Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron" is a brilliant story of an inquisitive young girl named Sylvia. Jewett's narrative describes Sylvia's experiences within the mystical and inviting woods of New England. I think a central theme in "A White Heron" is the dramatization of the clash between two competing sets of values in late nineteenth-century America: industrial and rural. Sylvia is the main character of the story. We can follow her through the story to help us see many industrial and rural differences. Inevitably, I believe that we are encouraged to favor Sylvia's rural environment and values over the industrial ones.
Our first introduction to these competing sets of values begins when we meet Sylvia. She is a young girl from a crowded manufacturing town who has recently come to stay with her grandmother on a farm. We see Sylvia's move from the industrial world to a rural one as a beneficial change for the girl, especially from the passage, "Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at the all before she came to live at the farm"(133). The new values that are central to Sylvia's feelings of life are her opportunities to plays games with the cow. Most visibly, Sylvia becomes so alive in the rural world that she begins to think compassionately about her neighbor's geraniums (133). We begin to see that Sylvia values are strikingly different from the industrial and materialistic notions of controlling nature. Additionally, Sylvia is alive in nature because she learns to respect the natural forces of this l...
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By presenting the competing sets of industrial and rural values, Jewett's "A White Heron" gives us a rich and textured story that privileges nature over industry. I think the significance of this story is that it gives us an urgent and emphatic view about nature and the dangers that industrial values and society can place upon it and the people who live in it. Still, we are led to feel much like Sylvia. I think we are encouraged to protect nature, cherish our new values and freedoms, and resist the temptations of other influences that can tempt us to destroy and question the importance of the sublime gifts that living in a rural world can bestow upon us.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. "A White Heron." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. 131-139.
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