(Short Story Criticism)

“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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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


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Katharine T. Jobes (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2584 words.)

Richard Brenzo (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2979 words.)

Theodore R. Hovet (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2676 words.)

Theodore R. Hovet (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Michael Atkinson (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1991 words.)

Louis A. Renza (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Ammons (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Terry Heller (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6923 words.)

Jules Zanger (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4263 words.)

Karen K. Moreno (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

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