of danger, all living things abet Sylvia in what could turn out to be her greatest error. Implicit in such gifts from nature is an assurance that unity of spirit, the “existence heart to heart with nature,” is the more powerful force in Sylvia's life and that it is even now asserting itself.

The reader is more directly exposed to that power after Sylvia attains her pinnacle and finally sees the “vast and awesome world” from the endless—seeming eastern sea to the also endless, settled westward land (238). The two paragraphs describing Sylvia's encounter with the heron subvert any pretense to a realistic rhetoric.

In the first paragraph, she sees the heron:

At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron's nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once before you will see him again; look! look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. And wait! wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest, and plumes his feathers for the day!


The first four sentences of this passage reenact the general pattern we observed in the first two disruptions of realistic narrative. We move from identifying with Sylvia's consciousness in the past tense, through a pair of questions that are at least ambiguous in their source, to a present tense address from the narrator to Sylvia. If Jewett's rhetoric has worked as a rhetoric of communion, then at this point in the story, we are well prepared to accept that the voice of our readerly sympathy coincides with the narrative voice. When that voice asks where the nest is, we see Sylvia's head scanning the marsh, but because the words are not Sylvia's spoken thoughts, we also feel the question as the narrator's and as our own. The second question moves us further in this direction, for how could Sylvia—overwhelmed as she is by the vision of all the world before her, exhilarated as she is by the sensation that she is flying out into that world—how could she feel or express disappointment? How could she ask whether this vision is her only reward? The reader and the narrator are the ones who want more for her, though we join the pine tree as well in that what we want is to complete her communion with the world, for her to experience as fully as possible “the satisfaction of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest.” The second question belongs to us, a composite voice of narrator, reader, and nature. And it is this composite, communing voice that next speaks to Sylvia. We speak in the present tense, acknowledging that the moment of Sylvia's vision is eternally present and that we are in it together. In this moment we take over her body, directing her movements, our thoughts becoming her thoughts. We tell her where to look, and she looks there. We tell her not to move and to withhold her consciousness; she remains still and lets the impression of the moment flow in.

Only as the heron withdraws do we withdraw our restraining presence from her consciousness:

The child gives a long sigh a minute later when a company of shouting cat-birds comes also to the tree, and vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness the solemn heron goes away. She knows his secret now, the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath. Then Sylvia, well satisfied, makes her perilous way down again. …


We leave her well satisfied, knowing fully the satisfaction of communion with nature, which has also been communion with us. Having helped her restrain the arrow of her consciousness, we have also helped the heron to become the arrow of her consciousness as it returns to its home in the green world, which is, on a metaphorical level, the current best home for her growing spirit. We have completed the identification that images and comparisons have been asserting between the brave, pale, light, slender girl and the wild, white, light, arrow-like bird.

Jewett then uses a fragmentary sentence to introduce a threat to Sylvia's achieved unity: “Wondering over and over again what the stranger would say to her, and what he would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron's nest” (238). This slight grammatical jar returns us to the past tense. We see the worried grandmother and the hunter who is anxious to compel Sylvia to tell the secret he believes she has discovered. However, as soon as we turn to Sylvia's consciousness, we return to the present tense:

Here she comes now, paler than ever. … The grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door together and question her. …

But Sylvia does not speak after all. …

No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing, and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird's sake? The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away.


As the heron's cry back to its mate might suggest, there are, in fact, two great worlds. When Sylvia stands atop the pine, she can see them both: the world of settled humanity and the world of the dumb creatures of forest and sea. Given her tendency to quiet introspection, the latter world is the right one for her to grow up in, though she cannot avoid the former if she is finally to be happy. Most of Jewett's other works of fiction repeatedly emphasize the importance of human communion to human happiness. Sylvia needs first to discover herself apart from the kind of society represented by whistling boys, collecting hunters, and noisy catbirds. This is not the right time to take the proffered hand of the great world that is imaged as a “great wave of human interest.”

The great world that Sylvia chooses by identification with its silence is the world that makes her dumb. In images, it consists of all that she has seen on her trip to find the heron. But rhetorically it consists of the narrator and the reader in concert with a sort of consciousness in nature. We have become nature's voice in the story. We have spoken inside Sylvia, controlling her body and her consciousness, and finally enforcing her silence. We have been the self that she is in the process of discovering and, in performing this function at the behest of Jewett's unusual rhetoric, we have communed with Sylvia, with the natural scenes she experiences, and with all who have ever or will ever read this story.

“A White Heron” is a great story, in part because Jewett found a rhetoric that could overcome the pretenses of separation between narrator, reader, and character that are characteristic of realistic fiction. Like the great American transcendentalists, Thoreau in Walden and Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” she sought and found means of using language to stimulate something like visionary experience in the reader.

I think we can now see that the last paragraph is consistent with the rhetoric of the whole story. It is probably wrong to say that this paragraph rips and tears at the rest of the story, though it may indeed do to the masculine plot what Sylvia's silence did to the hunter's plans for the white heron. Sylvia's silence, as we have seen, is not hers alone but is rather of a piece with the dumb life of the forest. That silence arises out of a communion we readers have experienced and is the means by which we acknowledge and treasure that communion. Our silence affirms the irreducible value and mystery of individual lives. Though one may try to take, possess, or collect such lives, one suffers under an illusion as long as one believes anything substantial is gained by the effort. This is the hunter's illusion, and it is the major sign of his incompletion. This incompletion is signaled both times he seems most threatening to Sylvia's growth, in the fragmentary sentence that announces his whistle (229) and in the second fragmentary sentence when Sylvia anticipates telling him the heron's secret (238). When Sylvia gives him silence in response to his desire, she gives him the greatest gift she has for him, the same gift she has just received. This is the gift that can make him whole. The power of such a gift is hinted in Mrs. Tilley's account of how her son changed her husband's life by daring him and running away (232).

