Study Guide

A White Heron Choices

By Sarah Orne Jewett

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"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.

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