“A White Heron,” a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett depicts and allows the reader to explore the loss of innocence individual’s go through both spiritually and physically. Jewett fills the story with symbolism that captures Sylvia’s lapsarian fall and her own personal discoveries about life, humanity, and goodness. This is not to be mistaken for simply a story of a girl entering into sexual awareness; it is also about the defilement of nature by man as represented by the ornithologist and Sylvia, and the moral struggles with the coming of age of a young girl.
The story follows Sylvia’s journey into experience—a symbolic movement into adulthood, where it is assumed Sylvia would eventually shed her earnest desire to hide in nature, but Sylvia is also symbolic of nature itself. The name Sylvia comes from the Latin silva meaning “wood or forest”1. Therefore, she is not only comfortable within nature, but also symbolic of nature itself. This is shown within the text when she is referred to as a “little woods-girl” and her grandmother tells the ornithologist that no one knows the woods as well as Sylvia: “there ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creaturs count her one o’ themselves” (Jewett 2-3). The journey is not Sylvia’s but Nature’s, and both will lose their innocence because of the appearance of the ornithologist, a man who represents humanity and society.
Sylvia begins her journey in a manufacturing town but fails to “grow” until she moves to her grandmother’s farm (Jewett 1). Jewett compares her directly to nature, showing her as a “wretched geranium” that was kept by a neighbor in town (Jewett 1). Once away from the pressures of society, she becomes more alive, and her grandmother comes to the conclusion that Sylvia must be “afraid of folks” (Jewett 1-2).
The safety and comfort Sylvia feels in nature are shown further through her companionship with the cow and her attempt to hide in the bushes when she hears the ornithologist’s whistle. Both the cow and the bushes are significant in their symbolism. Cows are symbolic of both Mother Earth and fertility. In her companionship with the cow, the reader sees Sylvia as both one with nature and on the verge of her sexual awakening3. The huckleberry bushes representative of faith and allude to the Christian idea of purity through the protection of Faith (). However, Sylvia fails to reach the bushes before the ornithologist sees her, a foreshadow of Sylvia’s fall: “…she was just too late. The enemy had discovered her, and called out in a very cheerful and persuasive tone…” (Jewett 2).
Sylvia, only nine, struggles with her feelings toward the ornithologist. She feels a strong connection to nature, to the secret place that has kept her safe for so long, and she seems startled by the idea of a man “…the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (Jewett 4). As Sylvia tries to slowly accustom herself to the ornithologist’s intrusion in to...