How is the ornithologist fragmented? Critics have tended to associate him with the greatest evils of Western civilization: Satan, sexism, commercial exploitation, cultural tyranny, materialism, matricide, and mad scientists. Yet most of these critics are forced to recognize that Sylvia, Mrs. Tilley, and the narrator find the hunter a personable and attractive person. The only serious problem Sylvia has with him is that he kills the birds he knows and loves so well (233). Taken out of the traditional context that establishes some personal or sacramental relationship with the hunted animal, the bird collector's actions do indeed seem reprehensible. Jewett reveals in him a dangerous aggressiveness by associating him with the pursuing red-faced boy, by making him an ornithologist who kills the birds he loves most for the purposes of knowing and possessing them, and by having him offer comfort and money in exchange for Sylvia's loyalty to her animal friends. He clearly threatens Sylvia by tempting her to leave her hermitage before she achieves a self. Still, he does not lack grace: “he told her many things about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves” (233). The problem with the hunter is not that he is inherently evil; rather he is incomplete. Were everyone always to behave as the hunter does and never as Sylvia learns to in her vision, we would all always kill the things we love, or at least frighten them away with the arrows of our consciousness. If he shared fully the sacramental view of the heron that Sylvia gains, he would give up the gun and simply walk the woods to see the birds, valuing imaginative over literal possession. What the hunter needs is to be rescued from the excesses of his culture's ideology of masculinity, from the rigidity of his failed quest plot. He cannot complete that plot himself; therefore he sends Sylvia on his behalf after the bird. When she gives him silence instead of the bird, she still acts on his behalf though he does not yet understand this. For to be complete the hunter needs to learn another kind of possession, the kind of imaginative communion with a living spirit that Thoreau, in his chapter in Walden on “Higher Laws,” says led him to give up his gun.

The story's final paragraph seems not to be about destruction but rather about redemption and healing. It completes an opposition that the story has sustained within its rhetoric and between its plot and rhetoric. Realistic rhetoric and plot have moved the story toward Sylvia's moment of decision when she may choose silence or speech. As Ammons shows, there are powerful traditional and conventional forces that would tend to affirm an ending in which Sylvia chooses human society over nature. One of these forces is the set of cultural values implicit in one kind of fairy tale of female coming of age in which the young woman leaves evil older women to place herself in the care of a questing man, e.g., “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” However, we have seen that Jewett's rhetoric works consistently against such expectations and urgently engages us readers on the side of communion with nature. Of course there is another tradition, visible for example in Romantic transcendentalism, that would tend to make absolute the choice of communion with nature as preferable to communion with humanity. But Jewett's rhetoric also closes off any simplistic version of this response. Both conventional patriarchy and Romantic pantheism are incomplete. The former will prevent Sylvia from becoming a person capable of communion; the latter will cut her off from complex human relations so that she could eventually become like “poor” Joanna in The Country of the Pointed Firs, incapable of human relations. The story has sought to heal this division by means of visionary experience in which various “characters” experience communion while contemplating nature together.

Among the effects upon a reader of entering into the kind of communion Jewett offers in “A White Heron” is the experience of that communion. Such an experience can be redemptive. Readers tend to come to the story saturated with the rhetoric of realistic fiction, where the characters, however much we may sympathize with them, remain outside of and separate from ourselves. Jewett's rhetoric undoes such separations; it “rescues” us from loneliness and takes us into the human communion that writing essentially is. Our communion continues into the final paragraph, where we participate in further acts of healing.

In the last paragraph Jewett dramatizes human incompletion and acknowledges the value of human communion. That Sylvia wants to belong to both great worlds points to the incompleteness of each. Sylvia's legitimate desire to belong to the great world of human interest leads her to purify the hunter in her memory. The narrator rhetorically underlines what Sylvia forgets by detailing the violence of the dead and bloodied birds the hunter produced, yet grants and even admires the desire in Sylvia that forgets and so forgives. It really is not certain whether the birds were better friends to Sylvia than their hunter might have been. She will have lost treasures by rejecting the path he offered her. For one thing, she is a lonely country girl, and to love someone, even uncritically as a dog does, may be preferable to loneliness. Nevertheless, when the narrator prays to nature to bring gifts and graces to Sylvia, we readers are confident that nature will not cease to offer its gifts, just as we and Whitman are confident in the last movement of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that the landscape of that poem will continue to give itself to the eye and to indicate what it “really” is to all who look with vision enhanced by Whitman's incantations.

Sylvia, in imagination, heals and redeems the hunter. Her silence toward him reenacts nature's silence toward her and so stands as an always-open offer to him of actual redemption if he will learn how to read her silence, how to look with her. Sylvia has become the focus of a visionary occasion of communion between narrator, reader, and nature; this occasion offers to heal the divisions valorized by the conventions of realistic narrative while offering redemption from the ideology of exploitation that corrupts the hunter. Jewett has created a moment of timeless unity between narrator, character, and reader by means of her rhetoric of communion. In doing so, she may reform and, thereby, alter the meaning of the masculine quest plot at the center of her story; she may create an imaginative space where masculine doing and feminine seeing may meet in temporary transcendence of their ancient opposition. That space is in the composite narrative voice of this story, where we readers may all be united for a moment—at least in our imaginations—with the wholeness of being that includes both nature and human will, both the feminine and the masculine, both seeing and doing.

Sources Cited and a Selection of Sources Consulted

Ammons, Elizabeth. “Going in Circles: The Female Geography of Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs.Studies in Literary Imagination, 16(2) (Fall 1983), 83–92.

