Sylvia’s existence in the country is quite solitary, as her only companions are her grandmother Mrs. Tilley and their cow Mistress Moolly. This solitude leads Sylvia to sometimes long for human companionship, but mostly she seems content to be alone with nature. In fact, Sylvia’s positive relationship to solitude suggests that solitude is essential to coming of age, because it allows the freedom to forge one’s own identity and it breeds independence and self-reliance.
While Jewett argues that solitude allows one to fully commune with nature, she admits that one will still long for human companionship. Through her characters’ need for human relationships, Jewett shows that solitude can have a negative side effect of loneliness. Though Mrs. Tilley seems content with her country lifestyle, she still grieves the loss of four of her children and enjoys watching her granddaughter grow in the country. With this, Jewett suggests that nature may offer many bounties, but one still needs the help and companionship of other people. The last sentence of the story describes Sylvia as a “lonely country child,” showing that while life in the country is beautiful and peaceful, loneliness and longing can still plague those who live there.
In the absence of many human relationships, Sylvia finds meaningful companionship with animals. Thus, Jewett shows how one can be apart from most humans but still find some companionship. Jewett personifies Sylvia’s cow, Mistress Moolly, as an intelligent trickster that Sylvia can play games with in the absence of a human playmate. To a lonely child, animals can provide friendship and entertainment. Sylvia recalls how she and the white heron “watched the sea and the morning together” as she decides not to tell the hunter where the heron lives. This shows that one’s connection with an animal can be strong enough to supersede one’s connection to a human being. Mrs. Tilley says that her son, Dan, tamed a crow who he claimed had “reason same as folks,” implying that Sylvia is not the only one who relates to animals, furthering Jewett’s argument for this kind of companionship.
The solitude of the countryside allows Sylvia the freedom she needs to learn and grow in her environment. However, Jewett presents this solitude with ambiguity, questioning whether or not these freedoms are truly worth the loss of human relationships. Though Sylvia lives in a house full of children and a town full of people before coming to the farm, her grandmother states that Sylvia only seems to come alive once she lives in the wide-open space of the countryside. This progression shows how the freedom to roam by oneself helps a child to grow and fully enjoy life. Sylvia is only able to go on her great adventure to find the heron when both her grandmother and the hunter are asleep. Here, Jewett suggests that when one is alone one possesses the freedom from supervision that is necessary for children to try new experiences, take risks, and discover the parts of life that they love most. Sylvia returns to her grandmother and the hunter with a new sense of independence, as she is able to defy the hunter’s wishes in order to uphold the value of nature. This shows how freedom to explore nature teaches self-reliance. The story never answers the question, “Were the birds better friends than the hunter might have been,— who can tell?” This leaves the reader doubtful if nature can completely replace human relationships. Jewett reveals the limits of the argument for solitude. While solitude offers an individual the freedom necessary in order to grow, one will never be completely free from the need for human companionship nor be completely certain of fulfillment in nature.
In “A White Heron”, solitude is a bittersweet experience. Sylvia longs for human relationships and ends the story feeling lonely in her solitude. Yet solitude allows her to grow independently and gain knowledge through communing with nature. She also finds some consolation for her loneliness in the companionship of animals. While one may always feel longing for other people, Jewett shows how solitude is necessary for children to grow, gain wisdom, and learn independence.
Solitude Quotes in A White Heron
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.
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.
Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, – who can tell?