A White Heron Themes

The two main themes in “A White Heron” are flesh versus spirit and rites of passage.

  • Flesh versus spirit: The decision Sylvia must make about the heron is the choice between flesh and spirit—between earthly human pleasures and the natural world. 
  • Rites of passage: Sylvia undergoes a rite of passage in climbing the tree and deciding not to reveal the heron’s nesting place to the ornithologist.

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Flesh vs. Spirit
When an appealing ornithologist comes to the Maine woods, young Sylvia must decide whether to please her new friend by showing him the nesting place of the heron he wishes to kill for his collection, or remain loyal to her animal companions. Although the nine-year-old girl would never consider her situation in these terms, the decision Sylvia must make is the choice between flesh and spirit—between earthly human pleasures and the natural world. The narrator states the conflict in a sigh directed at the reader: ‘‘Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfaction of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!’’ The hunter’s presence represents two aspects of fleshly desire. First, he offers Sylvia ten dollars if she will betray the heron. Although the sum seems to mean little to him, for Sylvia it is a great temptation: ‘‘He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now.’’ When he first offers the money, her head swims in confusion as she thinks of all she might buy. She is dazed and confused for the rest of the story, until the moment she decides not to tell the secret. Secondly, the hunter represents—albeit in a subtle way for the young girl—the fleshly temptations of sex. It is his maleness she responds to, as ‘‘the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, [is] vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.’’ When Sylvia decides to keep her secret, she chooses grace over treasure, as the narrator’s final plea to the natural world emphasizes: ‘‘Whatever treasures were lost to her . . . bring your gifts and graces . . . to this lonely country child!’’

Rites of Passage
Sylvia’s movement toward her decision follows the typical pattern of the hero story or the Bildungsroman. Before Sylvia can move from innocence to maturity, or from common mortal to hero, she must undergo a ritual test to prove her worthiness and strength. The girl feels at home in the forest—she does not wish to leave—and at times she feels as one with the natural world. But her relationship to nature has never been tested. Appropriately, her test takes the form of a literal climb to a higher place, from where she can see the world. When she approaches the highest tree where the land is highest, ‘‘the last of its generation,’’ she does not know what she will do. She has often thought that from the top of this tree she might see the ocean, but she has never dared. Jewett presents this climb in the language of the hero myth: ‘‘What a spirit of adventure, what wild ambition! What fancied triumph and delight and glory.’’ As Sylvia begins ‘‘with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it’’ the birds and squirrels scold her, the thorns and twigs seem to intentionally grab at her. But as she climbs on resolutely, the great tree itself assumes an active role in helping her, until at last she is at the top: ‘‘Sylvia’s face was like a pale star, if one had seen it from the ground . . . and she stood trembling and tired and wholly triumphant.’’ But the test is not yet over. Sylvia still thinks that what she has achieved, she has achieved for the hunter. She expects to return to him, claim the money, claim his love and admiration. She is surprised to find (although the reader is not) that in the end she cannot reveal the heron’s nesting place. She has completed the test and come out the other side a stronger, wiser, more mature person. Typical of the young hero, however, she has gone through the rites of passage though she does not yet know the extent of her own power.

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