———. “The Shape of Violence in Jewett's ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Library Quarterly, 22(1) (March 1986), 6–16.

“Review of A White Heron and Other Stories.Harper's, 74 (February 1887), 483.

Atkinson, Michael. “The Necessary Extravagance of Sarah Orne Jewett: Voices of Authority in ‘A White Heron.’” Studies in Short Fiction, 19(1) (Winter 1982), 71–74.

Booth, Wayne C.The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961.

Brenzo, Richard. “Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia's Choice in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron.’”Colby Library Quarterly, 14 (1978), 36–41.

Cary, Richard.Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne, 1962.

Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Gwen L. Nagel. Boston: Hall, 1984.

Donovan, Josephine.Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Ungar, 1980.

Griffith, Kelley. “Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron.’”Colby Library Quarterly, 21(1) (March 1985), 22–27.

Hovet, Theodore. “America's ‘Lonely Country Child’: The Theme of Separation in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Library Quarterly, 14 (1978), 166–71.

———. “‘Once Upon a Time’: Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron’ as a Fairy Tale.”Studies in Short Fiction, 15 (Winter 1978), 63–68.

Jewett, Sarah Orne.The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, ed. Mary Ellen Chase. New York: Norton, 1982.

———. The Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Richard Cary. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1971.

Matthiessen, F. O.Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

Pool, Eugene. “The Child in Sarah Orne Jewett.” Rpt. in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Richard Cary. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973, 223–28.

Renza, Louis A. “A White Heronand the Question of Minor Literature. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Singley, Carol. “Reaching Lonely Heights: Sarah Orne Jewett, Emily Dickinson, and Female Initiation.” Colby Library Quarterly, 22(1) (March 1986), 75–82.

Stevenson, Catherine Barnes. “The Double Consciousness of the Narrator in Sarah Orne Jewett's Fiction.” Colby Library Quarterly, 11 (1975), 1–12.

Jules Zanger (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4263

SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and ‘A White Heron’: Correspondences and Illuminations,” Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 346–357.

[In the following essay, Zanger compares and contrasts the themes, settings, narrative sequences, imagery, and dynamics of “A White Heron” with Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story “Young Goodman Brown” and suggests that these works illuminate each other.]

It has become a commonplace of Sarah Orne Jewett criticism to observe, usually in passing, the parallels between her work and that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some critics find stylistic similarities, others thematic ones; there is general agreement about their shared concern with New England. Edward Garnett wrote that Jewett “ranked second only to Hawthorne in her interpretation of the spirit of New England Soil” (40–41). Van Wyck Brooks concluded his essay on Jewett in New England: Indian Summer by saying, “No one since Hawthorne had pictured this New England world with such exquisite freshness of feeling” (347–53). Other critics, notably Thompson (485–97), found traces of Hawthorne's influence in Jewett's “The Gray Man” and “The Landscape Chamber.” More recently, Louis Renza makes a “bizarre” (his term) attempt to link Jewett's “A White Heron” to “The Minister's Black Veil” through the intermediary color coding of her “The Gray Man” and his “The Gray Champion” (142–52).

These adumbrations made, most critics have felt it unnecessary to identify, except in the most general and allusive ways, specific parallels, or influences, or variations linking one particular Hawthorne tale with one of Jewett's. I wish to demonstrate that such a detailed relationship does exist between what are probably two of the best known and most frequently anthologized stories of those writers: Jewett's “A White Heron” (1886) and Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). A comparison of these stories reveals a series of shared elements: themes, settings, narrative sequences, images, and dynamics—whose extensiveness suggests the possibility that in “A White Heron,” at least, Jewett's indebtedness to Hawthorne, conscious or otherwise, extended well beyond the generalized relationships described above. The frequency and directness of these shared elements make it possible to read “A White Heron” as a personal variation upon the Hawthorne story: in the variations and transformations performed on “Young Goodman Brown” Jewett's particular vision is most fully revealed; at the same time, Jewett's story helps illuminate certain obscure elements in “Young Goodman Brown.”

Both stories begin at sundown, Brown leaving Salem and Faith to walk upon a road “darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest.” Sylvy, Jewett's protagonist, also first appears at sunset “going away from whatever light there was and striking deep into the woods.” Almost immediately, both encounter the unnamed strangers with whom they will struggle. In both stories the strangers appear to be invoked by the fears of the characters. Brown, saying to himself, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow?” immediately afterward beholds the figure of the stranger with the staff. Sylvy, remembering the noisy town in which she lived before coming to her grandmother's farm, and recalling the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her, is suddenly startled by the aggressive whistle of the young man with the gun. In both cases, the apprehension precedes the appearance.

Sylvy's stranger is linked to the “crowded manufacturing town” by the image of the red-faced boy who introduces him. Brown's stranger, he tells us in almost his first words, has just arrived from Boston. In the course of the stories, both these anonymous intruders are revealed to be hunters and tempters, offering knowledge, money, sexuality, a vision of the great world. Each potential victim accepts from his tempter his token, Satan giving Brown his staff, the hunter giving Sylvy his knife. Both protagonists, Brown and Sylvy, succumb to those temptations. Brown exclaims, “Come, devil, for to thee is this world given,” and when the converts are called, “Goodman Brown stepped forth from the shadows of the trees and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart” (86). Sylvy, after ascending to the pinnacle of the tree and “witnessing the wonderful sight and pageant of the world,” descends fully committed to betraying the secret of the heron's nest to the hunter: “wondering over and over again what the stranger would say to her, and what he would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron's nest” (156).

