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Main Themes in A White Heron: Critical Analysis

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Before one can define archetypal criticism, one must define what an archetype is. An archetype, in literature, is a predictable action, character, or a circumstance that displays patterns in human nature that are universal and can be compared to other behavior patterns. A “universal symbol,” another term for an archetype, could be a theme, symbol, setting, or a character. Archetypes help the structure and function of a piece of literary work, due to the representation of something recurring within human culture.

Myths and Archetypes go hand-in-hand; all ethnic groups have different types of myths and archetypes that are native to their own culture or religion. Myths are defined by the environment of the culture they exist in, this in turn also develops the archetypes seen today. A myth is considered universal like an archetype; this is due to finding near indistinguishable themes within the vast amount of myths. The specific images depicted in myths, usually have a common meaning or will attempt to draw out psychological responses. These responses may be compared to other responses from the same or similar image, the images or patterns used to get a response is called the archetype.

A popular Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, stated that the “collective unconscious” of humans are the root of archetypes. The “collective unconscious” is a fancy term for a shared experience that others within the same race or even culture may have felt or gone through at one point in time. An example of such an experience would be something like religion, birth, life, death, love, struggle, and survival. In the subconscious of every person who experiences these things, they may be re-created or interpreted in a form of art or in literature.

It is likely one would stumble upon common archetypes in daily reading and modern work. This is because archetypes are recurring and authors will recycle basic ideas. One example is the Hero archetype. They are usually a very good person, have good morals, and fight evil in some way or another for peace. These types of archetypes are found among stories with good and evil themes. There are hero complexes in Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief, and Twilight. All have themes of good and bad. Harry Potter is the hero surrounded by good and is pushed to defeat the evil in Hogwarts. The Lightning Thief has the hero seeking out the evil to slay or get rid of it. Twilight has the main character also surrounded by good people, she is considered more of a bystander and leader who stands next to the heros. The heros in Twilight are the good sides of power in numbers against the evil vampires.

The Mother Figure, The Innocent Youth, The Mentor, The Villain, and The Scapegoat are many different archetypes among many archetypes. These can be found by reading literature texts closely. Studying literature closely with the use of archetypal criticism can help the reader understand the viewpoint of the author. Many archetypes are universal and appear in many cultures. This ensures that many different types of people within a similar community may understand a given piece of work.

A literary work will gain acceptance from the readers when a character archetype or situation is used in a way that will be easy to understand and connect to while considering what their culture is. Realism can be incorporated into a work of literature with the help of common archetypes. The inspiration for the archetype comes from the situations the author may have experienced in the world.

Archetypes are easily seen in modern-day work, if one knows what to look for. Since archetypes are universal symbols, a reader should look for patterns and symbolic textual evidence while analyzing a piece of literature. Take note of the descriptive images an author may write. Patterns and symbols that may foreshadow events may pop up in a story through the scenery that is described or a specific color mentioned. The surrounding of a story helps build onto an archetype of a character. Knowing more about the background and studying it will help understand a given character and why they make specific choices.

There are various patterns to look for, one common one is the creation motif. It could be considered the most basic and fundamental of the archetypal patterns. Essentially all myths are founded upon how the world or universe came to exist as it does now. Nature, humankind, and the cosmos all fall under this category. It is also important to remember that the creation motif involves a supernatural being like a god. It could also include multiple god-like figures that are supernatural or hold a great deal of significance to the people who may or may not worship them. A great example of patterns that appear commonly are included within most religions all across the globe. The Great Flood is an archetype or pattern that appears in most cultures like Africa, America, Asia, and Europe.

Carl Jung’s foremost concept of archetypal criticism, which created the basis of the style of criticism, was that an archetype means “first print.” This would refer to the patterns that a human mind is capable of recognizing, which would have been in existence since the beginning of time. These are considered the stepping stones of wakefulness because they are recurring in art, architecture, and literature. They also appear in different cultures all around the world. The oldest archetype, by Jung’s perspective, is the wheel and is replicated among all people. It is found in the unconscious of any person on a collective level.

In 1934, Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry is the first complete literary work to be criticised while using Jung’s concepts on archetypal criticism. It established what the author was interested in; the symbolism that is ancient due to the replication of it over a long course of time. The symbolic character and circumstances are examined in this particular study, in which they are common in famous or prominent literature. A few examples are Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dante’s Inferno, and Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner.

Coming from a critical perspective it is confirmed that it was more important, in this instance, to study the archetype interest of the literary works than the mythological criticism aspect of the work. The study immediately tests if the claim Jung made about the collective unconscious was true, “a transhistorical collective unconscious that can be charted throughout the literature of various cultures.”(Ryan, 174)

Due to archetypes, poems can elicit a particular emotional significance. The archetypes are usually an unconscious force but elicit excitement in some cases. They can be expressed as primordial and recurring. They can also be expressed as inherited images, which are used to decide the current experience of an individual.

One example of archetypal criticism is The rebirth archetype in fairy tales: A study of Fitcher’s Bird and Little Red Cap. The fairy tales here have themes of rebirth in them. Because rebirth implies there is a death, whether or not it is literal or symbolic, it leads up to the literal or symbolic rebirth.

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Myth-making is emphasized in archetypal methodology due to the structural aspect of a given piece of text. It is an image that is recurring in apparent myths, rites, and artifacts with significant symbolic meaning. Themes of rebirth are common in many cultures. In Little Red Cap there are themes of rebirth that involve the wolf being cut open to free the people he ate.

