She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
–Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
- William Wordsworth.
The short story ‘A White Heron’ deals with Sylvia and her decision of saving the white heron, sacrificing her girlish infatuation for the gamesman. However the simplicity of the plot hides a far greater thematic complexity. Sylvia, the child of nature, chooses nature giving up her claim on humanity. The author builds up the character of the young protagonist with fine strokes and a great amount of sympathy. The opening paragraph itself underlines her spontaneity of emotions and imagination. In her lone journeys in the woods, Sylvia finds companionship in the humblest of animals, a cow.
The omniscient narrator consistently follows a dual mode of narrative and with supreme effect. She describes the protagonist’s world from an objective perspective at first. For instance, the cow Sylvia is driving home is “a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behaviour”. But then Sylvia’s perspective is also provided and the very same cow becomes a “valued companion’. And not only that, Sylvia even look at the cow’s pranks “as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek.”
Thus it may be argued that the germs of the final decision taken by Sylvia, on which the entire story revolves, has always been there in Sylvia’s characterization and it is very natural that she would choose what she finally chooses. In fact, clues are provided throughout the text that prepares the reader for the climax. This paper, thus, would attempt to argue how the inherent nature of Sylvia’s character preempts her final decision leaving the reader not with a sense of shock or surprise but that of satisfaction, which comes from expectations fulfilled.
Sylvia is a girl as close to nature as possible and feels completely at home in the midst of it. Living in the farmhouse with her grandmother, she has no human companion and there are rather explicit hints in the story that she actively shirks human company. Her first instinctive reaction to the young man she meets in the woods bears clear evidence to this. She is ‘horror stricken’ at the sudden appearance of this unwanted companion.
Her primary perception of this man is that of an ‘enemy’ and her first reaction is to leave “the cow to whatever sad fate might await her, and step(ed) discreetly aside into the bushes”. The narrator carefully grounds this irrational fear of the protagonist with incidents from her past life. Apparently Sylvia was bullied by a “great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her” when she lived in the ‘noisy town’. The reader realizes that the grandmother’s perception of Sylvia is quite close to the truth. Sylvia is truly “Afraid of folks” and she is quite happy in the lonely farm because as Mrs. Tilley observes, She is “troubled no great with ‘em up to the old place!”
The first part of the story also foregrounds Sylvia’s natural ability of finding companionship among animals and birds, creatures closer to nature than ‘great red faced boy(s)’ living in the ‘noisy town’. She and the cow seem to communicate instinctively and Sylvia feels perfectly at home in the woods, amidst all those twittering birds, though it is getting dark. When Mrs Tilley first brought her to the farmhouse to live with her “the cat came to purr loudly, and rub against them, a deserted pussy, indeed, but fat with young robins…” and Sylvia knew immediately that “this was a beautiful place to live in, and she never should wish to go home.”
However from this point onwards, the story seem to be moving in a different direction all together. Adding to Sylvia’s fear and trepidation, the young man had accompanied her all the way home from the woods. She had dreaded her grandmother’s reaction to see an unwanted guest. But when Mrs. Tilley comes up with a completely unexpected response, the basic premises of Sylvia’s world are shaken.
One can understand Mrs. Tilley’s reaction and its effect on the child. She is at first confused and does not know what to think but then the gaiety of the household at the arrival of the guest touches her and the next day she spends following the foot steps of this stranger from another land in her own woods. The most revealing expression as to the true nature of Sylvia’s feeling for this young man is contained in the following lines:
“The next day … Sylvia kept him company, having lost her first fear of the friendly lad, who proved to be most kind and sympathetic. … All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough.
Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. 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. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young foresters who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft-footed silent care. … The young man going first and Sylvia following, fascinated, a few steps behind, with her gray eyes dark with excitement.”
These alien feelings, unformed and vague but powerful nevertheless are what inspires Sylvia to go on an old-fashioned quest to win the admiration of the young man. Only this the target of the quest is a white heron which the young man want to shoot and stuff in order to add to her collection of rare birds of which he is inordinately proud. The nature of the quest is greatly interesting in the sense that it has greater implication than what it seems from outside. The quest demands of Sylvia to sacrifice at the altar of this young man her beloved world of birds and trees and embrace the world of men of which this young man is a symbol. In short to win her man the protagonist must compromise her own nature and accept the nature of this man who is so vastly different from her.
The difference between the subject position of Sylvia and the young game-hunter is masterfully established in the story. Whereas Mrs. Tilley asks with trepidation and anxiety whether the young man wants the heron to keep it imprisoned in a cage; the young man is completely insensitive to her fear. He replies triumphantly: “Oh, no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them,” said the ornithologist, “And I have shot or snared every one myself.”
The climb up the pine tree (an attempt fraught with danger no doubt) is described clearly in terms of a quest. And very much like the fabled quest of the Holy Grail, the adventurous journey does not end in the ever-elusive Grail but rather in self-knowledge. Looking down upon humanity and the woods from high above the Pine tree, what is revealed to Sylvia is not what she went to look for. She finds the nest of the White Heron, but realizes that she does not have any use of the knowledge. The moment of self-realization has made her understand that she will never reveal the secret to the youthful gamesman for it is against nature, her nature.
Thus we can conclude that the short story ‘A White Heron’ by Sarah Orne Jewett is that of a young girl’s journey of self-discovery. Sylvia, the child of nature, realizes that the white heron living freely in the midst of nature is more precious than the feelings in her heart for the young stranger. She happily sacrifices the human world for her own world of nature.