The Transcending of Sylvia in A White Heron
Sarah Orne Jewett’s A White Heron is ultimately a short story about a choice. While that message is clear to the audience, there is an implication that goes deeper than simply choosing. In creating two sections for this short story, Jewett manages to cause confusion amongst Sylvia’s—the protagonist—life. In building up for section two, the first section illustrates Sylvia being at the threshold of nature: not nearly there, but easy to be identified with. Multiple instances are written in which it almost seems that she is one with nature. An understanding is presented that confirms the idea that she will certainly reach that point in due time. However, the second section accelerates that notion. In having introduced a character in section one, The Hunter, that is the opposite of Sylvia, the story gains a fight-or-flight atmosphere to it. Her values become challenged and questioned. This choice can either support her ethical beliefs or help her gain monetary value. With an ethical dilemma like this, it seems apparent to go with the option that would be realistically useful. That does not prove to be the case with Sylvia, though, as she is not interested in the temptations offered by The Hunter. With multiple factors engaged in her life, such as The Hunter, Greed, Nature, and free will, Sylvia gets catapulted into making a choice—one that personally transcends her character and produces a social implication of morality.
From the beginning of the story, Sylvia is characterized as having an affectionate relationship with the natural world. In not having many friends growing up, she “lent herself to this amusement” of the natural world with ambition (522). For the most part of section one, this remains a notable trend: her being like nature. There are not absolute moments in which Sylvia becomes one with nature and that constant depiction is essential in creating her character’s arc. Jewett goes on to paint Sylvia as only having “been alive at [the farm],” symbolical of her feeling comfortable in this type of environment; this is a place she can blossom in (523). Nature is already seen having a strong presence in her life, especially when the wording makes it clear that this is her only friend. Having the New England countryside as the story’s setting also corroborates that idea. By knowing the setting, one can realize how lonely it can get. Therefore, Sylvia’s relationship with nature is warranted in every way. Before a change in tone takes place in the story, the threshold that Sylvia is at, with nature, is briefly mentioned: “She was not often in the woods so late…and it made her feel as if she were a part of the…shadows” (523). In the literal sense, it implies the change in weather and how fearful she is becoming. Going deeper than the surface level hints at other meanings. It illustrates the almost-there feeling Sylvia has with nature. Although she is close to nature, she has not seen it in its rawest form. Compared to the present day, nature is unknown to us; previously, it was dangerous and foreign. At least today, most people know what to expect inside it—but Sylvia does not. Through this unknown sensation, it becomes safe to assume that she has not become one with nature—a choice that she soon must decide on with the introduction of The Hunter.
Coming into play shortly after, The Hunter creeps into the story with a whistle that is the opposite “of friendliness” (523). With this description from Sylvia, she is exhibiting an instinctual side of her not normally seen with people. Whereas people have a sense of trust and awareness, Sylvia takes it to an almost animal-like level, having a strong sense of judgment in hearing The Hunter’s whistle. Additionally, in being described with “carr[ying] a gun,” an immediate contrast is struck between both parties (523). Sylvia, being closely identified with life, and having a name originating from the Latin word for forest, Silva, is in range of someone who owns a weapon, a weapon with the ability to end life. This makes her sense of wariness understandable. The situation proceeds to The Hunter being granted a place to stay for a while, giving him an opportunity at dinner to ask them if they have seen a white heron nearby. Mrs. Tilley, the grandmother, quickly replies how Sylvia would be able to help her, saying “the wild creaturs count her [as] one o’ themselves [sic]” (524). The Hunter immediately shifts his focus to her, as she becomes the best way for him to hunt down this heron. Sylvia wonders how he can hunt down birds when he loves them so much, resurfacing the connection between The Hunter and death. However, the situation takes another spin when he offers them ten dollars. This starts to become an uneventful predicament for Sylvia, for while she loves wildlife, she acknowledges the “many wished-for treasures” money would be able to buy (525).
