At the climax of “A White Heron,” the story’s protagonist, Sylvia, must choose whether to help the hunter find and kill a beautiful and rare white heron, or whether to keep the heron safe by not revealing the location of its nest. This choice can be seen as an allegory for the conflict between nature and industrialization. By 1886, when Sarah Orne Jewett wrote the story, both the industrial revolution’s economic promise and its detrimental effects on nature were clear. Furthermore, the factories and mills that had come to define the landscape of southern New England were moving north towards the rural Maine woods that Jewett loved. In this context, Sylvia’s decision about whether to preserve nature (by keeping the heron’s location secret) or profit from its consumption (by revealing the heron’s nest and accepting the hunter’s bribe) is also a statement of her opinions on industry. Sylvia ultimately decides to keep the heron’s nest a secret, which is Jewett’s way of suggesting that valuing nature over industrialization is the right choice.
For Jewett, the conflict between nature and industry is synonymous with a conflict between town versus country life, and Sylvia’s experiences moving from the industrial town where she grew up to her grandmother Mrs. Tilley’s house in the countryside underscore the value of nature. Jewett remarks that Sylvia “tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town,” but she “never had been alive at all” there. The town was “noisy,” Sylvia found herself “afraid of folks,” and her experience of nature seemed to consist only of a neighbor’s “wretched geranium.” After first seeing the beauty of her grandmother’s farm, Sylvia remarked that she “never should wish to go home.” Away from the deadening effects of her industrialized hometown, Sylvia seems to come alive in nature. Instead of feeling afraid of the world, she begins to explore it eagerly—Jewett remarks that there “never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made!” She learns the landscape intimately, tames wild creatures, and takes joy in looking after her grandmother’s stubborn cow. Clearly, the countryside is a healthier environment for Sylvia, since nature makes her confident and joyful, while town made her dull and afraid.
While Sylvia’s transformation suggests that she would unconditionally value nature over urban industrialism, the hunter (whom Jewett associates explicitly with town and industry) is still attractive to her. The hunter embodies encroaching urban influence, as he has sophisticated knowledge and state-of-the-art gadgets. He tells Sylvia many things about birds that she didn’t know, and he gives her a jackknife and carries a gun, both of which are clearly not common in Sylvia’s rural life. He is also explicitly associated with industry, since his purpose—to kill a bird and take it home—mirrors the way that industry consumes nature to create domestic comforts. While Sylvia is uncomfortable with the hunter’s plan to kill the heron (and with his shooting other birds along the way), she still finds him “charming and delightful” and even feels for him the stirrings of romantic love. Sylvia’s attraction to the hunter (despite that she “would have liked him vastly better without his gun”) suggests that urban industrial influence is seductive to everyone, no matter how much they cherish the natural world.
That Sylvia identifies with (and even loves) aspects of both the hunter and the natural world makes her choice about whether to help him kill the heron even more difficult. While Sylvia is with the hunter, she seems to come around to his perspective, feeling fondness for him and wanting to help him with his quest to find the heron. Her identification with the hunter leads her to climb a tall pine tree to try to locate the heron’s nest for him, a step towards killing the heron. Viewing the countryside from an aerial perspective atop the pine tree, however, Sylvia sees her environment the way the heron sees it. She changes her mind in this moment, coming to identify with the perspective of the heron and therefore deciding not to help the hunter on his quest. The difficulty of this choice ultimately gives Sylvia’s decision to protect the heron moral authority: she understands both sides of the issue, yet she still believes that protecting nature is right. However, the fact that she would have helped the hunter had she not explicitly seen the world from the heron’s perspective has a troubling implication: perhaps the more that nature is destroyed, the less people will be able to protect it, because transcendent experiences of nature like the one that swayed Sylvia will be more difficult to find.
Nature vs. Industrialization ThemeTracker
Nature vs. Industrialization 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.
It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness.
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 doorstep…No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy.
All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough…she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much.
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!
The old pine must have loved his 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.
Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions…Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds.
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?