Heron of Alexandria - the Unrecognized Genius of His Time


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Morality is the ability to learn the difference between right or wrong and understand how to make the right choices. Morality is not innate in humans, but instead developed from a young age. A child’s experiences at home, their environment, and their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social skills influence their developing sense of right vs. wrong. Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, proposed his own theory about children’s moral development and that around the age of 10 children they recognize people may differ in the way they understand and approach a moral situation or problem. They also begin to understand that the difference between right and wrong is not an absolute, but instead must take into account changing variables such as context, motivation, abilities, and intentions. Sarah Orne Jewett writes about such a child’s journey in her story “A White Heron.” The young protagonist Sylvia, has her own moral awakening that begins at an integral level of individual development when she resists the hunters temptations of his own greed and her infatuation with the hunter in order to protect the white heron. After overcoming these internal challenges, Sylvia moves from her childish worldview to a more mature worldview that allows her to reach a new understanding of her own morals. From the conflict between her and the hunter, and the influence of nature she is also able to understand the complex, precarious nature of life that guides her to a deeper level of morality. Sylvia is a nine-year-old girl who lives in rural Maine with her grandmother.

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Identified throughout the story as a child, the descriptions of both the setting and the actions that occur in the beginning of the story match those of how a child would view the world. For example, Sylvia’s playmate, the cow, is thought of as an intelligent creature, capable of responding to and creating playful actions from her point of view. While meandering along a wooded trail, Sylvia encounters a young, attractive hunter who asks her to lead him to her home for shelter before setting off to hunt for what would be his most prized and elusive catch: the white heron. She is apprehensive towards the hunter, a characteristic that is common in children when confronted by strangers.Sylvia’s lack of independent moral conviction is also displayed through her concern for the opinions of her grandmother, for when she brings the young man home she frets, “Would not her grandmother consider her much to blame?” A sign of Sylvia’s transition to a deeper level of moral maturity is the realization early on that this man would bring about an important change for, “she knew by instinct that her grandmother did not comprehend the gravity of the situation”. Sylvia is able to evaluate her grandmother’s reaction to the hunter, along with her own and understands that this could prove to be a great opportunity for her and her family.

The conflict between considering her grandmother and the hunters wishes serves as a direct conflict upon developing idea her own of what is right and moral. Upon meeting the hunter, he is shown as charismatic character, particularly when he offers Sylvia ten dollars in reward for knowledge about the location of the white heron. This offer is coupled with the first stirrings of attraction roused within Sylvia as “the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love”. A still-childish Sylvia rationalizes holding onto the fantasy of gaining the hunter’s love rather than accepting the more realistic situation that the hunter is merely using her as a means to find the location of his prize. Since Sylvia lacks a concrete moral basis at this point in the story, she decides to ignore her inherent love for nature and individual life. She allows herself to become enamored by the hunter and the promise of money and agrees to discover the whereabouts of the heron’s nest. Sylvia sets out to find the heron’s nesting place, the climb of a massive pine tree serves as the event that sparks her awakening to a more developed sense of morality. The fact that Sylvia chose to climb the tree is critical because she never had the conviction to before and is symbolic of Sylvia’s development. As George Held describes her journey “The higher Sylvia climbs, however, the more her harmony with nature seems restored” and a new level of understanding both in her own moral identity and personal values. Sylvia takes on this adventure completely independent of anyone’s knowledge or approval, which further shows her transition from a dependent child to a more independent adult.

After a perilous climb to the top of this tree, Sylvia discovers the extensive beauty of both the world and the white heron. This passage is also full of imagery that encourages the idea of Sylvia’s rebirth towards moral development. The image of the white heron emerging “from the dead hemlock” symbolizes purity, the flight of new ideas, and rebirth from the dead. Sylvia’s literal new view of reality causes her to realize the value and complexity of all kinds of life and how the world of man has trouble coexisting with the world of nature.

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