Overview of A White Heron

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To her contemporaries, Sarah Orne Jewett was primarily a local color writer. Her stories and novels were peopled with typical villagers speaking in dialect, going about their daily work as country doctors or farmers or seafarers, moving about among the flora and fauna and landscape of New England. As a young avid reader, Jewett had admired the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe especially her depictions of the common folk of the South, with their strengths and short comings. One of Jewett’s aims as a writer was to present the people of her native Maine in the same honest and respectful light. But if her characters’ speech and dress and mannerisms were identifiably regional, their concerns and problems were not. Like all the best local color writing, Jewett’s fiction uses regional settings, but explores themes that are universal.

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Most of Jewett’s central characters are women, and they usually operate to some extent out of the bustle of mainstream society: they are not young women having dramatic adventures and finding husbands, but spinsters and widows and children and professional women leading quiet, sometimes lonely, lives. Their conflicts are internal, their support is mainly from other women, their arena is domestic. It has often been observed that fiction with a male protagonist is considered suitable for all to read, but fiction about women is ‘‘women’s fiction.’’ Perhaps this accounts in part for Jewett’s having been treated as second-rate, although in the century since it was written The Country of the Pointed Firs has never been allowed to go out of print, and ‘‘A White Heron’’ has been anthologized dozens of times.

The story of ‘‘A White Heron’’ revolves around a conflict, a choice a young girl must make between listening to an external voice and heeding an internal one. It is the story of nine-year-old Sylvia, who lives in the Maine woods with her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley. The two women (if the word can be used to describe a nine-year-old) appear to have no near neighbors, and there is no family around. Sylvia’s parents and siblings live in a ‘‘crowded manufacturing town’’ from which Mrs. Tilley rescued Sylvia a year before, and Sylvia has known from the day she arrived on the farm that ‘‘she never should wish to go home.’’ Whatever men were once on the farm have wandered off or died. So the two women are alone, with only a cow, Mistress Moolly, for companionship. For Sylvia, the cow is a true ‘‘valued companion,’’ giving ‘‘good milk and plenty of it,’’ and offering an excuse for lingering walks through the woods between the pasture and home. Sylvia and her grandmother have plenty to eat and a ‘‘clean and comfortable little dwelling.’’ They want for nothing. As Elizabeth Ammons describes it, it is a ‘‘rural paradise,’’ a mythical woman-dominated Eden.

If the forest home has overtones of fantasy or myth, so too is Sylvia a most unnaturally natural child. Although born and raised in the city, her true home is in the forest (even her name is from the Latin for ‘‘wood’’). Mrs. Tilley observes, ‘‘There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatur’s counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds.’’ She is ‘‘afraid of folks,’’ but she is not afraid to be in the woods after dark, even hearing the animals calling and rustling. Rather than causing fear, she listens to the bird calls ‘‘with a heart that beat fast with pleasure’’; it makes her feel ‘‘as if she were a part of the gray shadows and moving leaves.’’ Interestingly, the only thing that does disturb her in the forest is the memory from her city days of ‘‘the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her.’’

(The entire section contains 6784 words.)

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Critical Overview