One June evening, a little girl named Sylvia is driving her cow, Mistress Moolly, home through the woodlands of the Maine countryside. Although Mistress Moolly is mischievous and slow, she is Sylvia’s beloved companion. The woods are growing dark, but Sylvia and the cow know the path by heart.
The opening scene of the story immediately establishes Sylvia’s peaceful, simple enjoyment of her natural environment. In the absence of human relationships, she finds valuable friendship in an animal.
Mrs. Tilley, Sylvia’s grandmother, expects Sylvia to be late bringing the cow home because she knows how mischievous Mistress Moolly is and how much Sylvia loves wandering outdoors. Mrs. Tilley recalls how coming to the country “was a good change for a little maid who tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town.” Sylvia feels “as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm,” and she often remembers “with wistful compassion” her neighbor in town’s single “wretched geranium.”
In the country, a child can grow through exploring nature, while the town leaves children feeling crowded and stifled. This criticism of life in towns comes at a time period when more and more people where moving to cities due to rapid industrialization. Notably, even when she lives in the town, Sylvia finds connection to nature through her compassion for her neighbor’s flower. This suggests that Sylvia’s love of nature was always there, waiting to be fulfilled.
When Mrs. Tilley first brought Sylvia to live on the farm, she remarked at how her granddaughter was “afraid of folks,” although she would not run into very many people out in the country. When she first saw the farm, Sylvia whispered about its beauty, saying that she did not ever want to return to town.
Sylvia’s fear of other people suggests that industrialization and life in town erodes the trust and community found in country life. Immediately upon arrival in the country, Sylvia senses the beauty of the countryside and renounces her old life.
As Sylvia continues to drive Mistress Moolly home, she imagines the birds are saying goodnight and she herself feels sleepy. She feels as if she is a part of the shadows and rustling leaves of the woods. She wonders if the town is the same as when she left, and her memory of a town bully makes her begin to hurry in order to escape the woodland shadows.
Sylvia feels a sense of belonging in the woods, as if she too is a part of nature, which is clearest in her reaction to the birds (she feels as though they are saying goodnight, and she becomes tired in response). This section also shows her innocence and skittishness, as the thought of a bully back in town makes her hurry, even though she is out in the country.
At this moment, Sylvia is frightened by the sound of a boy’s whistle and she abandons Mistress Moolly in order to hide in the bushes, but the stranger has seen her. He asks her how far away the road is and she meekly tells him it’s far away.
A human disrupts Sylvia’s enjoyment of nature just as human interference disrupts nature on a larger scale through industrialization. The stranger’s lack of knowledge of the area establishes him as an outsider in the country.
As she resumes driving Mistress Moolly home, Sylvia tries not to look at the stranger, who carries a gun. He walks with her, explaining that he had been hunting for birds and got lost and that she shouldn’t be afraid. He asks what her name is and if she thinks he can stay the night at her house.
Sylvia tries to carry on as she normally would in her countryside existence, but human interference (in the form the hunter) persists. The hunter begins to display his friendly and charming nature.
Sylvia is even more worried, believing Mrs. Tilley will be mad at her for happening upon the hunter. Mrs. Tilley, however, is waiting in the doorway when they all arrive, and she playfully scolds the cow. Sylvia believes that her grandmother does not “comprehend the gravity of the situation. She must be mistaking the stranger for one of the farmer-lads of the region.”
Mrs. Tilley’s warm welcome for a stranger shows the hospitality of the countryfolk of New England. Jewett writes in the literary style of realism, which celebrates cultures of different American regions, especially as those rural cultures were disappearing due to industrialization. Additionally, Sylvia implies that the stranger wouldn’t be scary if he were a local farmer-lad, but since he’s an outsider (presumably from town), he is a threat, which underscores the dangers of town.
The hunter repeats his predicament and asks if he may stay the night. Mrs. Tilley says that although her simple farmstead may not offer as much as those a mile or so out on the main road, the hunter is welcome to whatever they have. While he initially expects the “dreary squalor” of “primitive housekeeping,” he is surprised at the cleanliness and comfort of their home.
