The Rural Privilege in “A White Heron”
Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” is a brilliant story of an inquisitive young girl named Sylvia. Jewett’s narrative describes Sylvia’s experiences within the mystical and inviting woods of New England. I think a central theme in “A White Heron” is the dramatization of the clash between two competing sets of values in late nineteenth-century America: industrial and rural. Sylvia is the main character of the story. We can follow her through the story to help us see many industrial and rural differences. Inevitably, I believe that we are encouraged to favor Sylvia’s rural environment and values over the industrial ones.
Our first introduction to these competing sets of values begins when we meet Sylvia. She is a young girl from a crowded manufacturing town who has recently come to stay with her grandmother on a farm. We see Sylvia’s move from the industrial world to a rural one as a beneficial change for the girl, especially from the passage, “Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at the all before she came to live at the farm”(133). The new values that are central to Sylvia’s feelings of life are her opportunities to plays games with the cow. Most visibly, Sylvia becomes so alive in the rural world that she begins to think compassionately about her neighbor’s geraniums (133). We begin to see that Sylvia values are strikingly different from the industrial and materialistic notions of controlling nature. Additionally, Sylvia is alive in nature because she learns to respect the natural forces of this land. Indeed, this new value is very different than the industrial perspective of other characters, particularly the hunter.
Another example of the clash between industrial and rural values comes from Sylvia’s own memories and recollections. Sylvia has been on the farm for a year now, but she still thinks about her industrial existence from a year ago. She wonders if everything is still carrying on in the same way as when she lived in the town. Sylvia recalls her adolescent adversary: the great-red faced boy. I think the great-red faced boy represents the industrial world to some degree because he frightens Sylvia, and when she thinks of him she wants to escape to the safety of the bushes. Thus, the rural world and nature are a sanctuary from the industrial world for Sylvia. Perhaps this escape parallels Sylvia’s real escape from the industrial world to the sanctuary of the farm. I think Jewett supports this by writing “The thought of the great-red face boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadows of the trees” (133). Again, it is important to consider the woods as a shelter for Sylvia. I do not think that Sylvia is afraid of the trees. Rather, I think this passage seems to reinforce the idea that Sylvia is escaping from the industrial world, in her memories and in her values.
Yet, at this point in the narrative, I still perceive Sylvia as a fearful and timid girl. Mrs. Tilley, Sylvia’s grandmother, supports this perception by saying that Sylvia is “Afraid of folks” (133). Additionally, this passage seems to show us that Sylvia is confined by late nineteenth – century notions of female vulnerability, modesty, and passivity. However, on the farm Sylvia is now free to explore and stray about outdoors. As a result of her life in the farm, we can see many examples of Sylvia’s gradual escape from the constraints of the industrial world’s value system.
Moreover, we begin to accept Sylvia as a genuine “little woods-girl “(133). Sylvia wants to protect the natural world and its values, serenity, and animals against the industrial outsiders. The presence of the hunter symbolizes the industrial outsider because his presence creates an interesting conflict between Sylvia’s loyalty between nature and her desires for love and money. Still, to help us understand Sylvia’s conflicting emotions, we must further appreciate the differences between the industrial and rural world. This is achieved by the quality of the industrial and rural world’s descriptions. Upon reading about the rural farm, we learn that the air is “soft and sweet” while the industrial town is described as “noisy” and “crowded” (133). We also get to see more clashes between the industrial and rural world when we read about the description of the hunter’s whistle as “determined and somewhat aggressive” (133). I believe this whistle is symbolic it is unlike a friendly bird’s whistle, and by offering us the differences between the two whistles, we learn that the natural world appeals more to Sylvia’s emotions and sensitivities than the industrial one and its manufactured devices.
While Sylvia may consider the bird’s whistle as unfriendly and an invasion of her natural world, she also seems intimidated by the hunter. His values represent a scientific and emotionally detached world. His ambition for collecting and preserving birds threatens Sylvia as the following passage summarizes by stating, “Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest” (136). The presence of the hunter indicates that his industrial world is keen on collecting and developing untamed forces, particularly the heron. The hunter’s world seems inconsiderate of nature and his world becomes a paradox because its industrial values seem to kill the things it proposes to love.