Both, of course, change their minds, and they do this in ways which are remarkably similar. Brown, who until the moment of satanic baptism, has apparently acquiesced in the ritual, suddenly cries, “look up to heaven and resist the wicked one” (88). To this point we have been privy to Brown's thoughts through the medium of the omniscient narrator; from the moment in which he and Faith stand before the altar, we are rigorously excluded from them, so that his decision to reject Satan comes as an inexplicable surprise. Between his joining the satanic congregation and his rejecting it, no single incident or insight is provided to motivate or explain Brown's change of heart. Indeed, the final element which had convinced him to join the Devil's party—his conviction of Faith's sin as ambiguously evidenced by the pink ribbon—now appears to be absolutely confirmed by her presence at the altar. Brown's reversion to virtue, if that is what it is, remains a mystery.

Sylvy's decision to deny to the hunter and the grandmother the location of the heron's nest is just as surprising and inexplicable as Brown's change of heart. Employing an omniscient narrator, Jewett permits the reader to share Sylvy's thoughts all through the long climb to the top of the pine, the subsequent discovery of the heron's nest, and the dangerous descent. At the end of that descent, “well-satisfied,” she remains fully determined to reveal to the hunter the location of the nest. At that point, Jewett shifts her focus to the grandmother and the hunter waiting at the farm for Sylvy's news. “But Sylvy does not speak after all, though the old grandmother fretfully rebukes her, and the young man's kind, appealing eyes are looking straight into her own …” (157). That is, in the interval, marked appropriately by white space, between her descent from the tree and her arrival at the farm, something has happened to radically alter her intentions. We are told only after the fact that “the murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvy cannot speak. …” But this is no adequate explanation of her change of heart, since it was immediately after this remembered experience that she was most committed to revealing the secret. As with Brown's decision to reject Satan, we are faced again with a mystery. Without speculating as to whether these reversals may be read as illustrations of the interventions of a mysterious providence, I would suggest that as dramatic strategies intended to manipulate the reader's sensibility they are remarkably like each other, moving the reader first to apprehension, then to an unexpected though desired resolution.

In the actual conclusions of both these stories, however, we discover that the apparent resolutions are no resolutions at all. Brown's denial of Satan is at best an equivocal act and his subsequent life one of desperation and gloom. Hawthorne's ending is doubly inconclusive, leaving the reader with at least two questions: “Was it a dream?” and, more seriously, was Brown's single act of recantation worth the profound dislocation and isolation of his subsequent life? In the same way, Sylvy's refusal to tell the heron's secret, which appears to be both triumphant and conclusive, is immediately called into question by the intrusive narrator: “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,—who can tell?” And this uncertainty is emphasized in the narrator's final adjuration: “Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summertime, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child” (158). This entreaty offers to the reader no positive resolution, formally balancing as it does “the treasures that were lost to her” against the gifts, graces, and secrets that Nature might bring. Both stories end in deliberate ambiguity, denying to the reader any easy moral or ideological closure or resolution.1

In the end, both characters return to communities with which they had enjoyed ties of affection and trust, ties now breached by their experiences in the forest. Brown's profound distrust of his wife and his townsfolk is echoed obliquely by Sylvy's unwillingness to trust the heron's secret to her grandmother and the hunter. As if to underline her isolation, the last words of the story are “this lonely country child.”

All of these parallels—of settings, images, themes, strategies of rhetoric—link these otherwise quite different stories and suggest that Jewett wrote “A White Heron” out of profound familiarity with “Young Goodman Brown.” Certainly the shared elements establish connections between the two which make it legitimate to regard Jewett's story, written a half century later, as a variation upon what was perhaps Hawthorne's best-known tale. In the transformations her distinctive vision imposed, we can discover illuminations of both stories.

On the most general level, it is as if Jewett had translated Hawthorne's symbolic allegory into the realistic mode of post-Civil War fiction. Certainly Hawthorne's tale, though localized by history and myth, shows little evidence of the local color writer's concern with the particulars of regional landscape, dialect speech, or economy, all of which we find in “A White Heron.” Jewett's work displays many other characteristics usually associated with the local color movement and especially with the contemporary fiction of New England women writers like H. B. Stowe, Rose Terry Cooke, and Mary Wilkes Freeman, all of whom depict life in rural or village New England, focussing often on lower-class women, spinsters, and widows, and the unromantic and often painful particulars of their lives. Despite these affinities, “A White Heron” deviates in several significant ways from such realistic models. First, of course, is the presence of an intrusive narrator, not unlike the narrator in “Young Goodman Brown,” whose role as a high-relief commentator, adjuror, and enthusiastic partisan violates the illusion of realistic fiction as a direct transcription from life. Secondly, the intensely circumscribed scene and cast of characters in “A White Heron,” the nameless hunter and the allegorically named sylvan child, the climactic uses of dusk and dawn, the opposition of wilderness and community, possess an immediately evident symbolic dimension, so that the story demands to be read on levels not normally appropriate to local color writing, thus linking it further to Hawthorne's model.

On the other hand, Jewett's wilderness is “real,” as Hawthorne's never attempts to be, its reality continuously confirmed by particularizing details, including the unsentimental presence of a purring cat, “fat with young robins.” Hawthorne's “wild beasts” never appear except as undifferentiated off-stage noises. Jewett's woods are vividly populated with jaybirds and crows, squirrels and partridges, sparrows and robins, whippoorwills and thrushes, moths and toads.

