Historical Context

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Advancements for Women
The end of the nineteenth century brought many new opportunities for women in the United States and other industrializing countries, and Sarah Orne Jewett took full advantage of them. In 1848, just one year before Jewett was born, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and others had organized the famous Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York. By the time Jewett graduated from Berwick Academy in 1866, women were being granted certificates to practice medicine (for a time, a dream of Jewett’s), they were being admitted to universities, and led by Stanton, Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, they had formed the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to winning the vote for women and for African Americans. For the first time in American society, women were gradually and grudgingly allowed into full participation as citizens and as professionals.

Equally important for Jewett, women were beginning to enjoy a wider range of ‘‘acceptable’’ personal lifestyles. Married women could have careers, as in Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys, published in 1886, the same year as ‘‘A White Heron.’’ But it was no longer taken for granted, at least among urban upper-class society, that every woman would marry as soon as she could and live out her life as an unequal partner to a man, with no property rights and no protection should the marriage prove unhappy. For Jewett and others, there was the possibility of living an independent life, outside the traditional patriarchal structure. Women could have careers and earn enough money to support themselves. And, although there were no public and political organizations for lesbians in the nineteenth century, many women like Jewett felt free to discreetly devote their emotional energy to other women. The idea of the ‘‘Boston marriage,’’ or the intimate association of two women, was recognized and accepted, though not openly discussed.

All of this plays an important role in Jewett’s writings, which tend to focus on independent-minded women struggling with or rejecting men. Jewett wrote several stories and novels about women doctors— impossible at an earlier time. And even many of her rural people, like Mrs. Tilley and Sylvia, live full lives without male associates. When Sylvia rejects the hunter, whom she perceives as a suitor, she is claiming her independence from male-dominated society, just as Jewett and many of her contemporaries were able to do. She ‘‘could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves,’’ but in this new era she has other choices.

In large cities, manufacturing jobs were plentiful but dangerous, as corporate heads needed more and more cheap labor to keep the factories running. Laborers often went on strike to fight for better working conditions. In New York City, streetcar workers tied up the city for days in 1886 with a strike; finally they settled for a twelve-hour workday with a half-hour lunch break. New processes for working with metals were developed, the internal combustion engine was perfected, home products like Johnson’s Wax and Avon cosmetics became available, and big department stores like Bloomingdale’s opened their doors. It was still common in the countryside, however, for people to live simple lives of subsistence farming, without the benefits or hazards of industrial life.

The Growing Conservation Movement By the late nineteenth century, what had once seemed a vast and limitless continent was now being recognized as fragile and in need of protection. Pollution in the cities like Sylvia’s ‘‘crowded manufacturing town’’ was uncontrolled and much worse than it was a century later. The great buffalo herds had been greatly reduced, and their decimation was widely observed in popular songs and tales. Forests were being cut down at an alarming rate, bolstered by the Timber Culture Act of 1878 which permitted the clearing of public lands. A fledgling conservation movement had begun, targeting the preservation of forests and wildlife.

The woods where Sylvia lives are secondgrowth forest, but it is in the old-growth great pine, ‘‘the last of its generation,’’ where she finds wisdom: ‘‘Whether it was left for a boundary mark, or for what reason, no one could say; the woodchoppers who had felled its mates were dead and gone long ago.’’ Jewett uses a symbol, a rare old tree, to underscore the value of preserving the land.

The heron, too, is rare and in danger. According to George Held, the bird Jewett would have had in mind was the snowy egret, whose feathers were much in demand for trimming ladies’ hats. It was nearly extinct by 1900, and federally protected in 1913.

Literary Style

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Set in an isolated portion of Maine, ‘‘A White Heron’’ tells of a lonely nine-year-old girl’s decision not to reveal the location of a beautiful white heron and its nest to a visiting hunter. The hunter leaves, disappointed, and the girl, Sylvia, loses her first human friend.

