In A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter comments that Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” is “a fairy tale about a New England princess who refuses to be rescued from her isolation by the handsome prince” (192). Showalter’s description of Jewett’s story as “a fairy tale” caught my attention, and today I want to look at how we can read “A White Heron” as a reverse fairy tale, one in which the princess does not succumb to the prince’s charms. This reading, of course, falls in line with reading the story as a comment on patriarchy; however, by framing it as a fairy tale, Showalter causes us, and students, to examine “A White Heron” through a genre that typically works to maintain patriarchal positions.
Before we even get to the narrative action of the story, we need to account for the protagonist’s name and the setting of the story. Deriving from the Latin and meaning “from the forest,” Sylvia’s name connotes a link between the nine-year old girl at the center of the story and the nature. Likewise, the setting, the rural community where Sylvia retires to to live with her grandmother takes on the feeling of a fairy tale landscape. We must also consider Sylvia appears to be something like an orphan, even though her mother does not abandon her. In these ways, our initial entrance into the story gives us a fairy tale-esque feeling.
Add to these aspects the appearance of the hunter who is out searching for the white heron, and the story maneuvers into a tale of Sylvia’s awakening and possible romantic engagement with the hunter/prince. Throughout, Sylvia moves back and forth between admiration for this “intruder” into the natural surrounding and rejection of the hunter. There are a couple of scenes in the story that highlight Sylvia’s oscillation between admiration and rejection.
The first scene occurs as Sylvia and the hunter walk through the forest searching for the white heron the day after he arrives. As she follows the ornithologist, he shoots birds out of the air or of trees and Sylvia begins to question why a scientist must kill the birds he studies.
All day long he did not make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough. 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. (134)
Symbolically, of course, the birds represent Sylvia and the hunter the controlling nature of patriarchy. Sylvia questions this position by thinking about what the man would be like without the gun, concluding that she “would have liked him vastly better” if he did not carry the weapon.
Immediately following Sylvia’s semi-rejection of the hunter, the narrator says that as they passed time together she “still watched him with loving admiration,” and eventually, “the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (134). Here, Sylvia looks upon the hunter as someone like Cinderella and her step-sisters would look upon Prince Charming. If she continues thinking about the hunter in this manner, she will become like the birds the ornithologist shoots and stuffs for his collection, nothing more than a “trophy.”
Initially, Sylvia acquiesces to this position. Continuing their hunt for the heron, Sylvia grieves because she cannot show the man where the heron lives. As well, “she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first” (134). Sylvia feels bad about not being able to give the man what he seeks, even taking on a submissive position by following and not speaking first. In this way, she exists as the hunter’s subordinate, controlled by the patriarchal society she exists within.
At the end of the story, however, Sylvia’s position changes. After she climbs the tree and views the heron by herself, in essence communing with it, she refuses to tell the scientist where the heron resides, even though her grandmother rebukes her because they need the money that the man promises them for their assistance.
When the hunter asks Sylvia to tell him where to find the white heron, Sylvia ponders the repercussions of telling him the bird’s location: “He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy, and he waits to hear the story she can tell” (137). Key here, of course, is the fact that Sylvia views the man as “worth making happy;” she still maintains an admiration for this man who symbolically keeps her in a submissive position.
Even though she views the hunter in this way, she ultimately refuses to give up the heron’s location. The narrator says, “No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? 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 the bird’s sake?” (137) Instead of choosing the prince, Sylvia decides to choose herself and the bird’s life.
That does not mean that Sylvia does not still have feelings of admiration and budding thoughts about her womanhood. When the hunter leaves, “a sharp pang” strikes Sylvia, and the narrator relates that Sylvia “could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves!” (137) The tensions between Sylvia’s admiration and rejection of the hunter continue until the very end of the story, but rather than giving in to the patriarchal position of the ornithologist, Sylvia allows nature to comfort her and supply her with “gifts and graces.”
There are other places in “A White Heron” that could be explored through this lens; however, these are the two key ones that stick out to me because each scene highlights the tensions within Sylvia over whether or not she should truly love the hunter and submit. Where else do you see this tension occur in the story? What other aspects should we explore? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 130-137.