A White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett

I found this story online, for free, here. Thanks to the Open Library project.

thanks to the Boston Public Library for sharing

thanks to the Boston Public Library for sharing

I finally got around to this one, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve seen it referenced before, but it was in Iodine that I saw the allusion that finally got me. And it was pretty easy to find online in full-text form, so no excuses.

It is a simple story. A girl named Sylvia (Sylvy) lives with her grandmother in the woods; she is fortunate to have been the one of a “houseful of children” to be chosen for this life, because she was very unhappy with people and in the city, and now she blossoms. The birds and trees are her friends. She meets a hunter, a pleasant enough young man, who initially scares Sylvy (because he is people) but who she comes to like and esteem. He is seeking a rare bird, a white heron, who does not usually roost in these parts but who Sylvy has seen and knows. In her admiration for the hunter, Sylvy climbs a very tall tree before dawn – a feat of great proportions – to locate the heron’s nest. Perhaps you can see where the central conflict comes from.

This is a very fine example of the art of the short story. It is a brief tale, and simple, but layered and allegorical and very moving. There are only three human characters, of whom the hunter remains unnamed and the grandmother is usually referred to simply as “the grandmother”; only Sylvy consistently gets a name. This adds to the simplistic, and the symbolic, effect. On the other hand, the natural world is well characterized. I love the cow:

…though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring.

Or the tree Sylvy climbs:

…it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch… The old pine must have loved his new dependent.

We can see here the important role that nature plays. Indeed, Sylvy herself is part bird:

…her bare feet and fingers… pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder [of the tree] reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself.

Her tree-climbing adventure seems to me to clearly be an epic journey of a rather religious nature; but I am inexpert in religious texts & symbolism, so I’m not sure I can articulate that for you.

Part of what I love about this story is the deceptive ease with which we sympathize with the bird over the hunter. I read this story in the car, and Husband expressed an interest, so I summarized it for him (which was a pleasure in itself), and he took it for granted that we want the bird, as it were, to win. Well, that’s an easy conclusion to come to; we’re animal lovers, he rescues baby birds that fall out of nests (I call him St. Francis), we like the woods. And this hunter, after all, is a sporting sort, interested in bagging a rare species, rather than feeding his family. But I don’t think the same sympathies would have occurred, let alone been obvious, to Jewett’s original audience (in 1886); they certainly aren’t obvious to the hunter and the grandmother in the story. In other words, Husband and I had very clear-cut sympathies, but I think we read this story differently than it would have read in 1886. The fact that it is moving to us today as it presumably was then, but in a different way, is remarkable to me, and thought-provoking.

This is a lovely little short story in the style of realism, in praise of nature over human industry, allegorical and sweet and very powerful. I have left quite a bit unsaid – like, the ending – because I want you to read it. The link’s at the top of this post, and it won’t take long. Go.

Rating: 9 breaths of fresh air.

One Response

  1. […] A White Heron, Sarah Orne Jewett (fiction) […]

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