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
Forms of knowledge in "A White Heron"
By Marie-Christine St-Pierre
In Sarah Orne Jewetts 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. Jewetts 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 Sylvias 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
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, Sylvias knowledge comes
from an inoffensive observation of nature and the animals, from a
fusion with the natural world: There aint a foot
o ground she dont know her way over, and the wild
creatures counts her one o themselves. Squerls
shell tame to come an feed right out o her
hands, and all sorts o birds (Jewett 727).
Sylvias 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 thats 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,
Sylvias and the ornithologists
Another great opposition between Sylvias and the hunters 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 shes 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 womens traditional knowledge as in witchcraft or pre-patriarchal traditions.
In opposition to the educated hunters knowledge that is presented as urban, adult, modern, scientific, masculine and civilized, uneducated Sylvias 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 womens knowledge and to destroy the spiritual, traditional and powerful connection between women and nature.
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.