How can "The White Heron" be understood as an initiation story?
In addition to being a fine example of local color writing, “A White Heron” is also an excellent initiation story with a universal theme. Through the character of Sylvia, the “little woods girl,” Sarah Orne Jewett addresses the dilemma that occurs when personal values conflict with emotional needs and making an ethical decision is sure to cause pain. After the young hunter arrives at the farm, Sylvia is forced to choose between pleasing him and her grandmother or protecting the life of the white heron. By the story’s conclusion, she discovers that she cannot violate who she is at the core or betray the natural world she treasures; she cannot “give [the heron’s] life away.” Sylvia makes an ethical decision consistent with her values, even though she is filled with sadness that lingers long after the hunter goes away.
Like the protagonists in other initiation stories, Sylvia gains a greater awareness of herself and the world. Through a difficult experience, innocence is lost as truth is revealed and knowledge is acquired. Climbing the towering pine at the edge of the woods initiates Sylvia into a new world and a new state of being. From the top of the tree, she can see vistas that lie far beyond the farm, and for the first time, she sees the sea. No longer earthbound, Sylvia experiences in a new way the beauty and the wonder of the natural world, and she sees it with new eyes. She becomes a part of it as the hawks fly below her and the white heron rises from its nest and flies past her with a “steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head,” alighting in a tree nearby to call its mate.
Sylvia climbs to the top of the towering pine so that she can locate the heron’s nest for the hunter; the difficulty and the danger of her journey indicate the depth of her desire to please him. When she climbs down from the pine, however, she has been forever changed. After watching the heron fly “through the golden air” and remembering “how they watched the sea and the morning together,” Sylvia will not participate in the slaughter of the beautiful bird. Regardless of the personal cost, she will not betray herself and her values by betraying the white heron.