The function of nature in Sarah O. Jewett`s "A White Heron"

Term Paper, 1998

9 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)

Free online reading

Contents: page

1. Introduction

2. Sarah Orne Jewett’s bond to nature

3. How nature serves as the setting of the story
3.1 Nature as a means of creating mood and atmosphere
3.2 City versus Country and how certain elements emphasize the contrast

4. The story’s climax and how nature underlines it
4.1 The old pine tree - a tree of knowledge?
4.2 Jewett’s descriptions of nature at the climax/turning point

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

It’s a late February afternoon. All day, the sun has been shining with spring-like warmth. Now, the small bushes, the old ivy ranking along the wall, and the red maple tree at the far edge of the backyard have turned golden in the descending evening sun. There is a little blackbird sitting on one of the maple’s already budding branches. I can hear its cheerful whistle — and I believe Sylvia would have enjoyed listening...

Sarah Orne Jewett’s "A White Heron" is full of voice and complexity - a short story containing several layers of meaning. Thus, it is hardly surprising that there is a large amount of secondary literature dealing with various aspects of the story. Complexity, however, means that each aspect is connected to the others. I imagine a big net: every single little knot is tied to the others. Only this makes them a functioning net. Although, in the following, I will focus on untying only one of those knots, stumbling on others will necessarily happen.

Shortly after the story’s first publication in 1886, Literary World referred to it as the "purest and tenderest, the most idyllic of all Miss Jewett’s works."1 Reading "A White

Heron", it soon becomes clear that nature in its various functions helps make the story that idyllic. But how does nature function within Jewett’s work? In order to find an appropriate answer it seems interesting to first take a look at the author’s attitude toward nature. Then one can go a step further analyzing nature in "A White Heron".

2. Sarah Orne Jewett’s bond to nature

Jewett’s short story creatively describes a nine-year-old, rural girl living within Maine’s coastal wilderness in tune with nature and its creatures. As it plays an essential role in the protagonist Sylvia’s life, nature too was of utmost importance during all of Jewett’s life. Born in the middle of the nineteenth century in a New England village called South Berwick, she soon started appreciating Maine’s nature surrounding her. In fact, she is said

to have surprised the villagers exploring the countryside on the back of her favorite horse all by herself. Her relationship towards nature was furtherly formed on many trips accompanying her father through rural and small-town Maine.

Later in her life Jewett expresses her affection for nature with the following words:

"I shall remember as long as I remember anything a small seedling apple tree that stood by a wall in a high pasture at the White Hills, —standing proudly over its first small crop of yellow apples all fallen into a little almost hollow of the soft turf below."2

In fact, she often personified the natural world believing that it was alive, that one even could communicate with it. Therefore it is not surprising to find Jewett’s work filled with trees, birds and other animals with human characteristics. This becomes obvious when Jewett states:

"There was an old doctrine called Hylozoism,

which appeals to my far from Pagan sympathies, the theory of the soul of the world, of a life residing in nature, and that all matter lives; the doctrine that life and matter are inseparable."3

According to Sarah Way Sherman, God existed for Jewett only in detail and could only be experienced through "loving communion" with the created world.4 So, for instance, a tree is just a small part of nature; and yet by looking at that tiny extract, nature as a whole becomes conceivable.

3. How nature serves as the setting of the story

3.1 Nature as a means of creating mood and atmosphere

"A White Heron" is set in the Maine woods, where Jewett’s heroine Sylvia lives on her grandmother’s farm. Though it is a "beautiful place to live in"5, the girl longs for more space, which she finds in the nature surrounding her."The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o’clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees."6 Sarah Orne Jewett begins her story creating the peaceful atmosphere of a summer evening. Only in combination, however, with the appearance of Sylvia driving home an old cow, her "valued companion"7, is the initial, dense mood of Sylvia’s communion with the natural world portrayed. "Their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not"8 ; the girl’s familiarity with nature, her feeling secure within that setting is shown. Actually, Sylvia may be associated with the forest and its creatures. The close connection between Jewett’s heroine and the setting continues throughout the story. This will especially become obvious looking at Sylvia’s "initiatory journey into woomanhood"9, namely her climbing up a tall pine tree in order to locate the white heron’s nest.

3.2 City versus Country and how certain elements emphasize the contrast

After the Civil War ( 1861-1865 ) the New England region converted from a region whose primary economy was based on the source of the sea to one which depended on industry, mills, railroads and cheap human labour10. Jewett experienced those changes and strongly resisted industrial progress. She felt a result of it would be the ruin of the natural environment. In "A White Heron", she used the setting of the actual story as a means of shaping the contrast to the main protagonist’s past: Sylvia spents her first eight years in one of those newly established, crowded manufacturing towns where she grows "afraid of folks"11.

Only one element of nature appears in Jewett’s brief description of Sylvia’s life in the urban town. It is an almost dried out, pitiable plant, a "wretched geranium"12 which she often sees at a neighbor’s house. This small plant, reduced in its life, symbolizes young Sylvia’s early years of childhood. Taken to her widowed grandmother’s farm, significantly the first animal ( as element of nature ) she encounters is a cat: "a deserted pussy, indeed, but fat with young robins." Its stomach is obviously full of prey which may be interpreted as standing for the nourishing character of nature. In the following time on Mrs. Tilley’s farm, and more importantly exploring the landscape, Sylvia quickly establishes an affinity to the "green world"13 around her. "There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatures counts her one o’ themselves, "14 observes her grandmother.

Furthermore, there is a second aspect to be found in Jewett’s description of Sylvia’s past: in the same way as the "wretched geranium" and the "deserted pussy" oppose each other and thus emphasize the contrast between country and town life, this is the case between a "great red-faced boy" and Mistress Molley, the cow. The mean boy belongs to the noisy manufacturing center: "the great red-faced boy...used to chase and frighten her"15, whereas the shy girl’s best companion of the forest is a cow, "a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that."

