In "A White Heron," why does the author use shadows?

Quick answer:

The author makes use of paradoxical symbolism in the opening paragraph. Shadows are both a comfort and a foreboding image throughout the story. This sets up conflicting feelings for Sylvia and serves to highlight her conflicted feelings for the hunter.

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The shadow acts as a dual symbol in this story: it represents both the nature Sylvie feels part of and the threat of the invader.

Early in the story, leading the milk cow home, the narrator uses the word "shadow" twice in one paragraph, writing:

She [Sylvie felt] as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves. She . . . thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her [which] made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees.

Starting with the second use of shadow, we understand that shadows represent the threat of danger. In fact, danger does come out of the shadows of the trees in the form of a man with a gun. This stranger stays with her at her grandmother's home and offers ten dollars, a large amount of money in those days, if she can lead him to a white heron. He wants to shoot and stuff it.

This brings us to the first use of shadow. Sylvie, a few days after the stranger's arrival, climbs a tall tree at dawn and becomes one with nature, as she was with the gray shadows. She spots the white heron from the trees. But this child of nature will not betray a fellow creature and so keeps the whereabouts of the heron hidden in the shadows. Not even a large sum of money can cause her to betray the bird or her integrity.

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In "A White Heron," Sarah Orne Jewett uses references to shadows in order to foreshadow the coming of the hunter, a figure that represents a force which is hostile to nature, and establish the story's mood.  In the first line of the story, the narrator says that "The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o'clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees."  By describing the shadow so early in the piece, Jewett uses it to help establish the mood of the story: there is a darkness looming and we should prepare ourselves for it.

The "gray shadows" are referenced once again, immediately prior to Sylvia's hearing, and being frightened by, the hunter's whistle, the whistle he uses to lure birds to him.  She was not typically out this late, and so, again, the reference to shadow seems to establish some suspense as well as to foreshadow the danger approaching in the form of the hunter who kills and stuffs the birds he claims to love.

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In "A White Heron" the story opens in the woods among shadows. Why did the author make that choice in the story? Explain how the shadows operate throughout this story.

The first line contains a paradox of symbolism. There are shadows and a sunset that still "glimmered faintly." So, there is the foreboding image of the shadows juxtaposed with the hopeful image of the glimmering sun. The first paragraph ends with Sylvia taking her cow deeper into the dark woods: another foreboding image. Together, they follow the "shady-wood road." These images of shade do not suggest that the forest itself is evil, but they do suggest something dark to come. 

But that initial paradox sets up a few more. Sylvia is intimidated by the Hunter at first, but they do become friends. She did not understand how he could kill the birds he spoke so fondly of. But he is charming and Sylvia is enamored. "She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love." She wants to help him but does not want to let the heron be killed: She is conflicted. 

Another paradox appears regarding the symbolism of the shadows: 

She was not often in the woods so late as this, and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves. She was just thinking how long it seemed since she first came to the farm a year ago, and wondering if everything went on in the noisy town just the same as when she was there, the thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees. 

She feels at home in the shadows and is also afraid of them. It just depends upon the circumstances and her state of mind. Here, the shadows symbolize both comfort and fear. This contributes to the theme of Sylvia's conflicted feelings for the hunter. At the end of the story, she continues to feel conflicted: 

Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, -- who can tell? 

The paradoxical symbolism of shadows mirrors her conflicted feelings for the hunter. Inevitably, she chooses to save the heron, thus showing her affinity for the woods and the forest creatures. (Her name, "Sylvia" resembles "sylvan" which means having an association with woods and/or the forest.) Note, in that paragraph illustrating the paradox of the shadows, that she is comforted by the shadows when she is alone in the forest but is scared when she feels chased by another person. 

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