At the beginning of “A White Heron,” Sylvia lives a quiet, innocent life in the country. But Jewett shows that this childhood innocence cannot last as human interference, in the form of the hunter’s appearance, leads to one gaining wisdom, as Sylvia’s experience with the white heron helps her to make the moral choice of conserving nature. Innocence transforms into experience with complicated results, but Jewett suggests that experience and knowledge are inevitable and that nature can comfort those who must make sacrifices in order to gain wisdom.
As Sylvia spends time with the hunter, her admiration of him begins to suggest love. Jewett’s description of Sylvia’s first feelings of love communicates the wonder of childhood innocence, but more importantly how this innocence cannot last when confronted with experience. Jewett writes of “the woman’s heart” inside the child “vaguely thrilled by a dream of love”, recognizing the excitement of adult feelings beginning to be awakened in childhood. Yet Jewett also states that Sylvia “loved him as a dog loves,” revealing the inequality of her youthful infatuation and the impossibility of it turning into lasting companionship. After Sylvia gains experience with nature through identifying with the heron, the hunter will leave, taking with him any possibility for companionship. Here Jewett shows that youthful innocence is often misguided and thus cannot survive the experiences and lessons of life.
Sylvia’s attachment to the hunter drives her to climb the pine tree and search for the heron, a profound experience which leads her to a deeper understanding of nature. She returns to the hunter and her grandmother having become wiser, knowing she must protect the heron. The youthful excitement that compelled her to find the heron led to the experience that informed her decision to let the heron remain hidden. This suggests that the innocence and wonder of childhood will lead to experiences that it itself cannot survive, thus causing the child to become wiser through experience.
Sylvia’s countryside home represents her innocent, simple enjoyment of her life. Yet she, like her uncle Dan before her, feels compelled to leave the home in order to gain a deeper understanding of nature. Jewett suggests that this leaving home is necessary, but not without sacrifices. According to Mrs. Tilley, Sylvia’s grandmother, Dan felt compelled to leave his homeland of New England and explore the American West. She says she does not blame him for losing contact with her as a result, but the narrator hints at “family sorrow”. This suggests that while one may not be able to resist exploring and gaining new experiences, these experiences will come at the price of the foundational elements of one’s life such as family relationships and childhood homes. Sylvia must leave her home late at night in order to climb the tree and view the heron. She returns home to the hunter and her grandmother with new knowledge of the natural world, but she is troubled by the experience she has gained. Physically, she is broken down, her clothes torn and smeared with tree pitch and her skin pale. Mentally, she is troubled by the moral knowledge that she must protect the bird even though that means betraying the hunter. Because she left home, her innocent understanding of the world is lost, and her new wisdom means she must act against her own initial desires. Jewett shows that leaving home transforms an innocence, simpler person into a wiser, more moral one, but this transformation comes with difficult sacrifices.
At the end of the story, Jewett highlights how Sylvia’s gaining of experience and loss of innocence has left her with feelings of longing and regret, caused by her inconsistent memory of events. The story ends with a call for nature to comfort Sylvia. Jewett suggests that a loss of innocence can leave one with feelings of longing, but nature offers comfort for what has been lost. Sylvia misses the hunter because she forgets the horror she felt at the sight of him killing birds. Here, Jewett shows how experience does not always make one wiser or happier, especially if one tends to remember the good of the past and not the bad. Because of this incomplete memory, Sylvia continues to hear the echo of the hunter’s whistle “many a night.” Her experience haunts her long after the hunter has departed, causing her to doubt her decisions. The story ends on the paragraph which describes this, leaving the reader wondering if the experience of the plot was worth the loss of the peaceful innocence she possessed before. The story ends with a call for “woodlands and summer-time” to bring its “gifts and graces” to comfort Sylvia in her regret and loneliness. Jewett suggests that while experience comes with sacrifices, nature offers comfort for those who have lost their innocence.
Through the events of the story, Sylvia journeys from innocence to experience. Jewett shows how Sylvia’s innocent relationship to her environment cannot last, as the hunter will come and compel her towards a deeper relationship with nature. This experience will help her to make the wiser, moral choice of saving the heron, but will come at the price of her naïve first love. Experience will be a complicated gift of wisdom and loss, but Jewett suggests that the grace of nature can comfort one who feels regret over their loss of innocence.
Innocence vs. Experience ThemeTracker
Innocence vs. Experience Quotes in A White Heron
It was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town…it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm.
Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!
Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, – who can tell?