Style and Technique

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In her depiction of the often-reiterated conflict, Jewett is not objective; the “scales” are heavily weighted in favor of nature. Besides using stereotypical characters in a Good-versus-Evil confrontation of mythic dimension, she uses sentimentality to invest both vegetable and animal worlds with human characteristics. Sylvia’s “valued companion” is not the hunter, but Mistress Moolly, the cow, who is capable of “pranks.” The birds and beasts “say good-night to each other in sleepy twitters,” thereby making their deaths seem more like “murder” and helping to account for Sylvia’s final decision. Even the pine tree is personified and depicted as an ally in her quest for knowledge. The tree is “asleep”; it even stands still and holds away the wind as Sylvia climbs. Sylvia’s very name, with its “sylvan” suggestions, indicates that her true home is in nature (she is known as “Sylvy” rather than the more formal “Sylvia”). Similarly, Mrs. Tilley, who “tills” her farm, is also in her proper habitat. On the other hand, the unnamed hunter is seen as an interloper who does not belong.

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In order to elicit sympathy for Sylvia, Jewett uses the third-person-limited point of view, so that Sylvia’s perceptions become the readers’ perceptions. Her choice seems inevitable, but at the end of the story Jewett gains some distance from Sylvia and editorializes about the decision: “Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in the day, that would have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves!” The slavish, servile behavior Jewett describes is “puppy love,” unworthy of the white heron’s death. On the other hand, the epilogue concludes with the cost of Sylvia’s decision: “Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely child!” Jewett’s last words suggest that the child needs human companionship and that nature’s “gifts and graces” may only partially compensate for “whatever treasures” (“whatever” tends to undermine the value of the “treasures”) she lost through her decision.

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...

(The entire section contains 3189 words.)

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Critical Essays