Moral Development in “A White Heron”
by Hannah Long

© 2006 Hannah Long

Originally Submitted for English 102: Composition II
Professor Kate Korrow

            Childhood is a time of discovery and experience.  Although many writers choose to focus on the loss of innocence through experience, Sarah Orne Jewett chooses to write about the maintenance of innocence in her story, “A White Heron.”  Sylvia, the protagonist, has an awakening that begins a deeper level of individual development when she resists both greed and admiration in order to protect the white heron from an attractive hunter.  Because of this awakening, “A White Heron” serves as an excellent example of a female coming-of-age story.  After overcoming many internal challenges, Sylvia begins to move from a childlike-fantasy world to a more mature worldview that allows her to reach a deeper understanding of her own morals.  This moral development includes a realization that satisfying her own expectations is more important than fulfilling those of others.  Due to the conflict between her and the hunter, she is also able to understand the complexities and precarious nature of life. 

            Sylvia is a nine-year-old girl who lives in the woods with her grandmother.  Identified throughout the story as a child, the descriptions of both the setting and the actions that occur in the beginning of the story match those of how a child would view the world.  For example, Sylvia’s playmate, the cow, is thought of as an intelligent creature, capable of responding to and creating playful actions.  The childish worldview is also shown through the simple sentence structure and tone that is characteristic of a child’s voice.  While dawdling along the wooded trail, Sylvia encounters a young, attractive hunter who asks her to lead him to her home for food and shelter before setting off to hunt for what would be his most prized catch:  the white heron.  Sylvia responds with apprehension, a characteristic that is very common in children when confronted by strangers.  Sylvia’s lack of independent moral conviction is also displayed through her concern for the opinions of her grandmother, for when she brings the young man home she frets, “Would not her grandmother consider her much to blame?” (Jewett 30).  Part of Sylvia’s transition to a deeper level of maturity is the realization early on that this man would bring about an important change for, “she knew by instinct that her grandmother did not comprehend the gravity of the situation” (Jewett 30).  Sylvia is able to judge her grandmother’s reaction to the hunter, along with her own and understands that this could prove to be a great opportunity for her and her family.  Although she has had little exposure to men, she understands that success for the life of a woman of that time has little to do with their own moral convictions, but more to do with the ability of the woman to comply with what the man wants.  The idea that Sylvia must comply with his wishes will later serve as a direct conflict with her own developing idea of what is right and moral.   

            The hunter proves to be a kind and charismatic character, particularly when he offers Sylvia ten dollars in reward for knowledge about the location of the white heron.  This offer is coupled with the first stirrings of attraction within Sylvia as “the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (Jewett 32).  A still-childish Sylvia prefers to stick to a fantasy of gaining the hunter’s love rather than accepting the more realistic situation that the hunter is merely using her as a means to find the location of his prize.  Because Sylvia lacks a concrete moral basis at this point in the story, she decides to ignore her inherent love for nature and individual life.  She allows herself to become entranced by the hunter and the promise of money and agrees to disclose the whereabouts of the heron’s nest.

            When Sylvia sets out to find the heron’s nesting place, her climb of a massive pine tree serves as the event that sparks her awakening to a more developed sense of morality and identity.  The fact that Sylvia even chose to climb the tree on this occasion is important because she had never had the nerve to do it before.  The climb is symbolic of Sylvia’s development.  Each branch she reaches can be related to a new level of understanding both in her own moral identity and personal values.  This is also an adventure that she takes on completely independent of anyone’s knowledge or approval, which further shows her transition from a dependent child to a more independent adult.  After a perilous climb to the top of this tree, Sylvia discovers the extensive beauty of both the world and the white heron.  This passage is also full of imagery that encourages the idea of Sylvia’s rebirth.  The fact that she is nine when she undertakes this journey is significant because the number nine is a reflection of the nine months spent in the womb and serves as an archetype for rebirth.  Also, the image of the white heron emerging “from the dead hemlock” (Jewett 34) symbolizes purity, the flight of new ideas, and rebirth from the dead.  Indeed, Jewett states, “Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds” (Jewett 34).  This literal new view of the world causes Sylvia to realize the value and complexity of all kinds of life and how the world of man has trouble coexisting with the world of nature. 

