Study Guide

A White Heron Analysis

  • Tone

    Conversational and Awestruck

    For the most part, Jewett uses a simple, almost conversational tone to tell her story. Although the narration never slips into full on dialect, it does use a conversational sentence structure that emphasizes the down-home goodness of "this New England wilderness" (1.14). The closing paragraph of the story drives this point home, as it shifts from a straightforward narrative into a direct address of the reader. The last line reads:

    Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!

    Nothing says conversational quite like directly addressing the reader.

    The only time that the tone isn't like this is when Sylvia is climbing the tall oak tree. At this point, Jewett abandons her conversational tone in favor of something for fitting for the situation, using awestruck metaphors like "the great main-mast of the voyaging earth" (2.6) to emphasize the power and majesty of nature. This shift in tone drives home the fact that even Sylvia—who knows the forest quite well—is completely flabbergasted by what she is witnessing. And, in doing so, grabs our attention.

  • Genre

    Pastoral; Romanticism

    "A White Heron" follows the lives of two women who live their lives in touch with the wild New England wilderness. Much of the story is spent giving vivid descriptions of the surrounding nature, from the wild animals that traipse about to the stunning oak tree that Sylvia climbs at the end of the story. And when the urban world comes knocking in the form of a hunter with a gun? Well, he's clearly the bad guy in this one. For all of these reasons, this story falls squarely in the pastoral genre, Shmoopers.

    As far as romanticism goes, the story's romantic undertones creep in because Jewett doesn't merely describe nature—she infuses it with powerful emotions. It's textbook romanticism, even if the story was published a little later than others in the genre.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "A White Heron" is about a white heron, obviously, but it's also about a whole lot more. In the story, a girl named Sylvia is offered ten dollars to locate a rare white heron for an eager hunter. But while Sylvia does, in fact, know where to find the bird, she is unsure about whether she's willing to lead the hunter there to kill the poor thing. The title, then, is a shout-out to her decision-making process. As for the heron, well, it packs a wallop as a symbol, so you should probably hop over to the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section now to learn more about it.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Let's set things up:

    • A young man has arrived in the forest and told Sylvia that he will pay her ten dollars if she can lead him to a rare white heron.
    • Although she's torn, Sylvia decides to find the heron for the hunter.
    • She climbs the highest tree in the area, has a magical experience, and sees the heron.

    So does she tell the hunter where to find the heron and collect her commission? Nope.

    Sylvia runs home with dollar signs in her eyes but realizes that she physically can't "tell the heron's secret and give its life away" (2.13). It's never explicitly stated why she does this, but we'd peg her obvious love of nature as Exhibit A and her intense experience atop the oak tree as Exhibit B (for more on this tree experience, check out the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section—there's more there than meets the eye).

    Although Sylvia remains in the forest, she never forgets the hunter, nor is she ever quite sure that she's made the right choice. Although Sylvia is a proto-hippie country gal at heart, she knows that the hunter represented a very different path her life could've taken, and as the story ends, she still wonders where it might have taken her. It doesn't exactly reek of regret, but seems more like a sort of forlorn daydream about what might have been. But hey—we all do that sometimes.

  • Setting

    19th-Century New England Countryside

    In many ways, the New England countryside is the fourth main character of "A White Heron." This wondrous natural environment is the key to the story since it's the thing that the hunter wants to tame and Sylvia wants to protect.

    Sylvia's World

    From the outset, we're shown just how connected Sylvia is to the natural world that surrounds her country home. She can walk through the forest "whether [her] eyes could see it or not" (1.1), and she can instantly tell the difference between a bird's whistle and a man's whistle. She is deeply connected to all of the creatures that inhabit these woods, both big and small.

    But there's one part of the woods, in particular, that is more magical than the rest: the marshes surrounding the tallest pine tree in the forest. Sylvia has already been warned by her grandmother about the sunshine that "always seemed strangely yellow and hot" and the "soft black mud" that could pull her under to "never be heard of more" (1.23). But none of this prepares her for the reality of the marsh.

    Journey to the Center of the Woods

    Think of this area as a belly button—the point of connection between nature and the energy that powers it. When Sylvia climbs the tree, magical things start to happen: the trunk starts to "lengthen farther and farther upward" until it transforms into the "great main-mast to the voyaging earth" (2.6). Sylvia, too, is transformed by the experience, her face looking like a "pale star" (2.7). Although this stuff isn't actually happening, it certainly feels that way to Sylvia.

    This marsh serves to remind Sylvia that there is something special in these woods. Sure, she's never sure if birds are "better friends than their hunter might have been" (2.14), but she knows that she is where she belongs. Despite all of the human intrusion that the countryside receives, we get the sense that the marsh will outlast it all.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    While the story isn't particularly complicated, Jewett uses some old-school words and sentence structures that might force you to read things twice. It may not be as tough as Shakespeare (okay, it's definitely not as tough as Shakespeare), but it's a far cry from a status update or string of emojis.

  • Writing Style

    Descriptive

    Jewett is a writer with a vivid eye for detail, and she fills "A White Heron" to the brim with vibrant descriptions with deep, emotional undertones. Although she has a wide vocabulary, she rarely uses any hard-to-understand words, opting instead to focus on making the story's natural imagery pop. For instance, of the tallest pine she writes, "the stately head of this old pine towered above them all and made a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away" (2.1)—and when she does, we know it isn't just tall, but that it's presence is palpable.

    When it comes to characters, Jewett makes darn sure that you can feel what they're feeling. Sylvia isn't just scared by the hunter; she's "horror-stricken" (1.5). She doesn't just have a crush on him; her "heart" is "thrilled by a dream of love" (1.26). This emotional heightening helps us get inside the minds of the characters and emphasizes the internal turmoil they go through in pursuit of their goals. We may be living drastically different lives than Sylvia and her cohorts, but Jewett's style makes sure we're right there with them.

