SO Jewett Nature
The Conception of Nature and its Relationship to Gender
in S.O. Jewett^Òs story "A White Heron."
"Nature, in the common sense, refers to the essences unchanged by man^Å"
R. W. Emerson
From the very first steps of the new settlers on the American continent, its uncivilized nature, full of smell of the forests, of freshness of the air, and of almost prelapsarian variety of flora and fauna, came to be associated with unlimited wilderness. However, under the vigorous attack of developing civilization the untouched virginity of the New World soon began to recede, irretrievably losing its wild independent beauty. For a great number of American writers this confrontation of nature with civilization became a theme for the never-ending discussion. The short story of an American writer regionalist Sarah Orne Jewett, "A White Heron", is one of the works written on this touching American theme. In this story the author presents the conflict by juxtaposing a little country-girl Sylvia, who lives in harmony with nature, to the bird-hunter from a town. She does so through identification of a girl with nature and boys ^ with civilization. While the girl stands for t!
he innocent femininity of natural world, who loves and cares about the creatures around, the boys are associated with aggression, danger and warlike elements of civilization. Thus she implies the idea that nature is just like a harmless little girl just exists in peace with every tiny thing around, while civilization, like a young man with a gun, by its utilitarian love for nature senselessly annihilates the artless creation.
From the opening lines of the story Sarah Orne Jewett ushers her readers into the magic world of untouched beauty of the "New England wilderness" (WH, p.200): "the woods were already filled with shadows one June evening^" (WH, p.197). The reader is immediately charmed and has no choice but to proceed, to walk further, among the trees, until he meets a little girl, walking by the forest path together with her "plodding" (WH, p.197) friend ^ a cow. It is not by a chance that the writer notices that both the cow and the girl are well acquainted with the woods around them ^ she writes that their feet are so much familiar with the path they walk by that "it [is] no matter whether their eyes [can] see it or not" (WH, p.197). Thus she makes it clear that the "friends" are an integral part of this charming country wilderness.
Their existence is beautifully harmonic and on the almost fairy
background of "gray shadows and moving leaves" (WH, p.199) they pass
through the magic forest, "full of little birds and beasts... going
around..." (WH, p.198). Sylvia, who before her coming to the country
lived in a "crowded manufacturing town" (WH, p.198), compares it to the
satisfaction of living "heart to heart with nature" (WH, p.202): she
feels that she would never want to go back home. She even feels as if
"she never had been alive before she came to live at the farm" (WH,
p.198), before she mingled with the natural world. It is also
important to note that as a female she is identical with Nature, which
in the American literature is usually "spelled with a capital and
referred to as feminine" (Miller, p. 206). It is as well said to be
wild or, in other words, untouched. Thus it becomes obvious that the
girl, as a part of the natural world, and possessing the identical with
nature femininity and innoce! nce is perfectly integrated into the
artless system. This way she may be identified with nature as a
microcosm may be a representation of the macrocosm.
At the same time the boys in the story are shown as a threat to the
innocence and beauty of nature. For the first time the young hunter is
introduced to the readers by his whistle, which may be heard even
before he himself appears. S.O. Jewett meaningfully opposes this "boy^s
whistle" to a bird^s one ("which would have a sort of friendliness") by
describing it as "determined and somewhat aggressive" (WH, p.199).
Furthermore, when the boy finally appears on the path of the girl, he
is directly referred to as an "enemy" (WH, p.199) which is already a
much more significant and strong statement. The girl suspects the
danger hidden in the boy, who is described as "a young man, who carried
a gun over his shoulder" (WH, p. 199). Such descriptions from the very
first sight pronounce the hunter as an aggressor, walking with a gun ^
one of the multiple human inventions which serve subordination and
destruction of nature. Another boy mentioned in the story lives in the
girl^s urban pas! t, "in the noisy town" (WH, p.199). He is also
described in terms of danger and animosity: "the great red-faced boy
who used to chase and frighten her" (WH, p. 199). So far, it is
absolutely clear that in this story the males represent the ugly
manifestations of Civilization, which Perry Miller in his critical work
Errand into the Wilderness calls "a fundamental opposition to Nature"
Further into the story S.O. Jewett proves this American belief by
opposing the girl to the hunter, who as we said represent the two
contradictory sides. The girl in description of her grandmother is
loving and caring, whom all "the wild creatur^s counts ^ one o^
themselves. Squir^ls she^ll tame to come an^ feed right out o^ her
hands, and all sorts of birds" (WH, p.200). At the same time, the boy
is the one who comes to destroy or, in other words, to kill: "I have
been hunting for some birds," he says, and later, describing his
collection of birds, he proudly says that he has "shot or snared
everyone [himself]" (WH, p.201). Listening to this words, Sylvia is
caught into an insoluble dilemma: she can not understand "why he killed
the very birds he loved so much" (WH, p.201). It is in Perry Miller^s
work Errand into the Wilderness where we find the answer to this
impasse. The critic sensibly claims that people like the young hunter,
the newcomers into the wild America, "had no!
qualms about doing harm to nature by thrusting civilization upon it.
They "reasoned in terms of wealth, comfort, amenities, power" (WH,
p.207), the terms which are obviously "utilitarian," those of the
users who barely think of the damage they cause to the environment.
At the same time, the innocent little girl, who knows "the satisfaction
of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the
forest" (WH, p.202) can not agree to such an utilitarian position. When
the young man offers money to one who can show him where the habitation
of the white heron ("I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show
it to me" (WH, p.201), the girl, though very poor, does not sell him
the bird^s secret. "No, she must keep her silence!" (WH, p.204) ^ she
will not "tell the heron^s secret and give his life away" (WH, p.205)
because for her every part of nature is her element, her world, and her
life. She gives up all riches of "the great world" (WH, p.204) and the
friendship of the young hunter for the sake of her mother ^ Nature.
Thus the clash of Nature with Civilization is developed to the full
throughout the story: opposing little Sylvia and the hunter the author
draws a kin opposition between "forest and town, spontaneity and
calculation! , heart and head, the unconscious and the self-conscious,
the innocent and the debauched." (Miller, p.208).
The regional short story "A White Heron" is one of the multiple
discussions of the American theme ^ confrontation of wild
American Nature with the new-coming European civilization.
Through the seemingly simple plot where a country girl and the
wild birds are disturbed by the evil town boys S.O. Jewett
indirectly implies her discontent with the destruction of the
natural world by the scientific utilitarianism. Though not
offering any solution to the situation, the author achieves the
bright vividness of this theme by the implication of the
generally accepted American belief that the aggressive
masculine figure of civilization remains a constant danger to
the gentle femininity of nature. With all this, the authors
attempt is to bewail the simplicity of the rosy past, the
innocence of the uncivilized forests, and the beauty of
friendship of humans with nature which irretrievably flow away
through the greedy fingers of civilization.
1 . All references to Miller refer to Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness.
2 . All references to WH refer to Jewett, S. O. "A White Heron".
1 . Jewett, S. O. "A White Heron." New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. 197-205
2 . Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness (Chapter IX). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 204-216
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