Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

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.