The Quest of the Female Heroine in “A White Heron”

by Jessy Nolet


In “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett, Sylvia battles with her awakening sexuality as she must choose between her desire to please a young male ornithologist and her desire to remain faithful to herself. At the beginning of the story, Sylvia is described as being part of nature: “ made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves” (Jewett 760). Sylvia is thus very close to nature and very far from civilization. This is why she fears the ornithologist when she first meets him. In other words, Sylvia fears the public sphere. The young scientist scares her partly because he kills the birds that she loves and partly because of her innocence concerning sex (Brenzo 36-41). In addition, the hunter also scares her because he reminds her of the “red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her” when she lived in the city (Jewett 760). Soon, however, Sylvia comes to appreciate the hunter and even has a “loving admiration” for him (Jewett 763). She even accepts a gift from him, “a jackknife”, which is a symbol of violence (Brenzo 36-41).

The female heroine’s quest begins when Sylvia is given the challenge to locate the white heron’s nest in exchange for money (Griffith 22-27). Therefore, Sylvia can please the hunter by finding the white heron but betraying nature and herself, or she can reject him as well as society and heterosexual love (Brenzo 36-41). In other words, Sylvia must make a choice between reintegrating into patriarchal society by helping the scientist gain control over nature or preserving her proximity to nature and her innocence by keeping the white heron’s location a secret. As mentioned earlier, Sylvia appreciates the young hunter and is overcome by the desire to please him: “She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the women’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (Jewett 763). As a result, Sylvia accepts the challenge and secretly goes on the quest to find the white heron.

The female heroine is then initiated to a new and unfamiliar world and must overcome a series of obstacles. Sylvia climbs up an old pine tree, a difficult task, which allows her to see beyond her known world (Griffith 22-27). On the tree top, she discovers a vast and beautiful world as well as the heron’s nest. Sylvia thus becomes closer to nature and gains knowledge (Ammons, 6-16). In other words, she knows nature in a different way and she feels connected to nature. Unlike the hunter who wishes to possess nature, Sylvia wants to live in harmony with it and be part of it: “...Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds” like the other birds around her (Jewett 764). 

Finally, when the female heroine returns home from her journey, she chooses to remain silent. Armed with the knowledge gained from climbing the old pine tree, Sylvia refuses to reveal the heron’s location (Brenzo 36-41). Sylvia keeps her identity as she refuses to help the hunter and overcomes her desire for him. She rejects male relationships in order to preserve her innocence, her autonomy, and her closeness to nature (Brenzo 36-41). Moreover, she refuses to leave the “feminine world of childhood and enter as a maturing female into the patriarchal public sphere” represented by the hunter (Ammons 6-16). Furthermore, her silence not only represents the choice of nature over society but also illustrates a woman choosing a career over marriage (Griffith 22-27). Sarah Orne Jewett favoured the growth of the female values of harmony and wisdom: “...she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away” (Jewett 765). 



Ammons, Elizabeth. “The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Library Quarterly 22 (1986): 6-16.

Brenzo, Richard. “Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia’s Choice in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Library Quarterly 14 (1978): 36-41.

Griffith, Kelly, Jr. “Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Library Quarterly 21 (1985): 22-27.

Jewett, Orne Sarah. “A White Heron.” Pearson Education, Inc. Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction. (2007): 759-765.