The idea of personal change as an unavoidable aspect of growing up and coming of age is one of the core themes in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.” The story follows Sylvia, a young girl who moves to the country and meets an ornithologist who wants to capture a white heron. While initially being attracted to the “handsome stranger” and willing to assist him in his search for the bird, Sylvia makes a revelation when embarking on a personal quest of finding the bird. As she recognizes the fragile nature of the bird’s beauty and realizes the barbaric idea of hunting it down, she refuses to disclose its hiding spot to the hunter. The change that Sylvia experiences when watching the heron echoes her personal evolution and the development of the sense of self as an independent and free person.
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The idea of change as an essential component of the process of growing up pierces every line of the narrative as the story unfolds. The setting created by Jewett is nothing but a metaphor for the state of staleness and lack of change. There are so few news and changes in the country that the visit of a stranger is enough to galvanize it: “Now step round and set a plate for the gentleman, Sylvy!” (Jewett 3). In fact, the town is located next to a literal swamp, which cannot point to the idea of a standstill any more obviously. Thus, using the descriptions of nature the author emphasizes the importance of change (Martin and Tichi 236). At the same time, the lead character conflates the notion of fleeting excitement with the idea of continuous personal progress.
However, the pivoting point at which Sylvia makes a giant leap forward in her personal growth and decides to distance herself from the superficial appeal of the stranger, refusing the money that she was promised marks her transfer to adulthood. As Sylvia declines the offer and continues to keep silence about the bird, she develops the sense of internal justice and values that will guide her through her future life as an adult: “she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away” (Jewett 6). Thus, the heron becomes the metaphor for Sylvia’s coming of age and the metaphor for becoming an adult through accepting one’s responsibility and developing personal ethics.
When exploring the symbolism in the story, one will notice that the white heron is representative of several elements at once. The heron symbolizes the main character, her coming of age and coming to terms with change, and a broader notion of freedom. The latter is referred to later as Sylvia refuses the money. The metaphor for freedom, in turn, is expressed quite vividly in the depiction of the excitement that captured Sylvia as she followed the bird, “Wholly triumphant, high in the tree-top” (Jewett 5). Thus, the white heron becomes the centerpiece of the story as the protagonist relates to it.
“A White Heron” portrays the metamorphosis of the lead character by showing her relating to the titular bird in its need for freedom and, thus, refusing to tell the ornithologist where it hides. The change reflects the young woman’s decision to choose a path of her own and reclaim her personal agency. The white heron described in the story is a metaphor that is beyond obvious yet nonetheless effective as it produces a powerful impact on the reader and clearly delineates the change occurring to the main character. Making a tremendous shift in her priorities and discovering her needs, Sylvia reconciles with the idea of change and the need for becoming an adult.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” Public-Library.uk, 1886, Web.
Martin, Wendy, and Cecelia Tichi. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era: A Historical Exploration of Literature: A Historical Exploration of Literature. ABC-CLIO, 2016.
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