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December 5, 2012

A White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett- Summary

A White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett- Summary

A White Heron is the title story of Sarah Orne Jewett's collection of stories A White Heron and Other Stories, published in 1886.

Should a young girl, who lives in the forest, tell a handsome hunter where the allusive white heron is, so that he can kill it and add it to his collection, or should she protect the bird's (and ultimately the rest of the forest's) spirit?

One June evening, a young girl named Sylvia was leading her cow "Mistress Moolly" home for the night when she heard a whistle. She was immediately put on edge; Sylvia was very shy, and she had a tendency to ostracize herself from others. When Sylvia heard the whistle she decided to hide amongst the bushes, but she was too late. The whistler saw her and asked her how far it was to the road; Sylvia's answer was almost inaudible. The whistler was a tall young man, who carried a shotgun. Sylvia continued to walk home and both the young man and the cow followed behind her. He asked for her name, and then he told her that he had been hunting in the woods for some birds and had lost his way. He asked her if she thought it would be alright if he stayed at her house that night. She shook as she told him that her name was Sylvy.

When the trio arrived at their destination Sylvia's grandmother "Mrs. Tilley" was standing in the doorway. Mrs. Tilley gladly allowed the stranger to stay the night. Mrs. Tilley and the young man spent most of the night talking while Sylvia just sat there and listened to them. Mrs. Tilley told him that Sylvia knew these parts like the back of her hand, and there wasn't any creature round there that she couldn't tame, which interested him greatly. He told them that he was collector of rare birds and that there were a few that he had yet to catch, stuff, and mount. He told them that he was currently hunting a white heron that he had seen in the area, and that he hoped Sylvia could help him find it. Sylvia had seen that bird on the other side of the woods, but she remained silent. He offered to give her ten dollars if she helped him find it, but she said nothing.

The following day she followed the young man as he strolled through the woods. She no longer feared him as she had the day before although she still did not speak unless spoken to first. He taught her many things about birds that day, and he even gave her a jack-knife, which pleased her greatly. She admired him very much, but she didn't understand why he killed the things that he seemed to love so much.

There was an old pine tree; the last of its kind in these parts, about a half a mile from Mrs. Tilley's home and it was there that Sylvia decided to go. She wanted to climb to the top of the tree at the break of day, so that she could see where the white heron's nest was located. She lay awake all night and rose early the next morning. She snuck out of the house and made her way to the great tree, which stood far above all the others. The pine tree's lower branches were too high for her to reach, so she climbed up the white oak tree that grew alongside the pine tree. Once she reached the oak's upper branches she crossed over to the pine tree's branches. The branches of the tree were dry and scratched her as she climbed; her bare feet clung to the tree like that of a wild animal. The sky grew lighter and lighter as dawn began to break. Finally, she reached the top and was able to see the ocean and the surrounding towns from her perch. She looked back towards the marsh where she had once seen the heron, and like a dream she saw the white bird rise up from there and fly towards her. The heron landed on a branch near to her; she stood statuesque in the presence of this magnificent creature afraid that she might spook it. He only stayed for a moment then returned from whence he came. Sylvia's tired and scraped-up body descended the tree and went home.


Jewett, Sarah Orne. "A White Heron." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories . Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford: New York: 1992. 118-128.

White Heron Image
Photograph of a Heron in Cuba. Photograph taken by Charlesjsharp and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).