In the short story, A White Heron, there are underlying themes of good vs. evil, innocence, and temptation. The main character, Sylvia, represents the innocence and the good within the story. This is due to her young age of nine years old and her shy demeanor around the stranger. Sylvia also repeatedly shys away from any thought of killing or aiding in killing animals. This aspect of her also represents the good within the story. The evil is the stranger, who is an ornithologist since he kills for sport and collects the birds as trophies. The temptation for poor Sylvia ten dollars and a gracious thank you from the sportsman. One could argue that the temptation was driven by Sylvia’s inner woman and the prospect of love.

Sylvia comes from a big family with many sisters and was likely suffering from overcrowding. She says, “… it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm.”(Jewett 67) I believe this implies that she was unhappy at home. She may have had a busy mother who had many young children and was lost in the crowd of family. Since she can take care of herself she will likely have less attention from her family.

The young girl wishes to never go home because of the beautiful nature. I believe this implies she loves nature and animals very dearly. She is described as a soft little girl who is in love with her new home. The demeanor with which she carries herself helps solidify the theme of innocence that follows her character. On her way back with the cow, she feels like she is a part of nature. Seeing this in the story helps strengthen her loyalty to protect nature, “… and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves.”(Jewett 68)

Sylvia is described by her grandmother as being very similar to her boy Dan. While they are vaguely similar, they are most definitely not the same. Dan was a hunter who knew the forest about as well as Sylvia does. Sylvia is described to be like him but, the only similarities are they are family and they both know the forest well. Throughout the story, Sylvia is reminded of her love for nature, which helps support the good side of the good vs. evil archetype. She seems disgruntled anytime she is near someone speaking or doing something that can hurt animals or nature.

While she retrieves the old cow it is foreshadowed that something bad may happen later. On their way home, they are described as walking away from the light and into the darkness. Although it hints that there is nothing they could really do if they could see the retreating light or not. “They were going away from whatever light there as, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.”(Jewett 66)

Upon the first meeting with the tall stranger, she is very shy and weary. This may be because of the rifle on his back and the harsh-sounding whistle he announced his presence with. She also could be shy of the man due to her red-headed bully from the past. This implies that she is shy due to mild abuse. When asked what her name was and for lodging, she becomes more alarmed. Sylvia also mentions to herself that her grandmother doesn’t understand the situation to be as awful as she perceives it. She sense’s something is off and it’s related to the gun and the man.

The ornithologist would look to Sylvia from time to time with hope that she would help him find the bird. Each time she either seemed uncomfortable or disinterested. One instance that this happens is when the ornithologist speaks to Mrs. Tilley and Sylvia about the white heron, “Mrs. Tilley gave amazed attention to all this, but Sylvia still watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time…”(Jewett 71) This instance shows that Sylvia is subconsciously rejecting anything bad. She blocks out the evil by surrounding herself with things she loves.

After becoming friendly enough so that Sylvia was not shy or scared, she was given a jack knife by the ornithologist. This displays the stranger as a manipulative character who wishes to use Sylvia to find what he wants. The fact that the gift was a knife shows symbolism. The knife as a gift symbolizes temptation. It is likely that the stranger was hoping they could bond over learning to use the new knife. The knife was definitely a bribe that was meant to weaken the very sturdy walls of Sylvia’s consciousness. This form of temptation will not work on Sylvia. She would rather not hurt the animals she loves and states it a while after obtaining the knife. The good and innocent Sylvia would never hurt an animal.

Sylvia does not find much value in the knife since she would rather nurtur than hunt. This idea can be reinforced when taking into consideration Sylvia’s own thoughts. Her first thought on the knife was that it would be a cool treasure for someone stuck on an island. Manipulative people will often give things to children to win their trust but Sylvia’s goodness within her is far brighter than the evil within the stranger. Sylvia displays her innocence and goodness while hunting with the stranger, “…she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much.”(Jewett 71)

Towards the end of the story, Sylvia climbs the tallest and oldest tree in the forest with determination. She does this to find the white heron’s nest since she would be able to see everything from the top of the old tree. While climbing she is compared to a bird, her hands and feet are pinched together and clenched like the claws of a bird. That passage helps show the reader how in tune with nature she is. It symbolizes her love for nature and the want to be one with them.

The climb was long and taxing, this symbolizes the hardship Sylvia has gone through with herself. It shows that she wants to like the stranger but, he is not good like her and hurts what she loves. She was unsure if she should help him since he seemed nice enough but, she cannot stand the thought of any creature in the forest being hurt. It also shows that it is hard to pass temptation up. As she was climbing it, it became harder than she remembered; this shows that to overcome evil temptations it takes effort and determination.

The tree branches that occasionally scraped her were described as the talons or claws of a bird. This should be seen as a warning to Sylvia. If she were to do something to hurt the white heron, she would likely lose all trust from any animal she has come across and helped. The tree seemed to stretch on further; this highlights the internal struggle Sylvia went through during the strangers short stay. At the top of the tree, she trembled from exhaustion and observed the beautiful view.

When Sylvia observes the white heron fly to a nearby branch on her big old tree, she sees it cry to its mate and fly off. She is amazed at the beautiful bird and sees something to protect and nurture. Sylvia decides speaking would not be wise. She puts the defenseless birds before herself because of her innocent love for nature. Money means nothing to Sylvia as she would rather spend time with nature and appreciate it than betray it.

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Main Themes in A White Heron: Critical Analysis. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from
“Main Themes in A White Heron: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022,
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