Jewett's wilderness, as has often been pointed out, is an essentially benevolent one, with no suggestion of that lurking evil which haunts Hawthorne's postlapsarian forest. It is certainly possible to read these contrasting visions of American nature as gender based, as has frequently been done,2 but surely another possible explanation can be seen in the half century of historical change that separates them. In 1835 the New England wilderness was much closer to wildness than the settled, cutover, second growth woodlands of 1885: railroads and post roads had pretty well banished the last Indians and bears. Paradoxically, Jewett's “real” forest is, in 1885, much more a metaphorical stage than was Hawthorne's symbolic wilderness half a century before. Further, the moral nature of the wilderness in these stories is at least partially defined against a particular human community. In “Young Goodman Brown” that community which helps define the demonic wilderness is morning-lit Salem, offering at least the illusion of peace and order, virtue and love. In “A White Heron,” fifty years later, the alternative community is a “noisy,” “crowded manufacturing town,” against which the tamed woodlands seem sanctuary-like. This was especially true in the last decades of the century when “noisy” and “crowded,” applied to cities, had come to be code words for the presence of undesirable ethnic types. That perception which opposed a beneficent, nurturing wilderness to an aggressive, noisy, dangerous city was one of the commonplaces of the last decades of the nineteenth century, being espoused by writers as various as Frederick Olmsted, Theodore Roosevelt, James Russell Lowell, and Mark Twain. By reversing Hawthorne's equation of community and nature, good and evil, Jewett was dramatizing that widely held perception which was publicly expressing itself in the Garden Cemetery and National Park movements. In the half century separating the stories, Hawthorne's wilderness had become Jewett's Nature, and that original sense of mission which had impelled the first settlers into the forest had turned on itself. Instead of that older vision in which civilization transformed wilderness, many Americans, taught by Thoreau and Emerson, and later by George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Louis Agassiz, and others, had come to believe that civilization must somehow be redeemed by learning from and about Nature. In the opposition between these two perceptions dramatized by Jewett, the man with the gun is immediately recognizable as the dominant figure in the typology of wilderness central to the older vision. The child, on the other hand, might well be construed as emblematic of the new role in relation to Nature which the new vision required.3

Despite the differences between Jewett's presentation of Nature and Hawthorne's, it should be recognized that for both of them the forest and the attendant isolation it imposes serve as a setting for the encounters, testing, and self-definition that each story involves. For both, the wilderness retains its traditional American nature as a locus for individual striving: in 1835, Americans, most characteristically, strove against Nature; by 1885, it was becoming increasingly evident that Americans had to strive to preserve the natural world, as Sylvy does.

More significant differences emerge as we move from the settings to the characters. Brown and Sylvy, though both the subjects of temptation, are in almost every other respect distinct from each other.

Unlike Sylvy, Young Goodman Brown is permitted by his role and circumstance to act out of choice rather than necessity. We see him brush aside Faith's objections to his trip into the woods, as he hastens to keep his appointment with the Devil. Even in the debate with Satan, Brown determines the agenda, holding up each of his idols—grandfather and father, the good people of New England, his own saintly minister—to be ritualistically knocked down by Satan's predictable responses. These are clearly straw men: at no point does Brown question, let alone reject, Satan's contentions that they are all of his party, beyond asking the Father of Lies, “Can this be so?” It is only the introduction of Faith into the debate that momentarily halts Brown's systematic destruction of his idols, and that last obstruction is overcome with his unquestioning acceptance of the flimsy and ambiguous pink ribbon as evidence of his wife's corruption. With each of these icons broken, Brown has freed himself to pursue his evil purpose.

At the same time, Brown, a creature of Original Sin, is appropriately aware of the role of the past in shaping the present. When he proposes to act virtuously, he bases his virtue on that of his ancestors. When he permits himself to be convinced that grandfather, father, minister, and Faith are all of the Devil's party, he commits himself absolutely to evil: “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given” (83). At the very last moment, he chooses once more, electing to deny Satan, apparently as absolutely as he had affirmed him.

Sylvy, on the other hand, exists until the conclusion of Jewett's story in a position of powerlessness. As a small, dependent, timid, female child, she is dominated by both her grandmother and the hunter. Her act of courage in discovering the heron's nest is performed as an act of propitiation to another. Her domination is most clearly signified by her silence; after reluctantly revealing her name at the hunter's insistence when they first encounter each other, Sylvy maintains an “awed silence” throughout the story: “the sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her” (150). Her silence, however, which traditionally is a sign of subservience, becomes in the last scene of the story an instrument of power.4 After a year in the woods and her adventure of the night before, the timid little town girl has found the courage to defy her elders. Sylvy's submissive silence is transformed into the silence of defiance, as she denies her grandmother and the hunter the knowledge she possesses. In a radical inversion of conventional order, Sylvy's denial turns the world upside down, silently declaring her independence.

Her act of denial is significantly different from Brown's and provides perspective on his rejection of Satan. About Brown's stranger there is no doubt in Brown's mind. He has announced his supernatural nature with his first words, and his snake-staff immediately establishes his identity. Though the careful reader may recognize ambiguities in his presentation, Brown believes he knows precisely with whom he is dealing. A sometime communicant of his saintly minister's church, Brown knows a whole body of appropriate, conditioned responses to the Evil One, to the Enemy, all of which support his ultimate denial. Rejecting Satan in the woods and then accepting his valuation of the world in the town, he in both instances acts consistently with the received knowledge and values of his community. Told by Satan in the woods that the nature of man is evil, Brown can well believe him because his venerable minister has preached exactly that tenet of faith in the town. Brown's brief involvement with Satanism is, as Gatsby might have said, only personal. In the absence of significant motivation, his denial of the Devil emerges as reflexive and communally conditioned by fear, not faith.

On the other hand, for Sylvy's young man there is no equivalent mechanism for rejection. Just the opposite: he is attractive, kindly, friendly; he has been welcomed as a guest by her grandmother. As a sportsman, as a scientist, he embodies some of the highest masculine values of his country and time. When Sylvy mysteriously changes her mind and decides not to reveal the heron's secret, she acts precisely against the received values of her community as they are represented by her grandmother and by the young man. She too acts personally, denying both the masculine “great world” apparently offered to her by the hunter and, at least as significantly, the matriarchal world of the grandmother who has cared for and protected her.

