Study Guide

A White Heron Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    They were going away from whatever light there was, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not. (1.1)

    In this case, Sylvia really <em>does </em>know the forest like the back of her hand. This passage also serves to remind us how connected Sylvia is to animals—she refers to herself and her cow as "we." Aw.

    The good woman suspected that Sylvia loitered occasionally on her own account; there never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made! (1.2)

    Even Sylvia's grandmother can see how attached Sylvia is to nature. But if the previous passage is any indication, then Sylvia's not necessarily loitering—she's just taking it all in.

    It was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but [...] it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm. (1.2)

    Now we find out that Sylvia was actually born a city girl, despite her obvious fear of people. Growing up in the city likely makes Sylvia more appreciative of the calm that nature has to offer.

    She was not often in the woods so late as this, and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves. (1.4)

    At times, we see the boundaries between Sylvia and the natural environment breaking down until there's no distinction between the two. This effect becomes even more pronounced as the story continues.

    Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle no very far away. Not a bird's-whistle, which would have some sort of friendliness, but a boy's whistle. (1.5)

    This is telling: Sylvia would be delighted at the sound of a bird, but is terrified at the sound of another human. In a way, she has already explicitly chosen the natural world over man-made civilization.

    "Dan, my boy, was a great hand to go gunning," she explained sadly. "I never wanted for pa-tridges or gray squer'ls while he was to home. He's been a great wand'rer [...] Sylvy takes after him." (1.15-16)

    It turns out that Sylvia isn't the only member of her family to fall in love with nature. There's a dark side to this, however—no one knows where Dan is anymore. Is city life just too much for a nature lover like him to handle?

    "There ain't a foot o' ground she don't know her way over, and the wild creatur's counts her one o' themselves." (1.16)

    Sylvia's grandmother is proud of Sylvia's attachment to nature—she knows how rare this type of connection is. She made a wise decision in choosing Sylvia to live with her, didn't she?

    "Anything but crows, I tell her, I'm willin' to help support—though Dan he had a tamed on o' them that did seem to have reason same as folks." (1.16)

    This is pretty bold when you think about it: Sylvia's grandmother doesn't even like crows, but is willing to say that they are as smart as people. Although we don't see Mrs. Tilley bonding with nature as much as Sylvia, this is an indication that she might've been a tree-hugger back in the day herself.

    "So Sylvy knows all about birds, does she? [...] I am making a collection of birds myself. I have been at it ever since I was a boy." (1.18)

    Of course, by "collect," the hunter means "shoot." Although the hunter has a strong bond with nature, it's something entirely different from Sylvia's. She wants to live with nature; he wants to dominate it.

    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. (1.26)

    Sylvia is well aware of the irony behind the hunter's professed love of nature. In truth, he only loves nature when he is able to put it under his own control. This serves to heighten the contrast between Sylvia and the hunter even further.

  • Isolation

    Besides, Sylvia had all the time there was, and very little use to make of it. (1.2)

    Ah, the beauty of childhood. But Sylvia is an exceptional case: There really aren't any kids around for her to hang out with.

    It was a consolation to look upon the cow's pranks as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek, and as the child had no playmates. (1.2)

    Sylvia is so desperate for companionship that she makes a cow her best friend. This is indicative of how Sylvia has filled up the void of human companionship with a relationship with nature.

    "'Afraid of folks,' they said! I guess she won't be troubled no great with 'em up to the old place!" (1.3)

    It makes us chuckle to remember that Sylvia was born and raised in the city—in fact, she's only been living with her grandmother for about a year at this point. Seems like she was meant for this quieter life, though.

    When they reached the door of the lonely house [...] Sylvia whispered that this was a beautiful place to live in, and she never should wish to go home. (1.3)

    It turns out that Sylvia actually loves isolation. Rather, she loves isolation from people—we doubt she could be separated from nature without a shedding a few tears.

    Sylvia [...] stepped discreetly aside into the bushes, but she was too late. The enemy had discovered her. (1.5)

    To Sylvia, any stranger is an "enemy." If that doesn't tell you a thing or two about her mindset, then we don't know what will.

