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: “...it 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 (
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 (
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 (
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.