Paradoxical Relation between Nature and Humanity: A White Heron
According to Silverthorne “Late twentieth-century ecologists have pointed to ‘A White Heron’ as one of the earliest stories with a theme of conservation…the incursions of civilization destroyed the American frontier, certain species of birds were threatened with extinction” (126). A White Heron, a classical, iconic work which represents the prevail of the conservation movement in nineteenth-century America, vividly depicted the long-debating issue–how to strike a balance between human interests and nature conservation acts? The reason why it has been difficult to implement the ideological thought is because there is a paradoxical relation between nature and humanity, which marked the difficulty to develop a harmonious balance between the developments of human activities and the preservation of nature.
In the short story, Sylvia, a young girl who lives with her grandmother, one day encounters a strange young man and was terrified by his whistle, which is different to the whistle of birds that she is familiar with–“Suddenly this little girl is horror-stricken…but a boy’s whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive” (Jewett 435). The excerpted line indicates that the young man is initially perceived by Sylvia as aggressive, peculiar, and even mysterious, whereas before long, Sylvia discovered that the young man is merely an ornithologist who is searching for a rarely-seen species–the white heron. She then developed affection to the young man, but she is simultaneously struggling about his brutal behavior, which he would kill the birds he encountered and possess the dead creatures as his specimen collection. This deed petrifies Sylvia, since her life is closely associated with the surrounding flora and fauna.
Although she could comprehend that the reason the young stranger decides to do so is to fulfill his objective of collecting what he is passionate about, Sylvia still cannot suppress her compassion toward the birds that were killed. Also, the young stranger proposes that if anyone could find him the white heron, he would offer 10 dollars for the person who assists him to complete his collection. Upon hearing the declaration, Sylvia is initially stunned and think it impossible for her to “betray” the nature she loves. Nevertheless, at the dead of night, she cannot resist but sneaks out the house and climbs the huge pine tree, a tree that she considers solemn, formidable, and divine. Sylvia does discover the location of the white heron, but astonishingly, even though she possesses the motive to identify the location of the mysterious creature, eventually, she refuses to answer where she has gone and what she has done.
The two main paradoxes in the story actually implies the issue which is in a larger scale–people sometimes are not intended to destroy nature and they are just in need of natural resources for different purposes, but the process of acquiring what they want would impose irreversible damage on nature; if people were tempted by great interests to betray nature, would they accept the reward even though it would do harm to nature? These dilemmas are embodied by the triangular relation between nature, Sylvia, and the young stranger, and further analysis of the paradoxical elements within would be demonstrated below.
To start with, the young stranger, whose name is not provided by the author, Sarah Orne Jewett, actually represents general people, who take utilizing natural resources for their own interests for granted, and barely think about the possible consequences to nature. The paradoxical point is that, people are not “intentional” to wreck the gift of nature, but we often perform the deeds that would do great harm to it without considering the potential threat against it. To illustrate, numerous straws are used throughout the world per day for all kinds of purposes; nevertheless, if not recycled properly, this plastic product would do great harm to wild life. Despite the potential threat to animals, most citizens are still unaware of its fatality, and keep producing waste of such product. Aside from the behavior of the young man, he himself actually symbolizes the “intrusion of civilization” to the nature (forest, as depicted in A White Heron). Initially, the stranger (human civilization) is not intruding the nature for destroying it, but what he has done does embodied the status quo what humanity is imposing on nature. The presence of the young stranger may somehow provokes the reader to reconsider the result of industrialization–advancing development does grant human a more convenient and modern life, but does it guarantee a steady, harmonious life between human and nature?
Moving on, Sylvia, a figure who struggles through the whole plot, whose name originally means “spirit of the wood” in Latin, serves as an inter-figure in the complicated triangular relation. As the aforementioned fact that Sylvia is strongly associated with the forest, a natural environment, she herself is in the intersection between civilization and primitive nature. She possesses rationality and reason, which are distinctive traits of humanity, but also refuses to abandon her special bond with the forest. Brault has once stated that it is the “nonintrusive attentiveness” that distinguishes Sylvia from the ornithologist, for she has chosen not to reveal the white heron’s location, but still struggles in the paradoxical situation (229). This quandary features the collision of the desire of getting the reward, which symbolizes the material pleasure, and her compassion toward nature, whose presence has long accompanied her through her life.