The hunter enjoys Mrs. Tilley’s “quaint talk” and he notices Sylvia listening with enthusiasm. After dinner, the three of them sit down in the doorway to watch the moon rise, and Mrs. Tilley says that four of her children have died. Sylvia’s mother and her son, Dan, are the only children she has left. Dan travelled out West to California and they lost touch—he might be dead for all Mrs. Tilley knows. He used to hunt, too, and he brought many partridges and squirrels home for his mother to eat. He has always been “a great wand’rer” and Mrs. Tilley does not blame him for leaving and not keeping in touch, because she herself would have explored the world if she could.
Dan represents a way of interacting with nature without exploiting it: he explores nature and only kills the animals he needs to feed his family. The fondness with which Mrs. Tilley speaks of Dan’s relationship to nature shows the value of this way of interacting with nature. Dan’s views of nature will be held in contrast to the hunter’s mission to kill and stuff a heron, which is revealed later in the story. Yet Dan’s exploration comes with sacrifices, as he has lost his relationship with his family.
Mrs. Tilley says that Sylvia has the same adventurous spirit as her uncle Dan. Sylvia knows every inch of the land and the wildlife regards her as one of their own. She feeds the squirrels and the birds out of her hands, even skipping her own meals so that she has plenty of food to give to the local jay-birds. Dan tamed crows and used to say that the birds had “reason same as folks.”
Mrs. Tilley draws a link between Dan’s explorative relationship to nature and Sylvia’s knowledge of her environment. This section establishes the friendship Sylvia feels toward animals, specifically birds, which will be challenged when the hunter reveals his mission.
The hunter does not notice the note of “family sorrow” in Mrs. Tilley’s conversation because he is distracted by his excitement over Sylvia’s knowledge of birds. He says that he has been collecting birds all his life, and Mrs. Tilley assumes that this means that he keeps them in cages, but he boasts that he has shot and stuffed dozens of birds. Now, he is looking specifically for the white heron, which he spotted nearby a few days ago.
The hunter’s inability to sense Mrs. Tilley’s sorrow is a first indication that he’s not very empathetic. Furthermore, this passage reveals that his interactions with nature consist of killing and stuffing birds, thus turning them into objects that he can possess. This stands in contrast to Dan and Sylvia, who interact with nature by exploring it rather than destroying it.
Sylvia is preoccupied watching a toad on the footpath, but when the hunter describes the white heron, she recalls with excitement that she knows the bird and had “once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods.” Beyond that swamp lies the sea, which Sylvia “wondered and dreamed much about, but never had seen.”
The detailed description of Sylvia’s wonder at the sea characterizes her romantic attitude towards exploring nature, an attitude that persists throughout the story. Sylvia’s knowledge of the land and its environment draw her into the hunter’s mission, even though his mission is opposed to her appreciation of nature.
The hunter wants nothing more than to find the white heron’s nest and he promises that, if Sylvia helps him find the bird, he will reward her with ten dollars. Sylvia still “watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time, that the creature wished to get to its hole under the door-step.” Instead, she thinks fervently of the many “wished-for treasures” that ten dollars could buy.
The next day, the hunter explores the woods and Sylvia tags along. She begins to warm up to him because she finds him to be friendly and charming and he knows so much about birds. The only time she is still afraid of him is when he shoots birds. She does not understand “why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much.”
As the day comes to an end, Sylvia feels the stirring of more mature feelings of love for the hunter. She follows him with admiration and fascination as they silently track bird calls. She is “grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed.” As evening falls, they drive Mistress Moolly home together and Sylvia marvels at how, just a day before, she was afraid of the hunter.
Despite Sylvia’s former content solitude, she begins to see the desirability of human relationships. These first feelings of love highlight Sylvia’s innocence, as she experiences excitement over feelings she does not yet understand. Yet this first love is unequal, as Sylvia does not lead the hunter even though she knows more about the countryside.