Romantic Flight in Jewett's "White Heron"

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Mr. Howells thinks that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more; but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all. It must be the fault of the writers that such writing is dull, but what shall I do with my "White Heron" now she is written? She isn't a very good magazine story, but I love her....--Sarah Orne Jewett, letter to Annie Fields (ca. 1885)

Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron" (1886) tells the story of Sylvia, a young girl who spends her first years in an oppressive manufacturing town, then, at eight, to her great joy, goes to live with her grandmother on a farm in coastal New England. There, amid animals and forest, she begins to feel at home and express her affectionate nature. The following year, however, she faces a new difficulty when, walking in the woods, she meets a stranger, an amateur ornithologist, lost gunning for birds, who asks for and obtains lodging from the girl and her grandmother. Although Sylvia at first fears the tall young man, she soon becomes comfortable, indeed infatuated, with the "charming" and "handsome stranger." (1) Thus, the next day, though troubled by his killing of birds, she joins him in the hunt, and when she learns he has come into their region pursuing the rare white heron, she resolves to surprise and please the youth by climbing a tall pine early the next morning and locating the heron's nest for him. As it happens, atop the tree at dawn, she discovers the nest in a hemlock far below, but then watches in awe as the heron itself rises "through the golden air" (239) and alights on a branch near hers. Thereupon, in a brief conjunction, the rapt girl and the bird behold "the sea and the morning together" (239). Later, making her way home to disclose the nest's location, Sylvia finds her moment with the bird become so affecting that despite the urging of the grandmother and the hunter, she "cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away" (239). The young man leaves "disappointed" (239), and, long after, Sylvia continues to miss him. The story ends with the narrator's sympathetic plea: "Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,--who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summertime, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!" (239).

Although "A White Heron" can be read as a species of realism--nothing in the story appears inconceivable--the tale is best understood, I believe, as a romance. (2) In her rendering, Jewett pays little attention to particularities and instead establishes the setting and characters as largely symbolical, representative: a manufacturing town, dark woods, an affectionate girl, a kindly grandmother, a nameless hunter. Romance of course requires that we work to determine what these elements symbolize, what the romance allegorizes. Critics of "A White Heron" have generally agreed that Sylvia represents an innocent, aspiring girl, newly awakened to sexuality, who finds herself greatly attracted to a charming but finally dangerous young man, that this scientist-hunter typifies man's egotism and arrogance with respect to nature and women in nineteenth-century America, and that the heron embodies an eminent expression of nature, of a world apart from man's dominion and worthy of the girl's devotion.

From this perspective, then, Sylvia's ominous relation to the hunter allegorizes the predicament of young women in Jewett's culture. Girls desire a transcendent life, but, growing up in a patrilineal culture, they find themselves constrained to seek ascendancy in what often prove destructive alliances with men. Sylvia has escaped the oppression of a manufacturing town, has gotten free of a "great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her" (229), and thus for now avoided her impoverished mother's fate (a "houseful of children" [228]). …