Furthermore, Sylvia’s interaction with the young stranger is also depicted in two contradicting means as well. As mentioned above, she is afraid and vigilant when she first meets the ornithologist, whereas before long, his pure passion and perseverance moved her, and she even develops affection toward him. It is plausible that the affection may serve as the momentum for Sylvia to climb the formidable pine tree. Even though conquering the tree is once considered impossible by Sylvia, she still does not hesitate much, but relentlessly decided to do so. Eventually, this affection is not intense enough to suppress her love toward nature, while such decision is depicted through the line “…Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret [location] and give its life away [to the young man]” (Jewett 440). Despite the initial deeds she has done, she chooses not to accomplish the last step of acquiring what she has once craved for–the material pleasure and the possible romantic feedback from the young man. In a nutshell, Sylvia is actually a pendulum swinging through the nature and the ornithologist, back and forward, without noticing the potential drives that have triggered her actions, and struggling to make a decision, for she still thinks of the young man after she refuses to tell him the secret of the white heron.
Last but not least, although portrayed in a rather neutral way, “nature” in A White Heron has its paradoxical value as well–nature is amiable while unconquerable. To illustrate, Sylvia has developed intimate bonds with the creatures in the forest, but in the meantime, she respects nature with awe, for she considers climbing the pine tree a fatal task, and afraid of walking along in the forest after the dusk. Establishing the settings of nature would affect the atmosphere of the plot, and then on influence the mood of the reader. Jewett utilizes the kaleidoscopic form of nature, mingling the contradictory features of nature into a balanced narrating tone, and make the coexistence of amiability and formidability become the fundamental paradox that underlies through the whole story.
In Sylvia and the young ornithologist’s relationship, nature occupies a significant role as well. Take the great pine tree and the mysterious white heron as examples: The former gives Sylvia an opportunity to attain what she has been longing for from the young man, but the higher she climbs, the more she is restored in her connection with nature (Held 64). On the other hand, the rarely seen creature is the fantasy of the young stranger, that he is willing to devote the material pleasure (money) he has earned to exchange “a segment of nature.” No matter how hard he searches for the white heron, he still has not seen any trace of it so far. This phenomenon may indicate that individual interest will eventually fail to collectiveness of nature; that is, possessing great property from the industrialized “modern world” would not be granted a direct access to intrude the Eden-like nature.
In conclusion, A White Heron indeed has covered comprehensive topics such as conservation movement in nineteenth century America, feminism, and even Jewett’s own life story. Nevertheless, the collective underlying theme is the paradoxical relation between nature and humanity which extends the incident of searching for a white heron into deeper discussions. Sylvia, the young man, and nature all possess their paradoxical features, and this premise then develops into the “surface relationship” that we can see in this work. Readers are informed that Sylvia is a girl who is close to nature, and the young man is a researcher who wishes to find the specific bird and “tame” it. But the role of nature in A White Heron helps readers to discover deeper in the representative characters, while nature itself enhances the complexity of the interpretation of the story. Finally, it is unfair to arbitrarily declare that how a character is in A White Heron, since the paradoxical elements within the plot is the true precious value in this iconic literary masterpiece.
Brault, Robert Joseph. Writing Wilderness Conserving, Preserving, and Inhabiting the Land in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Thesis (Ph.D) University of Minnesota, 2000.
Held, George. “Heart to Heart with Nature: Ways of Looking at ‘A White Heron.’” Colby Quarterly, vol. 18, issue 1, 1982, pp. 64.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, shorter 9th ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2017, pp. 434–41.
Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer’s Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1998, pp.126.
 Vernon, Rob. Straw or No Straw: How Our Choices Impact Aquatic Wildlife One Straw at a Time. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. November 15, 2018.