  • The White Heron

    While the hunter represents human companionship, the white heron represents the companionship of the natural world. And to this end, the fluctuations we see in Sylvia's perspective on the heron represent shifts in her valuation of nature.

    A nature-lover at heart, Sylvia loses track of her fondness for all things natural when the hunky hunter comes along, and decides to find the heron and lead him to it. It's a major change of heart, but what can we say? Love makes people do all kinds of stupid stuff. But anyway.

    Like the lovely cow Mistress Moolly, the white heron becomes friends with Sylvia. So when she goes out on her own to find it for the hunter, though there are plenty of other animals around the oak tree, only the heron sits with Sylvia as they "watched the sea and morning together" (2.13). Although the two aren't able to communicate, their brief moment together has a big impact on Sylvia—afterward, she is unable to betray its location, and pulled right back to her connection with, and respect for, nature.

    Maybe it's the fact that the white heron is rare and special, even to her. Maybe it's the passion stirred up by the mystical experience that she has atop the oak tree. Or maybe it's that Sylvia sees a little bit of herself in the white heron; passionately in communion with nature, despite the world of human affairs desperately trying to pull her back. No matter what exactly causes their bond, it's this bond that prevents her from telling "the heron's secret and [giving] its life away" (2.13). And when this happens, we know Sylvia's recommitted to her country ways.

  • The Gun

    Okay, let's just be frank: The gun is a phallic symbol. Glad we got that out of the way, because we're blushing like crazy over here.

    Although the story never directly touches on sexuality, it hangs out in our peripheral vision. To put it more simply, the story is concerned with innocence and the growth of a young girl, and sexuality is an important part of any human's growth into adulthood.

    The first real indication of this in when we see "the woman's heart, asleep in the child, [...] vaguely thrilled by a dream of love" (1.26). The gun frightens Sylvia at first, but she stops fearing it around the time that she starts to develop her little crush. Coincidence? Yeah, we think not.

    Again it's not about actual sexual exchanges between the hunter and Sylvia, but the fact that the hunter represents the human world's first temptation of Sylvia. In the natural world where she now exists, there aren't many options for human interaction, much less romance—and because of this, we can see a correlation between nature and innocence in this story. So the hunter and the lure to betray nature that he represents can be understood as a temptation to leave innocence behind. That Sylvia ultimately chooses nature is fitting—she is only nine, after all.

    The gun, then, represents maturity on two levels: sexual (again, it's a phallic symbol, yo) and technological. The hunter commands nature to his own ends, he kills it and collects it, whereas Sylvia and her grandmother's relationship to nature is much more deferential and harmonious. Their lives are intruded upon, then, both by this sexualized masculine presence and the urbanization it's associated with.

    And here you thought a gun was just a tool.

  • The Oak and Pines Trees

    While "A White Heron" is written in a mostly realistic fashion, it takes a sharp turn for the magical when Sylvia starts climbing the tall oak tree, which she uses to help her reach the top of the even taller pine. We get hints of this when Mrs. Tilley describes how "the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot" (1.23) around that spot—indicating this location as special—but her brief warning doesn't prepare Sylvia for the wonders she experiences.

    As she climbs, that simple pine tree transforms (in Sylvia's head, at least) into "a great main-mast to the voyaging earth" (2.6). Sylvia can feel this magical energy passing into herself, making her believe that she "could go flying away among the clouds" (2.7). Sylvia, in other words, is tapped into her own power and potential; she feels filled with possibility. If the hunter has tempted her away from her true course—being connected to nature—then here she gets back on track, reconnecting with herself and loving it.

    It is worth noting that, just like the gun, trees can be understood as phallic symbols. They jut into the sky, after all. Importantly, though, whereas the gun is connected to another person—and a male person, at that—the trees are something Sylvia's alone with. So the oak and pine can also be read as symbols of sexuality, but instead of being wrapped up in violence and masculinity, here they are all about Sylvia and her own power and pleasure.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    Although the narrator stays within Sylvia's brain for most of the story, there are a few moments when the perspective shifts to Mrs. Tilley and the hunter.

    In the case of Mrs. Tilley, these shifts serve to give us more of Sylvia's backstory, including details about how she ended up in the countryside, as well as a "hint of family sorrows" (1.17). On the other hand, the perspective shifts to the hunter show us his condescending reactions to Sylvia and Mrs. Tilley, giving us reason to look at him with a skeptical eye. This technique helps keep up empathetic toward Sylvia and her life's circumstances, which keeps us rooting for her, even when she suddenly changes course.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition

      A Girl and Her Cow

      We open on young Sylvia chilling with her cow—a quaint scene, right? It's getting late so they're heading back to the home she shares with her grandmother.

      Rising Action

      Cha-Ching

      Out of nowhere, a hunter emerges with a big old gun. He's hunting birds and could use a place to stay for the night. Back at Sylvia's that evening, he offers ten dollars to anyone who can lead him to the elusive white heron.

      Climax

      Tree-Climbing for Fun and Profit

      After spending a day with the hunter, Sylvia runs to the tallest tree in the woods to locate the heron. She reaches the absolute highest point in the woods, has a quasi-mystical experience, and—drumroll, please—locates that darn white heron.

      Falling Action

      Silent Sylvia

      Sylvia climbs down the tree and runs home, eager to give the young man the exact coordinates of the heron. But—no matter how hard she tries—she is unable to speak.

      Resolution

      Objects in the Rearview Mirror

      As she ages, Sylvia continues to question her decision and sometimes imagines hearing the young hunter approaching her in the woods.