4. The story’s climax and how nature underlines it

4.1 The old pine tree - a tree of knowledge ?

As already mentioned in the beginning, at first we find Sylvia happy in her rural setting. But then she meets the young ornithologist who is collecting birds and seeks to shoot a white heron, which he would like to add to his already rich collection of stuffed and preserved birds. Sylvia knows that heron and is tempted to reveal its location for attaining the hunter’s attention and the money he offers to pay. She finally overcomes this temptation. In the end she remains loyal to her companion. Josephine Donovan adds in her book Sarah Orne Jewett: "Once again the suitor [ the hunter ] is rejected in favor of a higher good: in this case that good is the preservation of the sanctity of the natural world against the destructive intrusion of this urban stranger."16 Unconsciously, she learns that there must be more than personal affection - instead something more important which might be called the existence of God.

Still we haven’t answered the question why the tall pine tree Sylvia climbs one early morning so frequently is referred to as “tree of knowledge”. In fact, Sylvia doesn’t only want to locate the nest in order to please the hunter. There is another motivation: being full of excitement, she imagines what it would be like to reach the vantage point of it. She thinks: “if one climbed it at break of day could not one see all the world [...]”17 The sophisticated ornithologist who “told her many things about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves” 18, in a way opens her eyes for things she never had noticed in the range of her limited rural life. The act of climbing the great pine tree,( “a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away”19 ), though, shows that Sylvia suddenly is motivated to open her horizon by herself. She does not depend on the man, however appealing he may be to the woman in the girl, but instead finds her own way of enriching the knowledge of her world. Finally having reached the top of the tree her perspective is opened for „a vast and awesome world“.20 She sees things she had never seen before. “This knowledge strengthens her will and reinforces her solidarity with nature and her peaceful sanctuary.”21

4.2 Jewett’s description of nature at the climax/turning point of the story

Sarah O. Jewett divides her short story into two parts: whereas part one provides the reader first with the exposition ( Sylvia living in tune with nature and its creatures ) then slowly builds up tension ( Sylvia’s growing affection for the hunter ), in the second part Jewett prepares the climax, then directly goes on to the peak of action. Atmosphere usually is the most important means of effectively creating the climax of a story. In “A White Heron” there is an obvious increase of “movement” in nature parallel to the heroine’s climb.

Sylvia starts her “journey” up the tree feeling a “spirit of adventure” even a “wild ambition”22. Still following the path towards the farther edge of the woods the “drowsy twitter of a half-awakened bird” gives her “a sense of comfort and companionship”23. At first, “the huge tree asleep yet in the paling moonlight” makes Sylvia seem “small and silly”24. Then nature starts “moving”: a “bird flutters off its nest” and a “squirrel ran to and fro”25. Having made the dangerous step from the oak tree to the pine, the tree first resists, scratching her arms and feet . But finally she reaches the top “wholly triumphant”. Jewett adds: “The old pine must have loved his new dependent”26. There is another increase of movement preparing Sylvia’s encounter with the white heron. Significantly, “the birds sang louder and louder. At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright.”27, putting emphasis on Sylvia’s triumph.

5. Conclusion

In the end our heroine Sylvia rejects the “material and fleshly pleasures” as Elizabeth Silverthorne observes in her book Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer ’ s life 28.

Due to her need to be true to her own nature, which we found being tied to the nature surrounding her, she cannot sacrifice the white heron, therefore avoiding sacrifying her own integrity.

It is well into the night now and strangely calm outside. The small blackbird must long be gone...


Blanchard, Paula . Sarah Orne Jewett: Her world and her work. USA: Addison - Weseley Publishing Company, 1994

Cary, Richard . Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962

Donovan, Josephine . Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981

Foresman, Scott . A History of the United States - American Voices. Glenview, Illinois: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992

Lauter, Paul (General Editor) . The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two. Second Edition . Lexington, MA and Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990

Renza, Louis A. A White Heron and the Question of Minor Literature. Madison: Wisconsin Press, 1984

Sanders Mobley, Marilyn. Folk roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana Satate University Press, 1991

Sherman, Sarah Way . Sarah Orne Jewett, an American Persiphone. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1975


1 Literary World ( November 1886 )

2 Sarah Orne Jewett quoted in Spofford, p. 35

3 Sarah Orne Jewett, "Winter Drive", p. 169

4 Sarah Way Sherman, "Sarah Orne Jewett, an American Persiphone", p. 192

5 Sarah Orne Jewett, "A White Heron", p. 113

6 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid , p. 112

7 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 112

8 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 112

9 Marilyn Sanders Mobley, "Folk roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison", p.49

10 title of a chapter in: Josephine Donovan, "Sarah Orne Jewett", p.69

11 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 113

12 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p.113

13 Josephine Donovan, ibid, p.101

14 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 114

15 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 113

16 Josephine Donovan, "Sarah Orne Jewett", p. 71

17 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 117

18 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 115

19 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 116

20 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 117

21 Josephine Donovan, ibid, p. 70

22 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 116

23 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 116

24 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 116

25 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p. 117

26 Sarah Orne Jewett, ibid, p.117

27 S. O. Jewett, ibid, p. 117

28 Elizabeth Silverthorne , “Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer’s Life”, p. 127

9 of 9 pages


The function of nature in Sarah O. Jewett`s "A White Heron"
University of Freiburg
English and American Literature
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
342 KB
Sarah, Jewett`s, White, Heron, English, American, Literature
Quote paper
Anja Schaeffert (Author), 1998, The function of nature in Sarah O. Jewett`s "A White Heron", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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