Societal Pressures of Relationships in A White Heron: Critical Analysis

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Susan Griffin’s 1973 book Woman and Nature, brings together the societal view of patriarchy with collective voices of women. Griffin examines relationships between humans and nature, between men and women, and between patriarchy and the “other,” as used in the book, which signifies the voice woman in a time period that often rejects the views of women. She uses these relationships in order to issue a call for change within a society. Though this book came many years after Jewett’s “A White Heron”, it brought to light the societal pressures of relationships, whether that relationship be between humans or nature. Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett was born in 1849 from an prosperous middle-class family in South Berwick, Maine. When Jewett was a child, she was frequently ill. She suffered from severe arthritis in teen years and beyond. Luckily, her father was a country doctor and he encouraged her to be outdoors because he hoped it would improve her health. As a teen, Jewett would go with her father when he visited his patients. During this time with her father, he taught her the skill of sympathetic observation of people and nature. At first, this motivated her to consider medicine as a career, ill health ultimately made this option impossible. She redirected her keenness in observation toward writing. She enjoyed curling up with a book or leaping back into what her father taught her by exploring the woods, fields, and river near her home. Later in life, Jewett established a close relationship with Annie Fields. In 1881, Jewett and Fields began to live together in what was called a Boston Marriage, two women living together, independent of the financial support of men. Through this relationship, Jewett realized the power women and how they have the ability to be the provider. This combined with her childhood encompassed within nature aided Jewett’s writing of “A White Heron”, published five years after the beginning of their co-habitance.

“A White Heron” highlights a time period men were often the breadwinners of the family, as well as being an outdoorsmen. Jewett challenges these standards throughout her writing.“A White Heron” concerns Sylvia, a shy little girl who feels at home when she is taken in by her grandmother in the Maine woods. As the story opens, Sylvia is bombarded by a young man, an ornithologist, from the city as he is tracking a rare white heron. With progression, Sylvia not only finds herself obtaining a new relationship with nature but, exceeding the expectations of a woman in a patriarchal society. By not telling the hunter the location of the heron, Sylvia is challenging the roles of men and women, as well as culture and nature, setting a precursor for women to follow their own path, leaving the notions of a patriarchal society in the past. Through relationships and dichotomies in “A White Heron”, Sarah Orne Jewett reveals the connection between humans and the natural world in order to challenge patriarchy and inspire women to take charge of their journey through life.

The cow, Mistress Molly, opens the connection between Sylvia and natural world as she acts as positive female influence despite the differences they have. The onset of Sylvia and Mistress Molly's relationship is marked by their hide and seek like game, in which Sylvia must find Molly as she has trekked into the woods. Although one may see this relationship as nonexistent because of the difference in species, Jewett creates the reality in which, “females—human, bovine, it does not matter—can find each other. They can live together in fertile self-sufficiency and contentment” (Ammons 7). Early in the story, Sylvia 'had to hunt' for her cow(Jewett 138). When Sylvia 'hunts' for Mistress Moolly, she is playing a game with the her, treating the cow much like playmate or another person. It can be a point that Sylvia looks at nature's creatures as her equals. Sylvia devises an affinity, even a kinship with nature and the animals. This particular relationship overrides her desire to please the hunter or to make money.

The deep connection Mistress Molly and Sylvia share as females enlightens the idea that when women come together anything can be possible. When Sylvia finds her, they begin the journey against an intrusion of patriarchy via the hunter. Although Mistress Molly stays silent, as an act of defiance, her silence inspires Sylvia to later defy patriarchy by staying silent when the decision between giving away the herons location to the hunter or to let the heron continue its life. Mistress Molly and Sylvia’s interspecies connection establishes the chain of support females can use to challenge interrupting patriarchy.

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Sylvia’s quick establishment between herself and the pine tree emphasises the strong connection she has with nature. In turn, rejecting the patriarchal means she originally set forth to satisfy by climbing the tree. Sylvia’s original purpose behind her ascent to the pine tree was to absolve the hunter’s want for the white heron. Sylvia discovers her own feelings in relation to the true nature she has set her eyes upon. She can be seen as one with the whole forest, her closeness with forest and to the creatures is unparalleled (Griffith 22). Because of her unparalleled closeness with nature, Sylvia’s climb allows her to experience a different type of view she has not been exposed to prior. This particular view allows Sylvia to step outside her typical human-to-human relationships, and to transcend to a new type of human relationship, which opens her mind to realize she can not harm nature by giving in to pressuring patriarchy she is feeling from the hunter. Jewett extends the relationship between the tree and Sylvia by not only introducing Sylvia's feelings, but simultaneously introducing that “the old pine must have loved its new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child” (143). Jewett opens up the idea that nature is actually protecting Sylvia from patriarchy and is setting her upon a good path, in which she chooses herself over the satisfaction of a male overhead. Sylvia's relationship with the pine tree inspires a shift within herself to avoid overbearing patriarchy and to choose discovery over male satisfaction throughout life.

