This frequently anthologized Bildungsroman features Sylvia, a nine-year-old girl whose very name evokes the woods that she loves, and where she is walking when we first encounter her. She meets an attractive young man, a hunter and an ornithologist, who tries to persuade her to show him the nest of the white heron that he would like to add to his collection of stuffed birds. Her decision not to do so has provoked a wide variety of interpretations. The story can be read on numerous levels—as a study in respecting and protecting nature, as a sensitively depicted local color story, as a reimagining of the Demeter-Persephone myth or fairy tale, or as a fictional rendering of Sarah Orne Jewett’s own life, both as an artist and as a single woman.
Perhaps because the story is so clearly sympathetic to protecting the environment, many readers feel puzzled and disturbed by the significance of the hunter himself, who seems to represent more than just a destroyer of forest creatures: A disturbing sexual element, an intrusive sense of violence and aggression, appears to lie beneath his cloak of pleasant friendliness. Jewett implies strong gender issues in this tale. Viewing his role as that of a metaphorical rapist serves both to illuminate Sylvia’s intuitive fears of men and to deepen the environmentalist theme. Early in the story, Mrs. Tilley, Sylvia’s grandmother, reveals that Sylvia is “afraid of folks” (648). As Sylvia walks through the woods, she recalls a “great red-faced boy” (648) who used to chase her and frighten her when she lived in town; this memory foreshadows the very next sentence in which she hears the “aggressive” whistle that heralds her encounter with the young man with the gun. He immediately asks her whether he can spend the night at her house and “go gunning” in the morning. Sylvia’s confusion mirrors that of many young girls who meet a stranger: Juxtaposed to her instinctive fear of him is her attraction to his veneer of gallantry, kindness, and sympathy.
When she agrees to take him to the house where she and her grandmother live, the man succeeds in penetrating the “hermitage” (649) of the two women. He proves insensitive to Mrs. Tilley’s “hint[s] of family sorrows” (650), instead dominating the conversation and boasting that, since boyhood, he has been killing and collecting birds that he stuffs and preserves as trophies of his manliness. The narrator repeatedly refers to his gun and knife, phallic images that combine with his offering Sylvia money if she will sacrifice the white bird that some critics view as a symbol of her virginity and innocence. He charms her, and her fear subsides, giving way to the “woman’s heart” (651) asleep somewhere within the young girl. Yet images of seduction give way to those of rape when Sylvia climbs the tree, views the heron’s nest, and climbs back down with her dress smeared, torn, and tattered; they are reinforced with the image of the dead birds “stained and wet with blood” (654) near the end of the story. Ultimately, Sylvia decides she must protect the heron at all costs, even though it means losing the man’s friendship.
While the narrator ends the story by predicting the loneliness of Sylvia’s future, nothing in the story suggests, in Ann Charters’s words, “that she would have been better off having sold herself for ten dollars and a whistle” (Charters 85). The many ways to view the ending—from biographical, Freudian, mythic, or environmental perspectives—only add to the depths of the story waiting for each new reader to plumb.
Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. Albany, N.Y.: New Collections University Press, 1962.
Charters, Ann. Resources for Teaching Major Writers of Short Fiction. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1993.
Donovan, Josephine L. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Ungar, 1980.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. “The White Heron.” In Major Writers of Short Fiction: Stories and Commentaries. Edited by Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford Books-St. Martin’s, 1993.
Nagel, Gwen. Critical Essays on Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.