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A White Heron Introduction - Generally

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A White Heron is a short story written by author Sarah Orne Jewett in 1886. This short story is about a young girl named Sylvia who moves in to live with her grandmother in the country. One day Sylvia decides to go explore the woods near her grandmother’s house and while exploring the wood, Sylvia runs into a young man who is a hunter. The young man is searching for a rare bird, which Sylvia had seen before and is now left between helping this young man she has fallen in love with to please him or keeping the rare bird safe after developing a deep love for nature and the animals around her. Ultimately Sylvia is unable to tell the young man where the rare bird, the white heron, was, which causes him to leave disappointed and leaving Sylvia wondering if she had made the right choice. The hunter seems to be representing masculinity, by being this tough hunter who wants to conquer and kill nature and all these innocent and rare animals, whereas Sylvia stands for femininity, innocence, and purity, and can almost be depicted as part of nature, respectful and protective of it. Sylvia wants to find her own identity, her own voice, but it is difficult when she has an urge to succumb to this masculine hunter and feels she must play a specific role. She is trying to discover the place she is meant to occupy in society and in the world in general, by remaining strong and independent, Sylvia is able to reject the typical roles of women.

Throughout the story we can see signs that the woman in the story establish and maintain some type of hierarchy and independence, the women in the story demonstrate they are capable to care for themselves. When the author wrote, “if the creature had not given good milk and plenty of it, the case would have seemed very different to her owners”. This leads the reader to infer that Mrs.Tilley and Sylvia not only depend on the cow for milk, but also for their own living and overall welfare. Readers can see that Mrs. Tilley and all the other woman in the story do not depend on a husband, man, or even a son for financial independence establishes them each as an individuals that are capable of self-sufficiency. In addition, the statement suggests that Mrs. Tilley is a skilled woman that has the ability to operate and maintain her homestead. Mrs. Tilley runs some kind of independent operation, giving her a characteristic and giving the appearance that she is most likely the head of the household, demonstrating that without the aid of men, a feminine only home can run properly. It actually turns out that Sylvia’s grandmother is in fact head of her household. When Sylvia brings the hunter back to her home, Sylvia wonders, “would not her grandmother consider her much to blame?” which is then followed by the cow who “a loud moo by way of explanation”. This demonstrates that both Sylvia and the cow somehow feel the need to provide account for their actions reflects the authority of Mrs. Tilley. Sylvia’s anxiety and the cow’s offering demonstrate some kind of social order and structure within the homestead, led by Mrs. Tilley. During this scene, Sylvia’s grandmother is standing in the doorway, guarding her home similar how the typical man might traditionally guard his.

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The homestead appears to be calm and peaceful until the young man shows up, but the resistance and power of Sylvia overcome the force of the hunter and his intimidation fails. The author illustrates the young man’s inferior state through his youth, his refusal to fall under a feminine world, and, ultimately, through Sylvia’s decision of rejecting him. At the beginning of the story Sylvia hears the young man and she hears “a boy’s whistle,” notice how she does not call it a man’s whistle. By classifying the hunter into someone who hasn’t fully matured, the author heightens the authority and status of the much more mature and older Mrs. Tilley. The young man continues to display immaturity when he is asked about the birds he replies “Oh no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them…and I have shot or snared every one myself”. The phrase “dozens and dozens” is somewhat a childish response and his grammar is consistent with a child’s grammar and speech, while the way he brags about how he hunted birds and his pride in his hunting skills reveals he is not as manly as they thought. Mrs. Tilley’s reaction, too, shows this age gap. During the sportsman’s talk, the narrator intrudes. The sportsman says, “…ever since I was a boy,” and the narrator interjects “. The narrator’s use of parentheses here draws attention to Mrs. Tilley’s reaction. Her amusement illustrates a woman as more knowledgeable, more worldly, and more practical than a man, and this upsets the normative order of gender. Mrs. Tilley, like the audience, recognizes the man as a boy, and his masculinity as an outdated dominator next to the growing agency of femininity. The scale of values at work in “A White Heron” may not be ambiguous, but the characters do quite a bit of grappling for status. Sylvia sits between this struggle. Her choice to protect the heron, a part of the feminine Nature, rather than helping the young, passive-aggressive male, causes the ultimate shift in the status of the genders.


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