It is an act demanding much greater courage and sacrifice than Brown's last moment, trimmer's reversion to the safe and familiar. He, after all, saves only himself, leaving Faith behind at the altar, as he earlier left her behind in the village. “Sauve qui peut!” Sylvy, instead, sacrifices her grandmother's approval and the hunter's gratitude, reward, and friendship for the heron's sake and for the vision of Nature she has experienced at day-break from the top of the tree.

This response to experience is significantly different from Brown's, who throughout his story denies his own personal experience when confronted by authority. Accepting the Devil's contentions and illusions, he disregards his own living knowledge of his grandfather and father whom he had believed to be “honest men and Christians,” of his minister, “a good old man,” and of his wife Faith, “a blessed angel on earth.” Nine-year-old Sylvy, however, awed as she is by the young man and indebted as she is to her grandmother, rejects both adults' authority to affirm her own private experience.

The double nature of this rejection is often neglected by critics who focus exclusively on Sylvy's denial of the hunter. Those interpretations of “A White Heron” which limit it to a conflict between an aggressive patriarchal system represented by the young man and a supportive matriarchal community represented by Sylvy (cf. Donovan) do so only by eliding any consideration of the third character in the story, the grandmother. It is she who is the actual center of the matriarchal community, and it is she who gives in to temptation and allies herself with the hunter against Sylvy. The ideological reductivism that ignores the grandmother's role does violence to the story and undervalues the artistic complexity of Jewett's achievement.

The scene Jewett has created for the climax of her story confronts Sylvy with two possible futures. The hunter represents a combination of masculine aggressiveness and scientific detachment linked to “a wave of human interest,” an entry into “the great world,” and a hazy promise of love. The grandmother offers very real love, but represents the alternative to the hunter's promise: a world of actual experience, of loss, penury, and pain. To the elderly widow, left behind by her children and living in poverty on her isolated hardscrabble farm, the ten dollar reward promised by the hunter represents, not the child's fantasy of wealth, but the harsh difference between buying new shoes for Sylvy or buying another cow, or none. It is the presence of the grandmother that prevents “A White Heron” from sliding into formulaic allegory and roots it in the actual world of 19th century, decaying New England. This old farm woman who has buried four children, whose daughter has moved away to the city, and whose last son has disappeared into the West, possesses a solidity and credibility that the nameless young man never achieves. If he vaguely implies some golden future, she, more realistically, suggests another not nearly so bright. If the young man suggests power and wonder, the old woman represents the restrictiveness of experience, Nature, and circumstance.

Confronted with grandmother and hunter, the Emersonian polarities of Fate and Will, Sylvy—perhaps childishly, perhaps because she is a child—refuses allegiance to either, committing herself instead to a transcendent unity with Nature, achieved by a denial of self. Her distance from Young Goodman Brown could hardly be greater.

On the strength of the correspondences between these stories, the differences that distinguish them acquire special significance. The contrasting perceptions of wilderness and town and the contrasting conceptions of allegiance and community suggest some of the intellectual and cultural developments that had changed American literature and American society in the fifty years that separated the stories.

Other differences provide insights, perhaps more personal, into the writers themselves. Hawthorne's “good” young man is presented to us in terms which, while characteristically ambivalent, finally ask us to judge him and to deny his solitary claim to godliness. Writing in a period much less certain of the verities, Jewett is more tentative: Sylvy's act of refusal appears to us to be unquestionably right, yet it too amounts to an act of withdrawal from the human community and the conditions that circumscribe it; its consequences remain uncertain to Sylvy and to the narrator. Hawthorne can follow Brown for us to the hour of his gloomy death. We must leave Sylvy at the age of nine, all of the problematical consequences of her choice still before her. Jewett, who at forty-eight wrote, “This is my birthday and I am always nine years old,” apparently was to remain uncertain of the correctness of Sylvy's choice into her own maturity (Letters 125).

Taken together, these stories can rewardingly be read as foils for each other, each putting the other into sharper outline. If Brown seems a little darker and Sylvy a little brighter for this procedure, they both come together in realizing for us worlds in which moral choices have profound consequences and must be made, however uncertainly. Beyond that, the stories suggest that many of the conventional distinctions we make separating our romantic and realistic writers can be profitably reexamined.


  1. Leo Marx points out in his description of the American pastoral that “the endings of these pastoral fables tend to be inconclusive if not deliberately equivocal” (301–02). Both “Young Goodman Brown” and “A White Heron” correspond to Marx's formulation to a very high degree.

  2. The perception of nature as feminine and maternal and the corresponding perception of technology and destruction as masculine are discussed as dominating American metaphors by Kolodny.

  3. For discussions of this shift in attitudes toward nature, see Huthe 87–104; Robertson 115–21.

  4. Person discusses Hawthorne's use of silence as both a sign of submission and an instrument of revenge.

Works Cited

Brooks, Van Wyck. New England: Indian Summer, 1865–1915. New York: Dutton, 1940.

Fields, Annie, ed. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: n. P., 1911.

Garnett, Edward. “Books Too Little Known.” Academy and Literature 11 July 1903: 40–41.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Mosses from an Old Manse. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1974. 74–90

Huthe, Hans. Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1957.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. Tales of New England. Boston: Riverside, 1896. 138–58.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.

Marx, Leo. The Pilot and the Passenger. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Person, Leland S., Jr. “Hester's Revenge: the Power of Silence in The Scarlet Letter.Nineteenth-Century Literature 43 (1989): 465–83.