Narrator/Point of View
Of all the technical aspects of this story, that of a young girl who must choose between revealing the location of a heron’s nest to an appealing ornithologist and protecting the bird, none has proven more problematic to critics than point of view. Many readers have seen Jewett’s abrupt and dramatic changes in point of view as a weakness and a sign of immature talent; however, more recently, readers have seen the shifts as intentional and effective. The story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, that is, a narrator who is not present as a character in the story, but who looks out or down on the events and who can see more than the characters themselves see. This narrator sees more deeply into (or shows more interest in) Sylvia’s thoughts and feelings than into the other characters’. Nothing is shown of the hunter’s or Mrs. Tilley’s thoughts beyond what they demonstrate through their words and actions. The narrator tells most of the story in the past tense, but three times shifts to present tense: when Sylvia first hears the hunter approaching (‘‘this little woods-girl is horror-stricken’’), when she has spotted the heron’s nest (‘‘she knows his secret now’’), and when she finds that she cannot reveal the secret (‘‘Sylvia does not speak after all’’). These moments give an immediacy that is sharp but that does not last. Each time, the narrator backs up again and stands at a distance. At times detachment falls away completely, and the narrator addresses Sylvia (‘‘look down again, Sylvia’’) or nature (‘‘woodlands and summer-time, remember’’) directly; it feels as though the reader, too, were on the5 scene, watching and hoping. Gayle Smith finds in this mingling of past and present, of memory and experience, of detachment and involvement an example of Jewett’s using language to show the transcendence of Sylvia’s connection with nature.

Setting is important in ‘‘A White Heron,’’ because it is Sylvia’s close connection with nature that sets her apart from other people. Fittingly, the name ‘‘Sylvia’’ comes from the Latin silva, meaning ‘‘wood’’ or ‘‘forest,’’ and the story takes place in the woods, far from the noisy city where Sylvia was born, and near the vast ocean that, until the story begins, she has never seen. ‘‘There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over,’’ and she knows the birds and animals, so she is the perfect guide for the hunter. However, when the two go out together, the young man leads the way. Here, the setting underscores the power differences between the two. The hunter chooses Sylvia specifically because she knows the scene, yet he guides her through it. The nearness of the coast is also important, because it is when the girl reaches the top of the old pine and can see the ocean and ‘‘the white sails of ships out at sea’’ that she realizes that this ‘‘vast and awesome world’’ is hers, and she has found it alone. She does not need the young man to show her the world; this ‘‘wonderful sight and pageant of the world’’ is before her. The time of the story is important as well. In the late nineteenth century, one could easily imagine a girl living in rural isolation, seeing few people other than her grandmother, and one could guess at how exciting and confusing a visitor offering money might be. Sylvia’s innocence of the technological world is essential; she must be wholly in nature because that is where she belongs, yet it must seem unremarkable that she has never seen the sea.

Throughout the first half of ‘‘A White Heron,’’ the forest in which Sylvia lives is an ordinary forest, although her connection to it is clearly deeper than other people’s. It contains trees and animals and bird songs of the expected kinds, and even the birds feeding out of her hands seem rare but not fantastic. But when she begins to climb the old pine tree, the tree is presented as an active, sentient being: ‘‘it must truly have been amazed that morning,’’ ‘‘The old pine must have loved his new dependent.’’ This anthropomorphism, or the attributing of human characteristics to nonhuman beings, is used to highlight Sylvia’s extraordinary oneness with nature. Where at first the tree only seems ‘‘to lengthen itself out’’ as she climbs, by the time she reaches the top the tree’s sentience is clear. The narrator does not say that the tree seems to hold the wind away from Sylvia, or that Sylvia imagines it holds back the wind; the bold statement is that ‘‘the tree stood still and held away the winds.’’ The increasing anthropomorphism echoes Sylvia’s increasing knowledge and power as she climbs.

Pathetic Fallacy
Closely related to anthropomorphism, the pathetic fallacy, or the assumption by the narrator that nature itself has human feeling and cares about human suffering, is used at the end of ‘‘A White Heron’’ when the narrator addresses nature directly on behalf of Sylvia. A direct address to ‘‘woodlands and summer-time’’ seems quaint to modern readers, but Jewett leads up to it by increasing the narrator’s and the reader’s involvement throughout the second half of the story. After the great tree has actively assisted Sylvia in her climb, and after her oneness with nature has been confirmed by her refusal to divulge the nesting place, it does not seem a great stretch of the imagination for the narrator to beg of nature itself: ‘‘Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!’’

For early readers, the story was seen mostly as an admirable example of local color writing. The local color movement, which reached its peak in the United States in the 1880s, tried to capture the mannerisms, peculiar speech, dress, and customs of a particular region of the country. Some of its most successful proponents were Mark Twain Joel Chandler Harris, Bret Harte, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Local color writing was thought to be less serious than other types of fiction, written primarily to be entertaining, even amusing. This is not to say that these writings were not of high quality, but readers did not generally look to them for deep issues and ideas.

