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Feminism in “A White Heron”: A Review of Some Studies
Of the many writings about Jewett’s “A White Heron” a common idea that seems to take form is a feminist commentary of young women interacting with the world. Many different paths have been taken by those who have analyzed and discussed the work academically; some take the perspective of a romanticist, others see the work as Jewett’s take on the fairytale. However, they all seem to agree that these ideas are in service of a feminist perspective. The story follows a young girl named Sylvia as she deals with a charming young man hunting a bird known as a Heron.
The romantic aspect of “A White Heron” is discussed by Joseph Church in his analysis called “Romantic Flight in Jewett’s White Heron”. Church discusses his belief that the young hunter that comes to Sylvia is representative of the domineering attitude of man as they interact with the world around them (22). Church goes on to comment that the Heron itself is the representative of nature as a whole and its separation from the world of men (22). Church believes that these two forces are romantic ideas given shape and that they are competing for young Sylvia’s attention. The story then is a commentary on what will win: the corrupt world of men or the seemingly pure world of nature. Church also discusses the work as a romantic feminist piece as he writes about the gender roles served by the hunter and the heron. Church argues that the heron is an allegory for not only nature but for women and that the hunter is the tendency of man to seek out and dominate women like they do the natural world (23). If accurate than Sylvia resisting the hunter would be akin to her resisting the traditional idea that women must be subservient to men destined to be little more than a hunter’s stuffed trophy. According to Church the romantic idea in the story exists to compare Sylvia and the struggle of all women with the plight of nature. These forces exist to resist man or in this case man’s representative the hunter.
In “Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at A White Heron” George Held writes of the feminist themes found throughout “A White Heron”. Held talks about how the natural world is portrayed by Jewett as friendly and inviting while the young hunter, established as man’s representative, is shown to be aggressive and invasive (58). Held emphasizes how Sylvia first associate’s males with negativity due to an interaction she had with a young boy (58). Held’s main point seems to be that Jewett establishes that something is inherently bad about men and that is why Sylvia responds with fear initially. Held briefly comments on a quote “”Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun” describing the gun as a phallic symbol meant to mean that the hunter’s masculinity is the only problem (58). To build on this idea Held comments on the tone of voice Jewett gave the hunter and how it portrays the man as someone who thinks himself superior to Sylvia due to his age and gender as seen when he calls her “little girl” (59).
In “The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s A White Heron” Elizabeth Ammons writes about what she sees as the wholly female world that surrounds Sylvia (7). Ammons describes the country side in which the story takes place as a paradise in contrast the manufacturing town that was man made and filled with the noise of society (7). All of this emphasis the female as a good and things associated with men as generally bad. The inherent goodness of the female is further developed, according to Ammons, as she describes how women can live self-sufficiently without the interference of men (8). One can see Ammons point more when it is realized that in the world of men Sylvia struggled to function but once isolated in the natural world she thrived.
Kelley Griffith writes in “Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White
Heron” about the heroic nature of Sylvia. Griffith discusses how Sylvia is called to adventure not only at the prospect of money but also because of her attraction to the hunter (25). In the same passage Griffith acknowledges how Sylvia resists this love in favor of the Natural world avoiding the invasive nature of love and man (25). As a result of her resisting love and moving past her adventurous womanly desire Sylvia lives isolated from the hunter and thus is isolated from man and society which is portrayed as a positive and desirable outcome we should strive for (27). This combined with the feminist observations combines to show a feminist hero resisting the corrosive effect man has on not only the natural world but on women as well.
In “The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett’s A White Heron” Gayle Smith writes about the feminist implications of Sylvia’s choice not to give away the Heron’s location to the hunter. Smith comments that by not sacrificing the bird she is protecting not only nature but her self as an independent creature from man (38). Theodore Hovet briefly describes how the heroine Sylvia is described in the fairytale format allowing for the exploration of the social forces of what was at the time modern America (63). With all of this in mind the seemingly heroic nature of Sylvia and her apparent feminist cause becomes more apparent.