An effective example of this paradox occurs when the hunter offers Sylvia $10 in exchange for locating his next hunting prize, the white heron. The hunter treasures the heron, but he places a monetary value on it (138). I think this passage make the hunter appear greedy and selfish. These are two attributes that I can correlate with the industrial world. Nevertheless, Sylvia wonders about the money. She is poor, and she dreams about the treasures $10 will bring her. The next day she travels with hunter to search for the birds; yet, she can’t understand why her new friend would kill the very thing he proclaims to love and admire so much. Again, I think the hunter symbolizes the great distance between rural and industrial values. His value system is from a world that is so far removed from having compassion for nature, that he never questions the conflict and irony of his actions. Jewett describes this conflict and states:
Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to likes 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. (136)
Although the hunter is a contradictory figure, Sylvia has the need and desire to be loved by this man and makes the decision to help him pursue the white heron. Yet, if she chooses to help this young hunter win his prize then she will be going along with industrial society’s norms for a young lady, and lose her own identity. Later, we realize that in order to locate this bird, she has to climb the tallest tree around, a feat in itself. The climb up the massive tree is decidedly the turning point for Sylvia; she becomes closer to nature and feels its existence all around her. Therefore, we can see that Sylvia is developing a new and stubborn resolve. She seems to welcome this change in her values. She treasures it.
Moreover, the encounters between Sylvia and the hunter help us empathize with her fear of the industrial world. To achieve this empathy, the narrator refers to this man as the enemy and states that the “young girl dare not to look boldly at the man”(133). This is an effective passage and the tone here is representative of female repression and constraint at the turn of the century. So I think this can provide textual support for the industrial world’s gender inequality during the turn of the century. My assumption here is that Sylvia’s fear of the man is a learned trait from her behavior and value system in the manufacturing town. The passage about her fear of the “great red-faced boy” can support this assumption (133). Additionally, another example of this industrial and social repression is the grandmother’s remark about her son’s ability to wander off and explore the world. She expresses that if she could have, she would have done it too (134). Therefore, the grandmother acknowledges the female repression of the industrial world. Although she no longer lives in that society, she still seems to be constrained by it, but not Sylvia. I think the grandmother is still restrained by the industrial world’s values and expectations, but I think Sylvia is young enough to follow the dictates of her ideas, values, and not those of the industrial world.
Thus, when Sylvia finally casts her eyes upon the white heron, something inside Sylvia changes. This is the manifestation of her new value system. She has moved away from the industrial values and begins to favor the values of nature over the industrial ones of money and the accumulation of wealth, power, and prized animals.
We can see Sylvia’s new perspective in a few important ways. First, we feel that Sylvia can see herself in the white heron. Second, she understands it now. She watches the sea and greets the sun at the same time as the heron. From this shared experience, Sylvia seems to be making a connection to the white heron and the woods. So, we can acknowledge that Sylvia has become more concerned about the natural world rather than the industrial one. I think the passage that most adequately describes this moment comes near the end of the narrative:
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she bee nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time outs out a hand to her, must she thrust is aside for a bird’s sake? The murmur of the pine tree’s branches in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and given its life away. (138)
Sylvia knows that if she divulges the white heron’s location to the hunter, she will not only destroy the bird’s spirit but her own as well. This power she now has is something that will comfort her because now she is alone; she is alone with nature. And as one must have an identity to survive in nature, Sylvia must save her own identity and appreciate her new values in order to survive.
By presenting the competing sets of industrial and rural values, Jewett’s “A White Heron” gives us a rich and textured story that privileges nature over industry. I think the significance of this story is that it gives us an urgent and emphatic view about nature and the dangers that industrial values and society can place upon it and the people who live in it. Still, we are led to feel much like Sylvia. I think we are encouraged to protect nature, cherish our new values and freedoms, and resist the temptations of other influences that can tempt us to destroy and question the importance of the sublime gifts that living in a rural world can bestow upon us.