            As a result of this moral discovery, the newly matured Sylvia is now confronted with a difficult decision:  satisfy the expectations of both her grandmother and the hunter by complying with the hopes of forging a relationship with a human, or maintain her strong bond with nature. As the critic Terry Heller states, “To give the heron away has become tantamount to sweeping away the progress she has made in discovering herself” (188).  The decision to keep the heron’s secret is a difficult one for the girl, for she is fully aware that “he can make them rich with money [and]…he is so well worth making happy” (Jewett 35).  Nevertheless, Sylvia is able to hold on to the bond she feels with the heron and all of nature itself from that one moment in the tree and withstand the temptation to betray it because she realizes that her love for nature is an innate part of her moral framework.  The awakening of her convictions is further expanded as Sylvia realizes that there are things beyond immediate material rewards.  Michael Atkinson points out that her courage to defy logical expectations of fulfilling societal expectations shows a deep level of maturity that goes “back to the natural realm- profounder, deeper, [and] never to be betrayed.  Her innocence is preserved, extended; her soul is larger and steadier; and our experience, [as the reader] complete” (Atkinson 74).  She is able to forge a relationship not with another human, but with nature.

            The completion of Sylvia as a caring and compassionate individual who understands the complexity and beauty of life is not a new trait to Sylvia; it is merely reinforced by her experience in the tree.  In the beginning of the story, it is stated “she thought often with wistful compassion of a wretched dry geranium that belonged to a town neighbor” (Jewett 29).  As critic Gayle L. Smith states, “Jewett’s simple juxtaposition of the girl’s thoughts suggests the deeper connection between human and plant life as does the word ‘compassion,’ normally reserved for human or animal objects” (39).  This concern for even the smallest of plants shows that the young girl already had some understanding of the right to life for all creatures.  Her deep bond with nature is even felt by the great tree, for

it [the tree] must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit creeping and climbing from higher branch to higher branch…the old pine must have loved his new dependent (Jewett 34). 

Her bond with nature is also evident by the fact that she is overcome by the vast beauty and majesty of the world around her.  Even before her experience in the pine tree, Sylvia showed a deep appreciation for the outdoors.  She felt “as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm” (Jewett 29) and even Sylvia’s grandmother remarks that “’There ain’t a foot o’ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatur’s counts her one o’themselves’” (Jewett 31).  It seemed destined that this small child would choose nature’s love over the affection of the passing stranger.     

            Sylvia suffers throughout her journey because her moral framework has not been fully developed and she lacks the confidence to stand up for what she believes.  She is confused because while she wants to satisfy the hunter’s wishes, she also wants to protect the heron.  Until she is standing before the hunter, her confidence in her own convictions is not present.  The conflicts she must overcome are difficult because of this.  She must weigh whether to defy social expectations of both her grandmother and the hunter, or to do that which she feels is right and not expose the bird.  Even the narrator expresses her dismay at Sylvia’s decision, asking, “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 a bird’s sake?” (Jewett 35).  Some critics believe Sylvia’s defiance was “a young woman’s declaration of independence from a patriarchal society that would see her ‘raped, killed, stuffed, and put on display in a man’s house’” (Kelchner 85).  Indeed, Sylvia’s defiance to the request of those older than her is in direct opposition to the societal expectations of Jewett’s time.  However, more was at stake here than social obligations.  Sylvia’s decision to defy the hunter’s wish prompts the narrator to provide commentary about the dangers of choosing independence.  As Kelley Griffith Jr. points out, “such a choice is fraught with risk- the risk of loneliness, isolation, disappointment, limited opportunity and doubt” (27).  Sylvia knew these perils of sacrifice, and indeed, suffered for them.  Soon after the hunter’s disappearance, “she forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the piteous sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood” (Jewett 35).  Indeed, in the last paragraph, it is noted that Sylvia is a lonely little country girl.  But Terry Heller offers the counterargument that while “[s]he will have lost treasures by rejecting the path he offered her…nature will not cease to offer its gifts” (193).  Without a doubt, nature will prove its loyalty and provide its bounty long after the hunter has disappeared back into the woods.  The consequences of her difficult decision further seals Sylvia’s moral development because this experience strengthens her initial devotion to individual life. 