In “Christian Symbolism in Sarah Orne Jewett’s A White Heron” Victoria Freivogel implies that the story of Sylvia is symbolic of women defending their innocence. In context Sylvia is defending her sexuality from the hunter who is akin to a dangerous sexual predator hoping to violate nature which is an allegory for Sylvia herself (136). According to Freivogel the ornithologist aspect of the hunter is just a representation of the male desire to corrupt and dominate a young girl’s innocence (136). Thus, Sylvia resisting the hunter is her taking control of her femininity and protecting it from those who seek to destroy it. It is also implied by Freivogel that the Heron itself is symbolic of Sylvia’s body and that the struggle Sylvia has of offering it up is allegorical of marriage and women offering their bodies to men for financial and social reasons; a fate she ultimately resists (140).
Josephine Donovan writes of female culture in “Silence or Capitulation: Prepatriarchal Mothers Gardens in Jewett and Freeman”. According to Donovan Sylvia is the daughter’s generation who must resist the patriarchal nature of greater society; Donovan goes on to write how Sylvia and therefore all young women must resist the aggressive nature of men who seek only to exploit the innocence of women and the natural world (44). Donovan writes about how Sylvia is sort of like a reverse Cinderella in the sense that she avoids the prince in favor of the freedom offered by nature (44). Donovan implies that any relationship with a man is one where the man dominates and so by denying it Sylvia is embracing the feminist idea of matriarchal independence and isolation (45).
Michael Atkinsons writes in “The Necessary Extravagance of Sarah Orne Jewett: Voices of authority in A White Heron” about the voice the reader hears in Jewett’s work. Atkinsons believes Sylvia is a strong independent force that resists those that seeks to contaminate her innocence (72). According to Atkinson the narrators voice is a strong wise woman that “transcends” the other character offering unique insight available only the maturity of the innocent (73). This voice is clearly representative of the idea of the strong feminist who can resist the charms and corruption of man.
Margaret Roman discusses the idea that rather than overt feminism “A White Heron” deals more with the neutrality of the sexes. In “Symbolic Possibilities for Androgyny” Roman implies that Jewett intends Sylvia to be a combination of both the masculine and the feminine of Adam and Eve (198). Roman says that Sylvia is superior to the hunter who is purely patriarchal and the grandmother who is solely matriarchal (198). Jewett critiques these two forces by showing the weakness of both. Men can never truly dominate the natural world as the hunter fails to find the bird on his own while the mother becomes corrupted by the patriarchal nature of society (198). Despite this Sylvia is not only able to discover the heron and overcome the weaknesses of man she does so without sacrificing her femininity by protecting the Heron’s nest from the influence of man.
The research combines to paint a fairly accurate picture. It shows the feminist voice of Jewett as she emphasizes the innocence of Sylvia who is our fairytale hero. She protects her womanhood and innocence which doubles as a representation of nature itself. Though she is tempted by the draw and charm of the hunter whom represents the corruptive influences of the society of men. Sylvia resisting this force speaks to the possibility of women living for themselves and their own values. This feminist view is widespread, consistent, and well documented through realist and romantic influences are acknowledged to elevate this feminist view.
Atkinsons, Michael. “The Necessary Extravagance of Sarah Orne Jewett: Voices of Authority in ‘A White Heron.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 19, no. 1, Winter 1982, p. 71. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hus&AN=9267863&site=eds-live.
Ammons, Elizabeth. “The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.” Colby Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, Mar. 1986, pp. 6–16.
Church, Joseph. “Romantic Flight in Jewett’s “White Heron”.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 30 no. 1, 2002, pp. 21-44. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/saf.2002.0006
Donovan, Josephine. “Silence or Capitulation: Prepatriarchal ‘Mothers’’ Gardens” in Jewett and Freeman.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 23, Winter 1986, pp. 43–48. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hus&AN=509405430&site=eds-live.
Freivogel, Victoria. “Christian Symbolism in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction, vol. 7, no. 2, Spring 2007, pp. 136–142. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hus&AN=25357066&site=eds-live.
Griffith, Kelley. “Sylvia as Hero in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron ” Colby Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 1, Mar. 1985, pp. 22–27.
Held, George. “Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at ‘A White Heron.” Colby Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, Mar. 1982, pp. 55–65.
Hovet, Theodore R. “‘Once upon a Time’: Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’ as a Fairy Tale.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 15, no. 1, Winter 1978, p. 63. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=7127222&site=eds-live.
Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett : Reconstructing Gender. University Alabama Press, 1992. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=32487&site=eds-live.
Smith, Gayle L. “The Language of Transcendence in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron ” Colby Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 1, Mar. 1983, pp. 37–44.