Gender and age in “A White Heron”

In Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” we see a sharp contrast between female and male’s respect toward nature. Additionally, age plays a factor in the manner in which the young her and the hunter treat nature.

Sylvia, the young girl who ran into the hunter, has a love for the birds in her area. Her grandmother tells the hunter that one of the bird’s he speaks of is “Sylvy’s” acquaintance. The girl speaks of them and treats them as friends. When the hunter ask if she has any knowledge of a white heron, which he plans to shoot and add to his stuffed bird collection, she tells him she does not know of its whereabouts.  While the man tells the girl of his admiration towards the birds, “she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much” (12).

Sylvia expresses her love for nature and it’s creatures by protecting them and acting in a motherly way. She goes to the tree where she knows the heron lives and does not dare scare it or harm it. Instead she sits still and watches it’s motions.

The hunter, on the other hand, takes a much more masculine approach. He shows his “love” for nature by collecting the birds he is fascinated with and keeping them.

Keeping dead nature is almost like visiting an exhibit.  All that is shown is set up in a convenient and idealized manner. Nothing is in its natural environment, roaming at its own will and acting in it’s natural way.

The hunter shoots the birds for his own personal desires and even offers the young girl money to bring him to the bird so that he may shoot it. Like we see in many other pieces of work, nature is used as an economic resource. Everything in it is taken to be used for human advantage.  Sylvia, meanwhile, neglects the money that she said would have made them “rich.” She puts nature and her connection with it over greedy wants.


Jewett, Sarah Orne. A White Heron and Other Stories. Ch./Art: Ch 1 & 2 p. 12-13. pub. Houghton Mifflin Company 1886


3 responses to this post.

  1. Christy’s 21,

    I completely agree with you that there is a gender difference between the young man and the young girl, Sylvia. The young man in this text is portrayed as a dominant, strong, yet selfish individual. Men in nature writing seems to always have to prove how “masculine” they are. Sylvia, being a young girl is portrayed as “motherly”, protective, rational, and compassionate. The grandmother, being a woman shows her delicate side by allowing the young man, a complete stranger, to reside in their household. I am guessing that during this time this was common. Another thing to note is the “respect” women show to men by allowing the man to speak fist. Jewett says ” she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first” Jewett (442). When I read this sentence I felt very angry yet happy at the same time. It is awful to think women were regarded as property and did not have many rights. However, we women have come a long way and I am glad the circumstances have changed!

    Just to add to your argument, besides there being a gender difference there is also the age difference between the grandmother and the girl Sylvia. The grandmother although she was a woman was portrayed very differently. The age difference plays an important role. Children typically are the “innocent” ones; meanwhile, the adults as they get older seem to get corrupted. Sarah Orne Jewett says, ” What is that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird’s sake (Jewett 446)? Sylvia, although being very young seems to know more about life than the older grandmother, because the grandmother rebukes her for not revealing the White Horon’s nesting sight.

    Jewett, Sarah Orne. A White Heron and Other Stories. Ch./Art: Ch 1 & 2 p. 12-13. pub. Houghton Mifflin Company 1886

  2. Posted by bharta1 on November 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Really interesting. in the vein of keeping dead nature is like visiting an exhibit (well done by the way!) has really interesting implications. To preserve on must kill. What does this mean? The man, who is the embodiment of the androcentric force, who wields gun and money, doesn’t see the intrinsic value of nature, but in preserving his kill, he institutes an exhibition, an archive of nature, so as to commemorate it, remember it. What does this taxidermic preservation say? Does it create a false history of what ‘nature’, that fickle word, was?

    Also, because of Sylvia’s maternal or womb harmony with nature, she comprehends it, is in a relationship with it, which makes the killing of birds who are the personification of friends an ethos Jewett plays on heavily, especially at the end. Sylvia is a woman of fidelity, does not betray the Heron, which could represent all nature (because of its odd displacement of habitat). She preserves nature through faithfulness, in this story a womanly trait, as the grandmother owns the farm and thus the land, in opposition to the patriarchal or rational/mechanistic mode of Assembly Line life, a culture of frenetic distrust. The man and gun is the betrayer of nature and has less place in it than the more in-tuned woman.

  3. Christy, I feel that you have dome more of a character analysis than an ecocritical analysis of “A White Heron. ” Though I also agree that Jewitt is showing a gendered representation of how humans interact with nature, I think that you have ignored the main theme. Though Jewitt does characterizes Sylvy as having a motherly and compassionate emotional attachment to the animals, while the hunter merely kills birds for sport and displays them on his walls as a demarcation of his masculinity, I think that Jewitt’s main point is that Slyvy chooses to remain faithful to nature rather than abandon that for her attraction to the man. Thus, “A White Heron” is more about a moral delimma in which nature plays a role than an argument about how human relationships to nature are gendered. The climax of her moral dilemma is evident in the sublime scene where Sylvy climbs to the top of the tree and looks first towards the ocean, then looks at the trees and sees the product of civilization, churches and villages. Here she secures her bond with nature which allows her to make the decision not to betray the white heron for the man’s money or affection. Also, in your argument about Sylvy’s age being relevant, I feel that you should have included the function of the character of the grandmother. Jewitt juxtaposes the age and wisdom of the grandmother, the mature, economical woman that Sylvy should be, against Sylvy’s emotional decision to deny the money.

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