Renza, Louis A. “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984.

Robertson, James O. American Myth, American Reality. New York: Hill, 1980.

Thompson, Charles M. “The Art of Miss Jewett.” Atlantic Monthly October 1904: 485–97.

Karen K. Moreno (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2307

SOURCE: “‘A White Heron’: Sylvia's Lonely Journey,” Connecticut Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 81–85.

[In the article below, Moreno explicates “A White Heron” as a feminist quest myth in which Sylvia's journey has a psychological, physical, and spiritual meaning that can be interpreted using Jungian terms.]

In her short story “A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett presents the quest myth in feminist terms. Since Sylvia, the protagonist, lives with her grandmother in the country, her bond with nature and the maternal is continually being formed and strengthened. Until the boy stranger, an ornithologist, enters the woods near her grandmother's farm, Sylvia's life is virtually devoid of male contact. (One previous encounter she had with a boy, “the great red-faced boy” of the city, was frightening to her.) But the young Sylvia is lured by the prospect of love and trusts the boy stranger. In an attempt to please him, she journeys alone into darkness in search of the elusive white heron, a symbol of spiritual transcendence. As Sylvia has no desire to dominate or destroy, she ultimately chooses to join nature instead of man. Through this journey, which may be seen as psychological, physical, and spiritual, Sylvia becomes one with the realm that the ornithologist endeavors to master through aggression but cannot.

In the opening scene, Sylvia dreamily drives a cow home through shadow-filled woods, which suggest the psychological process she must undergo. In Jungian psychology, the maturation process is called individuation. An aspect of this process involves the various parts of the self coming to terms with one another. Jung's colleague M.-L. von Franz states that in mythical terms the ego and the shadow, parts of the personality, are linked, the shadow being the darkness with which the ego is in conflict (Franz 168). Jung calls this conflict “the battle for deliverance” (Henderson 118). The shadow-filled woods through which Sylvia walks indicate she is engaged in this battle.

Sylvia's journey takes place in June: early adulthood on the calendar of human life. Jewett emphasizes Sylvia's age; she is a “little girl,” nine years old, on the brink of puberty. Furthermore, Sylvia is juxtaposed with a cow in the opening scene, suggesting her close attachment to the maternal. The dichotomy of the maternal symbol and the child points to the adolescence which Sylvia is about to enter on her physical journey.

The number nine has spiritual as well as physical implications: Jung's colleague Jolande Jacobi states, “The nine has been a ‘magic number’ for centuries. According to the traditional symbolism of numbers, it represents the perfected form of the perfected Trinity in its threefold elevation” (Jacobi 297). Indicative of Sylvia's spiritual journey, her trial, is the direction she walks: eastward. But, as the sun is setting, she walks away from the light, not toward it. For she must first pass through the darkness of night in order to reach the light of dawn, as is typical in myth: the hero must go into darkness, which represents death (Henderson 118). Sylvia's symbolic death is her passing away from one physical stage/spiritual state, while her symbolic rebirth follows at the beginning of a new day: the day she finds the object of her quest, the white heron.

From the initial scene, Sylvia's journey involves her sensual/sexual encounter with nature. In the country, Sylvia experiences a physical awakening. She has come to the country from the city (perhaps symbolic of society and the lack of individual identity), and at the farm she feels alive for the first time, “as if she never had been alive at all” (Jewett 228). As she walks through the water in bare feet, her heart beats “fast with pleasure” (Jewett 229). Jewett sets the tone for Sylvia's physical journey with her sensual, strong imagery: “twilight moths struck softly against her … there was a stirring in the great boughs overhead … She was not often in the woods so late as this, and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves” (Jewett 229). As Sylvia develops an affinity with nature, she also discovers her own identity.

Just as the reader becomes aware of Sylvia's bond with nature, the absence of men in Sylvia's life also becomes clear: Sylvia lives on the farm with her grandmother, who chose Sylvia out of her daughter's children to live with her in the country. No mention is ever made of Sylvia's father. She is completely surrounded by maternal figures and imagery, from her own mother, to her grandmother, to Mistress Moolly the cow, to the regenerative vegetation around her. She feels as much akin to the woodlands as she feels alienated from the masculine, mechanistic city.1

As Sylvia wanders home through the woods with the cow, “the thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her” causes her “to hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees” (Jewett 229). Juxtaposed with this fear-evoking remembrance is the present threat of the boy stranger's whistle.2 Jewett adds to the tension of this threat by switching from past to present tense: “suddenly this little woodsgirl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird's whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy's whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive” (Jewett 229). As the boy stranger intrudes on Sylvia's woods, Sylvia instinctively attempts to hide herself in the bushes as would a child in a mother's skirts when confronted by a stranger, or as would a white heron in the leaves of a tree when threatened by a hunter.

The boy stranger seems to represent male dominance and sexuality, and the human world as opposed to the natural world. He, perhaps, may be seen as a devil figure. The stranger is sexual: carrying a gun, an obvious phallic symbol; asking to spend the night at Sylvia's house; and demanding that Sylvia give him milk. The stranger also demands to know Sylvia's name, but he doesn't tell her his. The boy's aggressive whistle indicates the force of his desire to acquire Sylvia's knowledge of the whereabouts of the white heron, which he intends to kill. As the boy stranger speaks with Sylvia and her grandmother, he makes known his offer of money to anyone who can show him the heron's nest. He tempts Sylvia not only with money, but also with the promise of friendship. If, as Joseph L. Henderson suggests, “… the bird is the most fitting symbol of transcendence” (Henderson 151), then in effect the stranger is asking Sylvia to sell her soul.3

The second scene takes place the following day in the woods; Sylvia becomes more confident with the boy stranger and loses her initial fear of him. The stranger presents Sylvia with a jack-knife, another phallic symbol, a bribe for her to trust him. Jewett's language is implicitly sexual: “All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough” (Jewett 233). It is when he “brings down” a creature that Sylvia feels afraid, but she is nonetheless attracted to him: She “watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (Jewett 233). The sexual tone of the passage continues as “they pressed forward again eagerly, parting the branches,—speaking to each other rarely and in whispers; the young man going first and Sylvia following, fascinated … her gray eyes dark with excitement” (Jewett 233–34).