            Many factors contribute to Sylvia’s triumph over the hunter’s offer and how she overcomes her initial confusion.  Perhaps it was Sylvia’s unpleasant experience in the crowded city that truly reaffirmed her connection with nature, but this cannot be stated conclusively. Obviously, her experience in the pine tree serves as a literal eye-opener to the expansiveness of the world and the complex juxtaposition of the material human world and the natural world, for Sylvia marvels at them both.  The sight of the white heron, coupled with her mental connection with the tree, also serves to strengthen her loyalty to nature.  The fact that Sylvia feels that she shares a secret with the white heron also contributes to her decision.  This secret bond is oddly juxtaposed with the bond she feels with the hunter.  However, her inherent concern for nature may have been the determining factor in her decision.  Terry Heller also notes that Sylvia is a more complete individual because she understands the

irreducible value and mystery of individual lives.  Though one may try to take, possess, or collect such lives, one suffers under an illusion as long as one believes anything substantial is gained by the effort.  This is the hunter’s illusion, and it is the major sign of his incompletion (191).

This interpretation of the preciousness of life is essential in order to understand Sylvia’s viewpoint of the world and, consequently, her decision.

              As a result of her decision to not expose the bird, Sylvia suffers regret but learns valuable lessons.  Sylvia reaffirms her perception of the preciousness of life.  While she sacrificed the opportunity for one relationship, she reestablishes the strength of another.  She learns the values of the two different worlds she viewed from atop the giant pine:  the values of the materialistic, human world that the hunter represents and those of the peaceful, natural world that Sylvia knows and loves.  Sylvia is forced to face the fact that each world has its rewards and drawbacks and no matter what decision she makes, some sort of regret will be suffered.  Sylvia decides to protect her own loyalties for reasons that are not entirely clear.  The reader can only assume that her experience in the pine tree caused her to form a stronger bond with the heron than the bond that she felt for the hunter.  Her innocence may have played a factor because she was so hesitant and shy around the hunter and therefore, decided to protect that with which she was familiar.  However, the strengthening of her moral convictions is crucial to her decision to protect the bird.  Through the climbing of the tree, Sylvia gains wisdom far beyond that of decision-making, but that of the power of instinct and compassion.  Sylvia decides to preserve her innocence and stay true to her passion for nature rather than take a risk with satisfying the passing hunter.

            Childhood is indeed a time of transition and experience.  Through experience, children gain wisdom and knowledge into how the world works and their role within that world.  Sylvia’s experience with the white heron helps to show her place in both the natural and human world and how desires can lead to inner conflict.  True to her innate convictions, Sylvia faces a challenge with maturity and sensibility that is surprising for a child so young.  Her moral awakening serves as the basis for this initiation story because it is directly tied to her desire to maintain her innocence.  This innocence allows her to stay in contact with the power of Mother Nature and truly understand her passion for it.  Her refusal to accept the temptations of the materialistic world is a trait that she manages to hold on to in the course of her self-discovery.  The rejection of the concrete rewards offered by the hunter in the form of both money and compassion shows that Sylvia understands and accepts the complexities and values of life and her role within it.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Michael. “The Necessary Extravagance of Sarah Orne Jewett:  Voices of Authority    in ‘A White Heron.’” Studies in Short Fiction 19.1. 1982. 71-74.

Griffith, Jr., Kelley. “Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Library    Quarterly 21.1. 1985. 22-27.

Heller, Terry. “The Rhetoric of Communion in Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’ Colby Library            Quarterly 26.3. 1990. 182-194.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” In “A White Heron”: A Manuel/Casebook for    Freshman English. Comp. and Ed. By Department of English. Salisbury: Salisbury University, 2005. 29-35.

Kelchner, Heidi. “Unstable Narrative Voice in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” Colby   Library Quarterly 28.2. 1992. 85-92.

Smith, Gayle L. “The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’”    Colby Library Quarterly 19.1. 1983. 37-44.


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