By the 1920s, scholars began to take Jewett’s work more seriously, following the lead of Willa Cather who in her introduction to an edition of The Best Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett ranked Jewett with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain. Commentators began to look again at the short stories and find in them issues of broad significance. While Jewett was still regarded as one of the greatest of the local color writers, she was also noted for the sophisticated way in which she dealt with the conflicts brought about by industrialization and capitalism. No important criticism of her work appeared in the 1930s or 1940s, but ‘‘A White Heron’’ continued to appear in anthologies and textbooks, and was often cited in literary histories as one of the finest examples of the American short story.

Compare and Contrast

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1880s: Concern for the environment becomes an issue in the United States in the years following the Civil War, when economic development increases rapidly at the expense of natural resources, such as timber. In 1891, President Harrison signs a proclamation that turns a million acres in Colorado into the nation’s first forest preserve.

1990s: Forest preservation threatens jobs in the Pacific Northwest, where loggers prohibited from destroying the habitat of the spotted owl face layoffs. Global concern for the environment results in conferences such as the 1992 Earth Summit, held in Brazil. Topics for discussion include global warming and the destruction of the rain forests.

1880s: Naturalist John James Audubon (1785– 1851) attains great wealth and fame from his paintings of birds. He works from dead models; disliking the stiffness of stuffed and mounted specimens, he requires many freshly killed birds for each painting.

1990s: The Audubon Society, founded in 1886 as the country’s first bird preservation society, comprises 500 chapters, 9 regional, and 12 state offices.

1880s: Many people move to crowded manufacturing towns, like the one in which Sylvia lives with her family, because of the availability of factory jobs. In the 1880s, the industrial sector grows rapidly as machine processes are standardized and new technologies, along with vast resources, make U.S. industries among the most productive in the world.

1990s: Concerns regarding manufacturing industries are tied to environmental issues. Pollution from factory and automobile emissions is linked to global warming. While wealthier nations make some efforts to regulate emissions, developing countries dependent on industrialization to improve their economy lack the resources and desire to control pollution.

Media Adaptations

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A White Heron was adapted as a video for elementary and junior-high audiences, Learning Corporation of America, 1978; available in VHS, Beta and 3/4U formats from Modern Curriculum Press (MCP).

The story has also been recorded as a book on tape; recorded by SoundWindow, the tape includes excerpts from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, distributed as Christine Sweet Reads, 1996.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Ammons, Elizabeth. ‘‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, 22, no. 1 (March 1986): 6-16.

Griffith, Jr., Kelley. ‘‘Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, 21, no. 1 (March 1985): 22-7.

Further Reading
Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. Twayne, 1962. The first full-length critical review of Jewett’s work. This book attempts to analyze all of Jewett’s work. Cary finds ‘‘A White Heron’’ philosophically interesting but technically flawed.

Griffith, Jr., Kelley. ‘‘Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 21, no. 1, March, 1985, pp. 22-7. Shows how Sylvia’s story follows the archetypal pattern of a hero following a quest for a desired object, and suggests that Sylvia’s independence mirrors Jewett’s.

Held, George. ‘‘Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, 18 (1982):55-65. Discusses his overall interpretation of Jewett’s ‘‘A White Heron,’’ paying particular attention to changes that occur in the character Sylvia’s relationship with nature.

Johns, Barbara A. ‘‘‘Mateless and Appealing’: Growing into Spinsterhood in Sarah Orne Jewett,’’ in Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Gwen L. Nagel, G. K. Hall, 1984, pp. 147-65. Explores a common theme of Jewett’s works—the young woman who turns away from marriage and traditional female action once her view of the world is expanded—and examines Sylvia as an example of this.

Pool, Eugene Hillhouse. ‘‘The Child in Sarah Orne Jewett.’’ Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 7, September 1967, pp. 503-09. Reads Jewett’s works as autobiography. Pool finds that Jewett herself wanted to remain a child and avoid adult relationships.

Smith, Gayle L. ‘‘The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’’’ Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 19, 1983, pp. 37-44. Demonstrates the aptness of Jewett’s use of these techniques in presenting a transcendental vision of reality, though some critics have found the shifting point of view and high language to be a weakness in the story.


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Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

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

Cary, Richard, ed. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: Twenty-nine Interpretive Essays. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973.

Church, Joseph. Transcendent Daughters in Jewett’s “Country of the Pointed Firs.” Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

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

Howard, June, ed. New Essays on “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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

Morgan, Jeff. Sarah Orne Jewett’s Feminine Pastoral Vision: “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.

Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Nagel, Gwen L., and James Nagel. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

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

Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.

Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989.

Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer’s Life. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1993.

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Critical Essays