A Study of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Book, a White Heron with Emphasis on Children’s Purity
Encounters with Nature in A White Heron
It is always interesting to me to read a story through the mind of a child—it is what makes classics such as Harry Potter so compelling and (pardon the pun) magical. Something about the innocence and wonderful nature of children intrigues me and makes for a whimsical read—even if the narrator is not the child herself. Such is the case for Sarah Orne Jewett’s A White Heron, a short story that tells a tale of a young girl’s adventure through the woods.
The language in this story is rife with descriptions that both create the character of Sylvia and establish the setting in a very effective and concise way—and, as well, the relationship between the two of them. Phrases like “the cow taking slow steps and the child very fast ones” (2) evokes detailed images through indirect characterization, and “She waded on through the brook as the cow moved away, and listened to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure” (2) clearly establishes the character’s positive feelings towards the woodland environment. The fact that these two sentences are in the same paragraph bolsters the claim of the author’s concision.
Another example of Sylvia’s youthful energy and love for the forest can be found on page 4, when Jewett writes, “But Sylvia was watching a hop-toad in the narrow footpath.” The girl not paying attention to the grown-up and instead watching a toad conveys her fascination with the setting and her childlike inattentiveness. Shortly following that sentence, the young man reveals to her his goal, and the narrator goes into a detailed description of the little girl’s thoughts:
Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods. There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot, where tall, nodding rushes grew, and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more (4-5).
This excerpt is full of descriptives; it furthers the relationship between Sylvia and the forest. Her heart giving a “wild beat” signifies her eagerness for the forest and her fierce energy and love for it.
Later, in arguably the most important part of the story, Sylvia climbs the large tree to try to spot the white heron for the young man. Examples of personification abound—such as “tree asleep” (6) and “tree stood still and frowned” (7)—as well as imagery depicting her struggle to climb: “The way was harder than she thought; she must reach far and hold fast, the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons” (7). This conflict creates tension effectively and makes her ultimate success all the more meaningful.
When she gets to the top, she realizes that she cannot betray the beautiful bird in a beautifully written and descriptive paragraph:
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? . . . The murmur of the pine’s green branches is in her ears, 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 (8).
The way this is written makes it seem like the top of a tree—especially for a youthful girl still finding herself amidst the forest—is a fitting place for to have such an important realization.
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