In the next scene, before sunrise the following morning, Sylvia sets off on her lonely journey into the woods to discover the white heron's nest. Her intention is to please the boy stranger with the knowledge he has been seeking. She is not aware as she begins her journey that it will lead to what Henderson terms a “release through transcendence,” that her “lonely journey or pilgrimage” is indeed a spiritual pilgrimage, one of “release, renunciation, and atonement, presided over and fostered by some spirit of compassion” (Henderson 151).

When Sylvia mounts the tree from which she hopes to see the white heron, she abandons her passivity and experiences a physical and spiritual awakening. According to Jung, the tree is a symbol of “evolution, physical growth or psychological maturation” (Jung 90). Jung suggests the tree may also symbolize the phallus. Essential to the sexual interpretation of this scene is Jewett's personification of the tree.4 It is described as a “great tree … the last of its generation” (Jewett 234). When Sylvia approaches the tree, it sleeps, as if human. The tone of the passage is expressly sexual: Sylvia mounts the tree “with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame” (Jewett 235). The tree “seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward” (Jewett 236), as though it were a phallus becoming erect. At the top of the tree, Sylvia's heart is beating, her face is “like a pale star,” and she stands “trembling and tired but wholly triumphant” (Jewett 236). When Sylvia sees the white heron, her ecstasy is spiritual as well as physical. She “gives a long sigh” and is “well satisfied” (Jewett 238).

Jewett switches verb tense in this scene from past to present imperative (the switch lends tension and immediacy to the scene just as the change of tense in the first scene does); the imperative voice seems to be that of a higher being, the divine, instructing her where to look in order to see the white heron. Or perhaps this imperative voice is the voice of the Self, about which Franz speaks: “How far [the psyche] develops depends on whether or not the ego is willing to listen to the messages of Self” (Franz 162). The voice tells Sylvia, “And wait! wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest, and plumes his feathers for the new day!” (Jewett 238). While the words “light and consciousness” express Sylvia's transcendence to a higher level of spiritual consciousness, the heron's mate and nest reflect Sylvia's own maturing sexuality. The young girl has journeyed through the darkness of night to discover the white heron and emerges into the new day. She has taken a lonely journey from west to east and now faces the rising sun, which in many societies represents “man's indefinable religious experience” (Jung 22).

After coming down from the tree, Sylvia appears before the grandmother and the boy, her clothing torn and soiled by the semen-like pine pitch. Not until confronted by her grandmother and the ornithologist does Sylvia experience an epiphany. Since she intends to tell the boy the location of the white heron's nest, the time for her to speak is the “splendid moment” for which she has waited. But Sylvia finds she cannot speak, for she hears her lover whisper into her ear: “The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together …” (Jewett 239). Although Sylvia has been tempted by the stranger and believes “he is so well worth making happy” (Jewett 239), she recalls her moment of ecstasy and finds she cannot betray nature, her spiritual lover. In so doing, she has allied herself with the natural world and rejected the human world.

Sylvia's lonely journey is an initiation into adulthood; she has experienced “that moment of initiation at which one must learn to take the decisive steps into life alone” (Henderson 152). On her quest for the white heron, she has defied the temptation of the boy stranger and has matured psychologically, physically, and spiritually. While the ornithologist attempts to dominate nature by destroying it, Sylvia joins nature and protects it in a loving embrace.


  1. In his article “America's ‘Lonely Country Child’: The Theme of Separation in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron,’” Theodore R. Hovet sees Sylvia's connection to the maternal in nature as her refusal to enter adulthood and the modern, pre-industrialized world. Hovet theorizes that Sylvia remains a dependent child, while the boy stranger has crossed into adulthood, lives in the modern world, but continues to search “in an endless and destructive quest for the lost world of childhood” (171).

  2. Critic James Ellis states, “Clearly … this young man with his whistle is to be equated with the great red-faced boy of the town who used to chase and frighten her” (4). Ellis concurs that Sylvia ultimately takes nature as her lover instead of man.

  3. It is interesting to note that William Butler Yeats saw the heron (or herne) as a symbol of the divine in his plays The Herne's Egg and Calvary.

  4. Critic Gayle L. Smith in her essay “The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron’” maintains that the personification of the tree is part of the “transcendental vision” that Jewett uses throughout her story (73).

Works Cited

Ellis, James. “The World of Dreams: Sexual Symbolism in ‘A White Heron.’” Nassau Review: The Journal of Nassau Community College Devoted to Arts, Lettres & Sciences 3 (1977): iii, 3–9.

Hovet, Theodore R. “America's ‘Lonely Country Child’: The Theme of Separation in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Library Quarterly 14 (1978): 166–71.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. Ed. Mary Ellen Chase. New York: Norton, 1981. 227–39.

Jung, Carl G., M.-L. von Franz, Joseph L. Henderson, Jolande Jacobi, and Aniela Jaffe. Man and his Symbols. Garden City: Doubleday, 1964.

Smith, Gayle L. “The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett's ‘A White Heron.’” Critical; Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Gwen L. Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. 69–75.

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Critical Overview