    Sylvia was more alarmed than before. Would not her grandmother consider her much to blame? But who could have foreseen an accident as this? (1.8)

    Again, Sylvia's word choice tells us everything we need to know. She stumbles upon a stranger—who seems rather nice and polite—and calls it an "accident."

    She knew by instinct that her grandmother did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. She must be mistaking the stranger for one of the farmer-lads of the region. (1.10)

    Sylvia is especially suspicious of the young man because he seems to be from the city. Sylvia might not be freaking out so hard if it were a fellow nature-kid (someone who lives in as much isolation as she does) but a city-boy is something worth fearing.

    He gave her a jack-knife, which she thought as great a treasure as if she were a desert-islander. (1.26)

    Slowly but surely, Sylvia begins to warm up to the young man. Her naturally introverted personality prevents her from completely buying into the things he says, however—she's not a savvy consumer of people. Not at first, anyway.

    At last, evening began to fall, and they drove the cow home together, and Sylvia smiled with pleasure when they came to the place where she heard the whistle and was afraid only the night before. (1.27)

    Now that the man isn't a stranger, Sylvia can look back and laugh at the fear she felt the previous day. Does she not love isolation as much as she thought? Was it wrong of her to give up city life for the isolated natural world?

    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! (2.3)

    Finally Sylvia realizes that she must make a choice between life among people and life among nature. And after much back-and-forth, she picks nature. Which would you choose?

  • Awe

    Sylvia's heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass. (1.23)

    Although Sylvia seems to know all the animals that live around her home, the white heron is a particularly magical and awe-inspiring creature. It's no wonder the hunter hasn't been able to locate it—or that he so desperately wants to.

    There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot [...] and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more. (1.23)

    Although the story is told in a realistic fashion, any passages about the white heron are tinted with mystical imagery. This marsh—the home of the white heron—is no exception. Eventually, we'll get to see this awe-inspiring locale first-hand.

    Half a mile from home, at the farther edge of the woods, where the land was highest, a great pine-tree stood, the last of its generation. (2.1)

    This tree, located in the most magical part of the forest, is a relic from a past age. As we come to see, this makes it practically a ladder to the heavens.

    Now she thought of the tree with new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at the break of day, could not one see all the world? (2.1)

    While this can be seen as an example of Sylvia's childishness at work, it shows that this oak tree is different from all the others in the forest. It provides a vantage point unlike any she's ever climbed.

    The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upwards. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth. (2.6)

    Now this is truly awesome: As Sylvia climbs higher and higher, she feels an intense connection with the forest and the earth itself. Suddenly, her curiosity changes into downright awe.

    Sylvia's face was like a pale star, if one had seen it from the ground, when the last thorny bough was past. (2.7)

    At this point, the tree isn't the only thing that's magical—Sylvia is, too. She has reached her goal and transcended into the heavens, like mythical heroes of ancient times.

    Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds [...] Truly it was a vast and awesome world! (2.7)

    Although we've already seen how at one Sylvia is with the forest, this passage takes this idea literally. Sylvia has never experienced a connection with nature as deep as this.

    There [...] flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions. How low they looked in the air from that height when one had one seen them before far up, and dark against the blue sky. (2.7)

    This seems more like a dream than reality—and that might be exactly the point. This whole experience is helping Sylvia remember why she was so awestruck by the natural world in the first place.

    Where was the white heron's nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? (2.8)

    This "wonderful sight" would have been enough for Sylvia at one point, but the entrance of the young hunter changes all of that. The question now becomes whether the hunter is enough to make Sylvia forget about the amazing experience she just had.

    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 (2.13)

    Sylvia returns transformed. She is awed and humbled by the things she just witnessed and can no longer even consider betraying the white heron. In many ways, she has just had a religious experience—her god just happens to be nature.

  • Choices

    "I can't think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron's nest," the handsome stranger was saying. "I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show it to me." (1.24)

    Should Sylvia protect the white heron from the hunter, or take up his offer at the prospect of mad cash money? This choice will come to define "A White Heron"—and it won't be an easy one.

    No amount of though, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy. (1.25)

    Although Sylvia loves the forest, even she is victim to materialism. Of course, you have to remember that ten dollars was worth a lot more back when this was written.