The amount of money offered to them would have taken care of them for a lengthy period, but Sylvia’s reluctancy in offering her assistance means she has an internal choice to settle before wholly agreeing. In introducing The Hunter and his partner, Greed, Sylvia is tempted to keep him company the next day in his walk about the woods. The element of greed leads Sylvia towards a necessary path for her experience to be fully hers. Walking with The Hunter in the woods, she begins to have intense thoughts about romance, being “vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (526). While greed was first seen with money, it is now being seen with her fantasies. Even if she does not understand why he hunts down the creatures he loves, she cannot help but admire the sense of excitement he emits. It is enough for her to almost want to find the elusive heron in order to please him, and the sound of her “own unquestioned voice” proves greed is beginning to have a hold on her (526). During their walk, they find a great pine-tree—the last of its generation. No reason is given for it being there, an insinuation of it almost being there because of fate. This tree plays a large role later in the story, but it has already struck a chord with Sylvia as she becomes excited, exhibiting “a sense of adventure” (526). Coincidentally, this part of the story marks the beginning of section two.
Still thinking about the tree, Sylvia knew that whoever climbed it would be able to have a bird’s eye view of the world. While she mentions how it would help her find the heron, the strong sense of adventure she has is almost otherworldly—as if she is doing this for herself, not The Hunter. While she seems to want to help him, her unwillingness so far shows that she still has the same sense of caution she did in the beginning. Her instincts are still guiding her, and they are now leading her to climb this tree. She decides to climb it early in the morning, when everyone is asleep, establishing a sense of free will, devoid of the outside factors currently at play. With “eager blood” pulsing throughout her body, this is something Sylvia feels is right. Comparing her to that night she was asked to help find the heron, she remained silent. Now, however, even though still silent, she expresses a sense of admiration for the wildlife. Some of the imagery used in her climb signals a change, one that invokes a sense of her becoming one with Nature. Her “tingling fingers,” “bird’s claws,” and “bare feet” represent a side of her that was not been explored in section one (527). With these descriptions, she is being stripped of her human-like qualities and becoming an extension of nature’s creatures. With this, the influence of The Hunter and greed are no longer present. The only force currently active is that of Nature. Furthermore, through an anthropomorphism of the tree, a connection is established between Sylvia and the natural world. This type of literary device is allowed since she is essentially becoming a part of nature the more she climbs.
Like the rising action before the climax, the birds “sang louder and louder” for Sylvia as she reached the top (527). It is there where her perspective on everything changes. Upon seeing the beauty the world has to offer, Sylvia realizes how tiny her world is compared to that of Nature’s. To intensify the situation, she then catches a glimpse of the elusive white heron, meaning she is being entrusted with the secrets of the natural world. Through this trust, she understands that it is now her duty to protect it. In climbing the tree, Sylvia traveled to another world—a place that allowed her to transcend all the materialistic forces against her. It seems fitting that upon reaching the top of the tree, she reaches a new stage in her personal life. In this process, Sylvia has not only impacted her conscious but also society’s. Before climbing the tree, she only ever saw through the lens she had available. Her intentions were in the right place, but she still had questions, which is why she never agreed or denied in helping The Hunter find the white heron.
To say yes, she would have been going against the very place that was her friend. To say no, however, would be foolish since money like that would have improved her quality of life. It was not until she climbed the tree that she saw how wide the world truly was. It dawned on her that it was more than just her and other people—there were other magnificent and amazing creatures out there. To betray the white heron’s secret would have been equivalent to betraying Nature. Through literally and metaphorically seeing the bigger picture, Sylvia transcends from human to almost animal-like, in the sense that she essentially belongs in nature. In this identity being created for her and through her, she accepts the responsibility that comes with it. This means refusing to tell The Hunter anything and, in turn, not acquire the money. The disinterest in the materialistic is what radiates the growth Sylvia has experienced. It also proves to be a strong social implication. By Sylvia being awakened to the true nature of life, she realizes that a price cannot be placed on the natural environment. In overcoming the temptations of The Hunter and Greed and listening to the individualism that Nature whispered to her, Sylvia managed to exceed the expectations of most humans, proving that she is more nature-like than human-like.
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