A White Heron

By

Sarah Orne Jewett

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Forms of knowledge in "A White Heron"

Loss of innocence in "Heart of Darkness" and "A White Heron" *See section Heart of Darkness Go (Véronique St-Onge)*

Comparaison between " A White Heron" and a short story by George Saunders (Virginie Gauthier)*

Feminism in short stories " A White Heron" and "Wine" GO

 

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Forms of knowledge in "A White Heron"

By Marie-Christine St-Pierre

In Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” (1886), two forms of knowledge are opposed to one another through the characters of Sylvia and the hunter: the traditional intuitive feminine form and the modern scientific masculine one. Jewett’s choice of the name “Sylvia” for her nine-year old heroine is not random since it is the Latin word for woods or forest. Early in the story, the little “woods-girl” makes the unexpected encounter of a hunter in the forest. In short, the story is about him looking for some rare birds for his collection and wanting to use young Sylvia’s knowledge of the whereabouts to help him find a white heron. Sylvia and the hunter both know nature but their respective knowledge comes from different sources and is expressed in a different manner.

The narrator of the story calls the male character the “ornithologist” – a scientist who studies birds. Throughout the story, the ornithologist is not shown as someone who observes birds passively and respects their lives, but more as the one who brings “down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough” (Jewett 728), thus scaring little Sylvia. In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator relates “the sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood” (Jewett 731). Therefore, it appears the man gains his scientific knowledge by using technological possiblities: using a gun to kill the birds and stuffing and preserving them once dead, “dozens and dozens of them” (Jewett 728).

On the other hand, Sylvia’s knowledge comes from an inoffensive observation of nature and the animals, from a fusion with the natural world: “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatures counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds” (Jewett 727). Sylvia’s knowledge is perceptive. She knows nature through her senses: she is “watching a hop-toad” (Jewett 728), “listening to the thrushes,” she feels the “moths struck softly against her” bare foot in the brook and smells the air “that’s soft and sweet” (Jewett 726). Sylvia does not try to dominate nature or to alter its life. Her relation to nature is sentimental: the sounds of nature make her heart beat “fast with pleasure.” Her love of nature and her caring attention to it are the basis of her knowledge: she “divines” animals’ wishes and interprets the meaning of their sounds. Her sentiments towards nature explain why “she could not understand why [the man] killed the very birds he seemed to like so much” (Jewett 728).Therefore, Sylvia’s and the ornithologist’s ways of apprehending nature are very different, quite clearly illustrated by the fact that he kills the birds and she feeds them.

                                                                                     

 

Another great opposition between Sylvia’s and the hunter’s knowledge about nature has to do with words. Sylvia knows the animals – she knows what they look like, and where they can be found – but she does not know their names nor many facts about them. She does not have that kind of instruction. This is why she has no reaction when the hunter first talks about the “little white heron” and “look[s] at Sylvia with the hope of discovering that the rare bird was one of her acquaintances” (Jewett 728). It is only when he starts describing it that she realizes she knows “that strange white bird”. Then, when they both hover in the woods, the hunter “tells her many things about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves” (Jewett 728) In other words, the man in the story holds discursive power and has an educational advantage over Sylvia – as men had over women in those days and before then. But in the end, she knows something he does not, something that he would love to know; she knows how and where to find the white heron: a knowledge that he is willing to buy and that she’s tempted to sell. The fact that she finally decides to keep a seceret from him is really meaningful and reminds us of the secrecy surrounding women’s traditional knowledge as in witchcraft or pre-patriarchal traditions.

In opposition to the educated hunter’s knowledge that is presented as urban, adult, modern, scientific, masculine and civilized, uneducated Sylvia’s knowledge is depicted as rural, childish, traditional, intuitive, feminine, and even native. One could argue that there is, in A White Heron, an opposition between scientific naturalism represented by the man and transcendentalism represented by Sylvia. With his gun, his money and his scientific knowledge, the hunter represents the modern, scientific and capitalist civilization and the whole story seems to reflect the will of patriarchal power to exploit women’s knowledge and to destroy the spiritual, traditional and powerful connection between women and nature.


Works Cited

Hovet, Theodore. America's "Lonely Country Child": The Theme of Separation in Sarah Orne Jewett's A White Heron, Colby Quartely. 14.3 (Sept. 1978)

Orne Jewett, Sarah. "A White Heron". Fiction 100. An Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. James H. Pickering. Longman, 2010. 725-732.