Study Guide

A White Heron Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    Sylvia spends so much time hugging trees that she probably has splinters in her armpits, and since she's our leading lady in "A White Heron," we're given a glimpse into what it's like to be a young girl in perfect sync with the natural world.

    But when a hunter approaches this peaceful scene with money in his pockets and a gun over his shoulder, Sylvia is forced to examine just how important nature is to her. Should see forsake her green-to-the-max lifestyle in favor of gaining material goods? Or will she realize that the bond she has with nature is truly priceless? If you guessed option two, then go ahead and give yourself a gold star: In this story, nature totally wins.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What is the difference between Sylvia's and the hunter's relationship to the natural world?
    2. In your opinion, why does Sylvia fall in love with nature?
    3. How does Sylvia's relationship with her cow illustrate her love for nature?
    4. What does the story have to say about city life?

    Chew on This

    "A White Heron" paints a strong contrast between Sylvia's love for nature and the hunter's desire to tame it.

    Through the story of Sylvia's uncle Dan, Mrs. Tilley illustrates how nature lovers can become lost and confused when thrust into hectic urban society.

  • Isolation

    Don't let Akon fool you—a little bit of loneliness isn't necessarily a bad thing, and this is certainly the case in "A White Heron." In the story, we're introduced to a young country girl named Sylvia whose only companions are her grandmother and loyal cow. Needless to say, Friday nights are probably pretty wild around their place.

    Sometimes this isolation is as comforting to Sylvia as a sweat suit on a cold winter day. Sometimes, however, it's as suffocating as, well, a sweat suit on a humid summer day. That's the thing about living an isolated life: It might be peaceful, but we all need a little bit of companionship at times.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How do Sylvia's feelings about isolation reflect her love of nature?
    2. Why is Sylvia so afraid of the hunter initially?
    3. How do you think Mrs. Tilley feels about their self-imposed isolation?
    4. Do you think Sylvia would like life in the city now that she's older?

    Chew on This

    It is Sylvia's natural love of isolation that prevents her from taking up the hunter's offer.

    Sylvia's love of the isolation is bred from her early life experience in an overcrowded city.

  • Awe

    Do you believe in magic? Sylvia sure does in "A White Heron"—it just might not be of the conventional sort. Although Sylvia spends most of her time playing in the forest, there's one spot that holds a special place in her heart, a place that makes her feel like she can fly. Sounds great right? Well, the problem is that a young hunter has burst onto the scene and offered Sylvia a hefty sum to make that magic disappear. Want to find out what happens when the awe-inspiring power of nature is set up against the cash-money that civilization has to offer? Read on, Shmoopers.

    Questions About Awe

    1. What makes the white heron so special?
    2. In your opinion, why does Sylvia's experience climbing the tree affect her so deeply?
    3. What does the "ship" metaphor say about Sylvia's awe at the natural environment?
    4. What makes the marsh different from the rest of the forest?

    Chew on This

    Sylvia's experience atop the pine tree reminds her that the majesty of nature can't be matched by man-made society.

    When Sylvia climbs the trees to find the heron, she has what can only be described as a revelatory experience.

  • Choices

    It doesn't matter if you're Sara Bareilles or Ash Ketchum—it can be hard to make the right choice. Take the case of Sylvia in "A White Heron," for example. This young nature-lover is given a tough choice between protecting the life of a rare white heron and selling it out to a young hunter looking for a new "piece" for his collection. Although it's difficult, Sylvia learns that we must live with our decisions whether we like them or not—or some mix of the two, as the case may be.

    Questions About Choices

    1. In your eyes, does Sylvia make the right choice? Why or why not?
    2. Do you think Mrs. Tilley would have accepted the hunter's offer if she knew where the heron was?
    3. How might the ten dollars have changed Sylvia and her grandmother's lives?
    4. Why does Sylvia make the choice that she does?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, Sylvia makes the right choice based on her beliefs—to do otherwise would have been hypocritical.

    Although Sylvia chooses to protect the heron, the story seems to indicate that Mrs. Tilley would have made a different decision if it were up to her.

  • Youth

    In "A White Heron," nine-year-old Sylvia's youthful innocence leaves her open to manipulations when she finds herself faced with a classic pre-teen conundrum: Should she pretend to be something she's not for the sake of a boy (guess she's past the cooties phase), or should she stay true to the things she believes are right? With this decision weighing heavily upon her shoulders, Sylvia is thrust headfirst into a coming-of-age experience that she never expected to bump into on her way home one day.

    Questions About Youth

    1. How does Sylvia's age play into her reaction to the hunter?
    2. Do you consider "A White Heron" to be a coming-of-age story? Why or why not?
    3. How does Sylvia's youth affect the way the hunter treats her?
    4. Would Sylvia have made a different choice if she were older?

    Chew on This

    Sylvia's youth has the unfortunate side effect of allowing her to being manipulated by the hunter.

    By refusing to sell out the white heron to the hunter, Sylvia has a sort of coming-of-age experience.