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Sylvia's Silence in "A White Heron"


Sylvia's silence in "A White Heron" symbolizes her internal conflict and ultimate decision to protect the natural world over human desires. By choosing not to reveal the heron's location to the hunter, she demonstrates her deep connection to nature and her moral integrity.

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Why does Sylvia not speak in "A White Heron?"

Sylvia has difficult speaking to strangers especially because she is somewhat "'"Afraid of folks,"'" as her grandmother was told when she chose Sylvia to help her on the farm from among her daughter's many children.  The little girl seems to realize that the best way to hear the sounds of nature is by being quiet herself: she could listen "to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure," and she hears the "stirring in the great boughs overhead" which are full of "little birds and beasts" that chatter and twitter away like friends.  

However, when she hears the hunter's whistle, she is "horror-stricken," attempting to hide in silence, and perceives of him as an "enemy."  When he mentions the reward of $10 that he's willing to give anyone who helps him find the heron's nest, Sylvia gets lost in reveries about the "many wished-for treasures" that she could purchase with so much money (as it seems like a vast fortune to her).  Even as she grows more and more comfortable in the hunter's presence, she is still "troubled [and] afraid" when he shoots and kills some "unsuspecting singing creature" from its perch in the trees.

In short, Sylvia seems to speak little (or not at all) for various reasons: there is her general discomfort around people; silence it allows her to hear nature's sounds better; she's imaginative and can get wrapped up in her fantasies; and she intuitively understands that the hunter is ultimately harming, not preserving, the birds that she loves so very much.

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Why can't Sylvia speak in "A White Heron"?

In the last line of the second to last paragraph in the story, the author writes,

"Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away."

Sylvia's only friend, the pleasant young hunter who has come to her house in hopes of finding and shooting the great heron that inhabits the area, is going to leave, and has asked Sylvia to tell him where the heron can be found. Sylvia knows, but after much agonizing, finds that the loyalty she feels for the heron, as it represents the natural world, is greater than her longing for human contact. Sylvia cannot speak because to do so will be a betrayal of the heron and all she holds dear.

Sylvia had never been one to talk very much. Shy and retiring by nature, she is "a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town," but she did not blossom until she came to live at her grandmother's farm. Having been overlooked in a "houseful of children," Sylvia is "afraid of folks," and has memories of a "great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her." On her grandmother's farm, she has no companions, and becomes very close to the animals and the land in compensation.

When the young hunter comes to her grandmother's house, Sylvia is at first intimidated, but then is drawn to him. There is within her a longing for human interaction which has never been fulfilled, and thus when she is faced with the choice between making her new friend happy or saving her beloved heron's life, the dilemma is agonizing. Looking deep within herself, Sylvia recognizes that, in the final analysis, her loyalty to the bird is greater than her love for the man, and so when she has one final chance to give the hunter what he wants, she remains silent, unable to speak the words that will mean death for her beloved heron and the world it represents.

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