Study Guide

Sylvia in A White Heron

By Sarah Orne Jewett

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Sylvia is a girl stuck between two worlds. On one hand, she's a girl born in the city—but on the other, she never felt truly alive until she moved out to the county with her grandmother. So what's a city girl turned tree-hugger supposed to do when forced to choose between the two?

Lost in the Woods

We first meet Sylvia as she ambles down a country road with her cow, a "plodding [...] creature" (1.1) that's basically her frenemy. Although Sylvia loves the darn thing, it has a habit of trying her patience and reminding her of just how isolated she is these days. That being said, "her feet" are also so "familiar with the path" (1.1) that she can practically tap dance her way home—despite it being completely dark outside. Since we can't safely eat a toaster strudel in a dark room (trust us, we've tried many times), color us impressed. Also, girl is clearly in her element.

It's important to remember that Sylvia wasn't born a country girl—no, she was born and raised "for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town" (1.2). Not a great place for a little girl who's afraid of people, huh? The feeling she gets when she arrives in the country is as refreshing as a Slurpee on a sweltering day—she relishes having no humans (save her grandmother) anywhere near. Sure, she'll run into local kids occasionally, but nothing like when she lived in a bustling metropolis. So again, our main girl's city-born, but totally cool with country life.

Urban Cowboy

Enter the hunter. This guy barges in gun blazing, whistling in a "determined, and somewhat aggressive" manner (1.5). Might as well call himself Rambo. Sylvia is afraid of him, both because of his gun (understandable) but also because she associates him with the "great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her" (1.4) when she lived in the city. This instantly associates him with the chaos that Sylvia had so eagerly escaped—as well as the romantic undertones of the little boy's torments.

Things markedly change by the next day, however. Maybe it's the fact that the young man turns out to be polite and respectful, maybe it's the fact that he's the first city boy she's seen in a long time, or maybe our little Sylvia is just blinded by the prospect of ten dollars. No matter which explanation you prefer, the result is the same: Sylvia is now "thrilled by a dream of love" (1.26). In other words, our girl has got a crush. And just like that, the hunter's offer of ten bucks in exchange for the life of the white heron seems a lot more appealing

It's Gonna Be a Showdown

For the first time, Sylvia considers trading in her "existence heart to heart with nature" (2.3) for the attention of one hunky hunter and all of the worldly goods that come along with it. It's not like she expects to marry him or anything, but she's experiencing new emotions that make her wonder if her current life is worth the downsides. Although she's still young, we get the sense that this is her first opportunity to shift her allegiances from the world of nature back to the world of man.

Ultimately—and for reasons that even she doesn't quite understand—Sylvia chooses to protect the white heron. To be honest, this seems like the right decision for Sylvia—would she really have been happier with ten more dollars if it affected her ability to commune with nature? We don't think so; it just seems like she feels too at one with country life for this to be the case. Despite this, though, Sylvia questions her decisions plenty, wondering if she'll regret it for years to come.

But when push comes to shove, this is the only outcome that could have happened because giving up the heron would have been disingenuous on her part. Although Sylvia questions her decision, we as readers can tell that it was the only choice she could have made. She's a country girl at heart, after all, even if she swoons over the occasional dreamy hunter from time to time.

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