The Symbolic Layer of a White Heron
As the work of a regionalist writer, Jewett’s short story ‘A White Heron’ consists of symbols that reflect the impact which drastic changes in landscape have had on those who are sympathetic to nature, such as Jewett herself. Jewett’s first-hand experience of a small and remote region overtaken by industry has thus allowed her to produce a story which negatively represents industrialization. In ‘A White Heron’, Jewett conveys her message by using the young man – the bird hunter – to symbolize industry and Sylvia to symbolize nature.
It is not uncommon for literary pieces to portray nature with its bounty and beauty as a woman. For decades, the female gender has been perceived alongside and linked to that gentle, soothing gift which God has bestowed upon the world – a symbol of something that gives more than it receives, that feels compassion and mercy more than hatred and greed. Sylvia is the timid little girl who befriends the animals of the forest and becomes one with nature. While Sylvia lives her humble days quietly, her peace is suddenly intruded upon by a young man with a gun. He approaches kindly, and not long after makes a good companion out of Sylvia. Sylvia finds this intruder fascinating, and at one point even dreams of romance with him. During the times she has spent following the young man on his quest for birds and watched him shoot down “some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough,” Sylvia does not object to the man’s actions at all. She remains silent, docile, and yet in her heart condemns the man’s actions – puzzles at the man’s show of his “love” for birds. Sylvia, representing nature and femininity as a whole, does not understand why he shoots them and stuffs them if he adores birds so much. She considers that she would much prefer the young man without his weapon, an idea which highlights her feminine instincts of tenderness and opposing violence.
Moreover, the typical female passivity of Jewett’s time is emphasized through Sylvia’s complacence towards the young man. Even though Sylvia is the girl of the woods, the young man is nevertheless the one who leads their walks. She never takes charge, or argues with him about his killing of the birds. Hence, not only has the young man disrupted Sylvia’s and nature’s peace, but he has also taken charge of the land in which he, unlike Sylvia, is a stranger to. His dominance is a work of his own; nature, along with the little girl as a representative, have been too naïve and innocent to see any reason to drive him out, too compassionate in accepting his presence, without questioning the way he appeared or doubting his intentions of staying. It doesn’t seem to dawn on Sylvia that the young man may only be keeping her close for his own benefit. Jewett has made it clear to readers that his primary objective is to hunt down a white heron. When Mrs. Tilley, Sylvia’s grandmother, speaks about her remarkable “woods-girl” trait to the point that the wild creatures count her as one of their own, the man can’t help but be amused and grow a sudden, great interest towards the girl. He even gives Sylvia a jackknife, which she receives with excitement for and admiration of the masculinity, adventure, and violence it represents. The fact that she resents his killing of birds and yet admires him for the strong man he is, and values the weapon he gifts her, symbolizes Sylvia as a woman falling victim to his manly power: a common and sometimes fatal concept of a time which separated male and female roles and expectations. The young man, therefore, as the intruder who seeks to take advantage of Sylvia’s relationship with the wild, symbolizes industry.
Throughout its narrative, Jewett’s story depicts the invasion of industrialization within nature, just as Jewett herself saw the secure, untainted landscape of her hometown overrun by the rapid growth of industrialization after the Civil War. Moreover, the white color of the most sought-after heron symbolizes purity; by keeping the bird’s whereabouts a secret, Sylvia saves and preserves her own innocence. If she had allowed the young man to kill the white heron, her innocence would have died with the bird. Sylvia’s love for nature in the end prevails over her momentary interest in the young man. She eventually realizes that the young man’s love was one of objectification. He objectifies nature, whereby everything in it – all the trees and its inhabitants – are objects for the taking. Thus, a woman’s love, or nature’s unselfish love, triumphs over the possessive love of man.
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