    The sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her—it was hard enough to answer yes or no when there was need of that. (1.27)

    Sylvia is intimidated (and more than a little attracted to) the hunter. How can she make the right decision when those two powerful emotions are clouding her senses?

    The young sportsman and his old hostess were sound asleep, but Sylvia's great design kept her broad awake and watching. (2.3)

    It looks like little Sylvia has made her decision—but is it the right one? In fact, we can't blame you for suspecting that Sylvia won't be able to go through with it.

    Then Sylvia, well satisfied, makes her perilous way down [...] wondering over and over again what the stranger [...] would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron's nest. (2.9)

    Sylvia has reached her goal and found the white heron. Although she has an intense experience at the top of the tree, she still seems ready to exchange the heron's life for ten bucks.

    No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? (2.13)

    Plot twist alert. In a way, Sylvia isn't really making a choice to save the heron—her conscience has already made the choice for her.

    Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird's sake? (2.13)

    Even Sylvia is surprised by her refusal to speak. This shows just how conflicted she has become between her love for nature and her love for the hunter.

    She remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and [...] and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away. (2.13)

    Finally, Sylvia admits to herself that ten dollars isn't worth the life of a heron. Despite the hunter's temptation, she knows that she simply cannot do it.

    Many a night Sylvia heard the echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path as she came home with the loitering cow. (2.14)

    Although Sylvia knows that she did the only thing she could do, this doesn't mean that she is completely content with her decision. She remains haunted by her memory of the hunter for some time to come.

    Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been—who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time, remember! (2.14)

    It seems that Sylvia can never quite convince herself that she's made the right choice. But that's the way things go—we have to live with the decisions we make, whether right or wrong.

  • Youth

    The companions followed the shady wood-road, the cow taking slow steps and the child very fast ones. (1.4)

    This brief image shows us how childlike Sylvia is. This is important to establish off the bat, because Sylvia will go through some changes by the end of the story—and the story's pretty stinking short.

    The thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees. (1.4)

    Although Sylvia is scared of people, she's especially scared of men, or boys as the case may be with the "red-faced" kid. As it turns out, this brief memory will be interrupted by the entrance of another man who wants to leverage her youthful innocence to his own ends.

    Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird's-whistle [...] but a boy's whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive. (1.5)

    In Sylvia's mind, men are "determined" and "aggressive"—two things that she doesn't exactly find comforting. Can you blame her for being scared when the hunter first approaches?

    She did not dare to look boldly at the tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder. (1.5)

    Sylvia is intimidated by the young man and his deadly weapon. It would be impossible not to mention the (ahem) phallic symbolism inherent in a gun and the way this symbol relates to the story's theme of innocence. For more on this, check out the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section.

    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. (1.26)

    Like many a young girl, Sylvia masks her initial attraction with fear and revulsion. Although she is way too young for this guy, this is the first time she's had a real crush. In fact, he's probably the first hunk she's seen around these parts in some time.

    She grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first. (1.27)

    Sylvia is as tomboyish as they come, yet she transforms into a quiet, subservient girl in the company of the young man. Is she scared to show her true self? Or does the hunter's relative age simply intimidate the young girl?

    What fancied triumph and delight and glory for the later morning when she could make known the secret! It was almost too real and too great for the childish heart to bear. (2.2)

    Sylvia thinks that she will go through a transition—a coming-of-age experience, if you will—when she leads the hunter straight to the white heron. But reality turns out to be a little different.

    The young sportsman and his old hostess were sound asleep, but Sylvia's great design kept her broad awake and watching. She forgot to think of sleep. (2.3)

    Sylvia is like a child eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. Although she doesn't entirely understand the gravity of the situation, she understands (on some level) that this is an important moment in her young life.

    He was sure from the way the shy little girl looked once or twice yesterday that she had at least seen the white heron, and now she must really be made to tell. (2.11)

    Finally we get to see the hunter's perspective on the situation. In truth, the guy seems kind of like a manipulative jerk—what kind of guy would talk about a nine-year-old like that? Ugh.

    Many a night Sylvia heard the echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path as she came home with the loitering cow. She forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun (2.14)

    This incident weighs on Sylvia's mind well into adulthood. She understands that this was an important growing experience for her and presented a very different path that she very well could have taken.