“A White Heron” By Sarah Orne Jewett
“A White Heron” is Sarah Orne Jewett’s shortest story. Jewett’s story is an exploration of the internal conflict experienced by a former city girl. She is confused by her new interest in the other sex and the love she has for nature. She must make a choice between the white heron which represents her love for nature and the young hunter who is her friend but who wants to kill the white heron as part of his collection.
Jewett’s “A White Heron” is seen as an initiation story. In the story, Jewett paints the dilemma that faces a person when an individual’s emotional needs and the personal values are in conflict. In such an instance, either decision made by such an individual is painful. As Sylvia in the play discovers, she is torn between pleasing her grandmother and the hunter or to protect the precious life of the white heron. In the end, Sylvia is forced to discover that violating her values would be more painful. She, therefore, decides to make a decision that can be said to be consistent with her individual values, which leaves her sad because she has to break the hunter’s spirits.
In the light of this evidence, how then is this an initiation story? Like any other story of initiation, she gains awareness of her surroundings and herself. The truth about the world is revealed to her through a difficult experience, and her innocence is lost at that point. By climbing the tall tree, she discovers a whole new world out there. This new experience strengthens her love for nature, and she becomes part of the nature as she views it from a vantage point. Her initial intention when she climbs the tree is to be able to locate the white heron’s nest for the hunter who needs the bird as a trophy. Her newfound knowledge, however, changes her, and she discovers that life is larger than her small world that she is used to. This is the reason she fails to betray the bird and her values by revealing the white heron’s nest.
Looking at the story in another way, we see a lot of symbolism. For instance, the white heron is not just a bird that is endangered by the young hunter. The white heron has great symbolism in the story. The white heron in Jewett’s narrative represents the natural world and the destruction of nature by human activity. People in the world have a double personality which is confusing to the young girl. One aspect of the world is that the hunter claims to love birds. However, he also kills them. The murder of the precious things that we love is what is represented by the white heron.
At the one end is the voice of the girl who wants to protect the bird (nature) and on the other end is the majority of the population that wants to plunder the resources and use everything to their advantage (the hunter, and grandmother). In her own way, she understands that it is immoral to kill something that one loves in order to find its real value. That to her is counterintuitive. Instead, she sees more value in preserving and appreciating the things that we love. She observes that while the feathers of the birds remain pretty even in death, what made the feathers and the birds valuable to her was their life and their beautiful songs. Her decision to protect the heron represents her resolve to protect nature because to her, the forest and the birds therein, as well as herself, are all one.
The story is made more memorable by two different moods. One mood is that of suspense created when we try to wonder whether Sylvia will reveal the white heron’s whereabouts to the hunter. The second important mood is of urgency, the one captured in the intense desire by the hunter to get the heron and add it to the collection of birds. A third-person omniscient narrator is used to convey the moods. The narrator sometimes gets close to the events in the story creating immediacy which is important to make the story memorable. At times, the narrator uses the present tense to advance the story. Some of the instances when the narrator uses the present tense include when the girl hears the approaching hunter, when she sees the nest, and when she makes up her mind not to tell the hunter the secret about the nest. In all these instances, the shift to the present gives the story a sense of immediacy and a tensed mood.