Study Guide

A White Heron

A White Heron Summary

So there's this girl named Sylvia, who lives with her grandmother and her surly cow in the New England countryside.

One day, Sylvia meets a hunter, who promptly asks her for a place to stay for the night. He tells Sylvia and her grandmother that he's looking for a rare white heron and is willing to give ten dollars to anyone who could lead him to it. That's big money way back in the day.

And guess what? Sylvia has seen the heron before. So the following night, she sneaks to the tallest tree in the forest to get a good vantage point on the bird. She sees the bird, and then hurries home to tell the hunter what she saw.

When she gets there, however, she can't speak and the hunter leaves disappointed. Although Sylvia holds her tongue for the sake of the bird, she never is sure that she made the right decision.

  • Section 1

    • It's 8:00PM on a lovely June evening and we're watching a young girl named Sylvia lead her "plodding" cow home (1.1).
    • This cow is a bit of a rapscallion—she always hides in the bushes whenever Sylvia calls for her, staying perfectly still so her bell won't ring. What a pro.
    • For her part, Sylvia just wishes that the cow would hurry it up because her grandmother is going to be mad that they're out so late.
    • Sylvia moved to her grandmother's farm from a "crowded manufacturing town" (1.2) when she was eight and fell in love with scenic countryside immediately.
    • In the present, her stroll is interrupted by the shrill sound of a whistle. Sylvia is well acquainted with the sounds of birds a'whistlin' and this sound definitely came from a person.
    • Her assumption is proven true when a young man approaches her with a gun slung over his shoulder. He tells her that he got lost during his hunting trip and could use a place to spend the night, and although Sylvia is frightened of him, she agrees to lead him home.
    • Sylvia's grandma, Mrs. Tilley, is outside when they arrive. The young man politely asks for a room for the night and a bit of fresh milk, and Mrs. Tilley feels the pull of her "long slumbering hospitality" (1.13) and goes into full-on homemaker mode.
    • When the man realizes that Sylvia knows her way around the woods, he becomes excited—he says that he collects birds... which actually he means that he shoots and stuffs them. Charming.
    • He wants to know if Sylvia has seen a white heron, a "queer tall white bird" (1.22) that would be the Holy Grail of his collection.
    • Sylvia has seen the white heron before, in the salt marshes beside the ocean, but it was such memorable experience that she holds her tongue.
    • The young man offers ten dollars if one of them can lead him to it. This is a lot of money for Mrs. Tilley and Sylvia.
    • Sylvia hangs out with the young man while he hunts the following day. Although she doesn't lead him to the heron, she seems to developing a little crush—her first—on the hunter.
  • Section 2

    • So there's this super tall oak tree about a half a mile from the house—Sylvia has always imagined that "whoever climbed to the top of it could see the ocean" (2.1). So, you know, whoever climbs it could certainly see the heron.
    • Sylvia doesn't sleep at all and heads to the tree while it's still dark out. She starts by climbing a smaller tree and slowly making her way from one trunk to the other.
    • Although the climb is tough, Sylvia is somehow energized by the time she reaches the top.
    • She looks around and sees the heron below her, having "perched on a pine bough not far from" (2.8) her. She stays completely still and admires it.
    • The heron is scared away by a flock of cat-birds (not quite what it sounds like) and Sylvia slowly climbs down the tree, thinking about what the young man will say when she leads him to the heron.
    • Back at the house, Mrs. Tilley has discovered that Sylvia is missing and is out front calling her name. The young man—who had already guessed that Sylvia knew where the heron was—is outside, too.
    • But Sylvia surprises even herself when she can't speak and "tell the heron's secret" (2.13).
    • The young man leaves disappointed. No matter how much time passes, Sylvia is never able to fully convince herself that she made the right decision.