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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 440 words.)

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A White Heron, Sarah Orne Jewett


Essays and Criticism