Similarly to Sylvia’s relationship with the pine tree, the development of the connection between Sylvia and the white heron comes with the denouncement of patriarchy. By climbing the pine tree, Sylvia opens the connection between herself and the heron. Sylvia is able to see the natural world through the heron’s eyes. This ability furthers Sylvia’s personal connection with nature. She is now unable to enable the hunter’s violence that would affect the majesty of the heron she is now able to witness. As Sylvia’s now open connection with the heron progresses in a short time period, she actively chooses not to tell the hunter the whereabouts of the heron, therefore the heron becomes “an eminent expression of nature, of a world apart from man's dominion and worthy of the girl's devotion” (Church 21). Jewett is encouraging women to live outwards and abstain from the traditional patriarchal society. Sylvia sees herself in the heron. Through a mirror-like connection, Sylvia chooses to save the heron, while at the same time, saving herself from the persecution of patriarchy. Jewett is trying to emphasize through Sylvia’s identification with the heron that people should have eminent connection with nature so that they recognize nature’s independence and wonder and therefore choose to protect it from human ambitions (Atkinson 2). Sylvia’s mirrored connection with the white heron leads to the denial of patriarchy, as well as the success of the white heron.

The dichotomy of culture and nature begins between the white heron and the hunter. In this dichotomy, the heron represents nature and the natural world, while the hunter is a cultural intruder of the natural habitat. At first, the hunter is relatively polite as he comes into the naturalistic grounds of Sylvia's life. As “A White Heron” progresses, it becomes evident that the hunter’s presence is a threat to the heron, which represents the natural world, in which, without the hunter, it is not threatened by others. Sylvia’s original intentions were to please the hunter by giving away the heron’s location. In this case, the promise of money factors into the cultural side of this dichotomy. The lure of money to a less fortunate area can be tied with notions of city or rural town life as opposed to country life. As seen within Sylvia's life, simplicity and nature is the country route. Sylvia proves to relate to the heron, siding with nature in the choice between culture and the natural world as “Sylvia's willingness to protect the heron and, however reluctantly, forfeit the hunter signifies her having escaped ruin by preferring, at least for now, nature above man: in her affiliation with the bird, Sylvia finds a form of transcendence that enables her to delay and perhaps avoid self-loss in man's world” (Church 22). In a world of patriarchy, Jeweet is trying to convey a sense of female self purpose, inspiring women to disregard previous dictations of a patriarchal society. Through the dichotomy of culture and nature, nature ultimately prevails. Sylvia chooses to remain faithful to nature, rather than abandon it for her attraction to the man. In turn, exemplifying the importance of Sylvia’s relationship with nature that is able to deny standards of cultural patriarchy often exhibited across many different area.

The dichotomy of male and female focuses on the contrast between traditions ideals of femininity such as gentleness, patience, and kindness, compared to masculine qualities of strength, courage and violence. Sylvia and the hunter are able to represent this particular dichotomy through different situations that conclusively highlights the fight against patriarchy as well as the need for women to pave their own ways. The contrast between female and male’s respect toward nature is evident through the way Sylvia expresses her love for nature and its creatures versus the hunter. She is seen protecting the heron from the hunter and acting in a motherly way. Through a sequence of events, Sylvia chooses not to scare the heron, instead she sits still and watches. The hunter, on the contrary, can be seen taking masculine approach. He shows his love for nature by collecting birds he is fascinated with. He is portrayed as a dominant, strong, yet selfish individual. During the eighteen hundreds, women would show respect to men by allowing the man to speak first. In “A White Heron”, Jewett states “she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first” (442). During this time, it was common that women were treated as property and did not have many rights. However, through the male and female dichotomy, Jewett calls for women to create their own path and to disregard the typical patriarchy enforced in daily life.

Through the use of relationships, Jewett highlights key elements of the natural world, as well as, how Sylvia’s relationships lead to interspecies connection, later enabling Sylvia to protect those endangered through the patriarchal society. The dichotomies are utilized in order to exhibit the contrast between two strong ideas that Jewett is trying to combat, patriarchy and culture. The revelation of the relationships Sylvia holds with the natural world as well as the contrast of dichotomies, help Jewett’s 1800s short story call for a society in which women can create their own path and disregard patriarchal denotations. Through short stories such as “A White Heron” Jewett was able to create a “unique period when 19th-century middle-class feminism was firmly embedded in the mainstream culture of New England” (“Sarah Orne Jewett” 1). Jewett later had many influences upon feminist writers and activist.

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Societal Pressures of Relationships in A White Heron: Critical Analysis. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from
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