Critical Overview

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In his 1962 Sarah Orne Jewett, the first booklength study devoted to the writer, Richard Cary identified Sylvia’s rite of initiation as ‘‘an arduous journey of self-discovery and maturity.’’ This theme of the rite of passage was explored by critics over the next three decades. Catherine B. Sherman read the story as a miniature Bildungsroman, a story of the development of a young person into adulthood, along the lines of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Kelley Griffith, Jr. took the theme one step further, and found in the story an echo of the archetypal myth of the hero. Sylvia, she wrote in the Colby Library Quarterly in 1985, ‘‘becomes a traditional hero who makes a quest after a much desired object.’’ Elizabeth Ammons, also writing in the Colby Library Quarterly, compared the story’s construction to that of a fairy tale.

Two issues have drawn the greatest attention from critics, and divided them the most sharply: the meaning of Sylvia’s rejection of the hunter, and Jewett’s shifts in narrative stance. Eugene Hillhouse Pool believed that Jewett’s own refusal to marry stemmed from an immature attachment to her father, and considered her attachment to Annie Fields a poor second to marriage. Perhaps, he argued in the Colby Library Quarterly in 1967, the short story was so popular because ‘‘it is the expression of a situation closely paralleling her own personal problems, and thus contains her deepest feeling.’’ By contrast, Ammons called the story ‘‘an antibildungsroman. It is a rite-of-passage story in which the heroine refuses to make the passage.’’ For Ammons and other feminist critics (including George Held, whose 1982 Colby Library Quarterly article saw Sylvia growing into ‘‘a woman committed to values that will allow her to be her natural self’’), refusal to marry was not a sign of immaturity but a mature choice. In Ammons words, Sylvia ‘‘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.’’

The matter of shifts in narrative stance has likewise been controversial. It was seen first as a weakness, by such critics as Cary, who commented that the story contains ‘‘too much jostling in the presentation to be worthy of the label ‘perfect.’’’ More recently, the shifting has been regarded as an interesting and effective choice by critics including Michael Atkinson, who in a 1982 article in the Colby Library Quarterly found that the narrator’s loss of detachment echoes the reader’s own, and Gayle L. Smith, who described the high language as the ‘‘language of transcendence,’’ also in the Colby Library Quarterly, in 1983.

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A White Heron, Sarah Orne Jewett

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