Female Voices and Moral Dilemma in a White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett
Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” shows the growth of the female voice, specifically Sylvia’s, in the world of “the man” and the moral dilemma. The character of Sylvia is written as a young girl in Maine, living with her grandmother in a tiny shack in farmland. It is here that she learns to take a stand for her own beliefs and comes to an understanding of what is expected of her, and what she expects of herself.
Jewett makes a point to illustrate the scenery, painting the little girl into that, rather than painting the scenery around the girl, showing the reader that the girl, while not an intruder, is a guest in the quiet woods. That is, until a “tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder” whistles in her direction and asks “whether you think I can spend the night at your house, and go out gunning early in the morning.” Sylvia experiences a schoolgirl crush and – as she didn’t speak before – says nothing except to frightfully mutter her name when asked repeatedly. It is the schoolgirl crush that almost causes her to betray her inner voice. The stranger is an ornithologist, and his goal is to find the legendary white heron that lives in the woods surrounding Sylvia’s house. The young girl takes an interest, because this man pay attention to her, teaches her, talks to her, and she does her own hunting, silently creeping through the woods to try and find this elusive white heron.
It’s not until the end of the story that Sylvia “gains” her voice. It’s not a voice that rings out through the air; it’s an inner voice that sounds strongly inside of her, and enables her to keep a precious secret: the location of the mysterious white heron. This stranger, whose name is never given, is planning to kill the white heron, and once Sylvia has seen the bird’s beauty, its majestic nature, she becomes conflicted. She comes across the location by accident, but once she does, she’s mesmerized and the narrator paints a picture of pure splendor, saying “look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head.” It’s this magnificence that eventually gives Sylvia enough courage to keep her mouth shut, rather than, ironically, getting the courage to speak up.
The female voice that Sylvia develops requires an exceptional amount of bravery. This captivating stranger is offering ten dollars to anyone who can show him the bird, and Sylvia knows how much money this amounts to, how much it could be of benefit to their household. And as the story comes to a close, Jewett writes that “Sylvia does not speak after all, though the old grandmother fretfully rebukes her, and the young man’s kind appealing eyes are looking straight into her own.” But the memory of the bird prompts her to keep her mouth shut, to keep that one sliver of natural beauty locked away as a secret between the trees and herself. She has found her own voice by not saying a word, and by not following the persuading of the young man’s eyes. Instead of being influenced by the idea of ten dollars – quite the fortune – Sylvia shows that sometimes, silence is courage.
Sylvia also finds her voice, not only in the “man’s world,” by refusing the strangers generous offer, but by overcoming the moral dilemma of either telling the stranger the whereabouts of the bird, or keeping it to herself. Money aside, what other reason does Sylvia have to tell the stranger where the bird is? There is also the issue of her conscience. Does Sylvia want the money so bad that she would be willing to betray a secret she was unknowingly entrusted with? To her credit, Sylvia doesn’t seem to hesitate to not say anything. The issue of whether or not she should speak up, and her decision, is a testament to her character. Ten dollars offered and she says “no” because “she cannot give the heron’s life away.” This shows the depth of her character, her growth as a girl. She starts the story as a cautious young child, afraid of speaking to actually human beings, and with the arrival of this gun-toting stranger, transforms into a cautious young woman, aware of the consequences of revealing the secrets of something that doesn’t belong to her.
Sylvia is faced with the issue of “for love or for money.” She could give up the location of the white heron; lead the stranger to the nest of the graceful, white bird, because there is money involved, money that she and her grandmother could use to support themselves for time to come. On the other hand, she could feign knowledge, and give the prospect of the money up, which is what she does. The decision she makes doesn’t haunt her, which is a testimony to her inner strength, and she “forgot even her sorrow at the sharp retort of his gun.” She also asks herself an important question: “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, – who can tell?” The answer is yes, even if Sylvia doesn’t know it yet, because she’ll always have this veiled secret that she and she alone has been confided with.
As the story comes to a close, Sylvia is described as a child who carries secrets of the land around her, and potentially, of the people around her. The valor she displays in thrusting away the “great world” for the bird’s sake is the culmination of her inner voice stemming up and taking charge. Its Sylvia’s way of saying “It’s my life. I’m taking a stand.” Jewett writes the character of Sylvia as the young girl sprouting her wings and taking flight, soaring over the world of the influential man, and over the issue of “will she, won’t she.” Sylvia is the young girl who plays a detrimental role in the growing of all young women. She signifies the expanse of the strength of women in a world populated, controlled, and manipulated by men.
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