Closer Readings Commentary

Spying for “A White Heron”

Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer−time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child.—“A White Heron”

June is the perfect month to discover “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett. Set in in rural Maine at the end of the nineteenth century, this short story, a seamless example of a local color narrative, is also a universal tale of female coming-of-age that transcends place and time.


Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) was an American writer who hailed from South Berwick, Maine. Born into a well-established New England family, she enjoyed a comfortable childhood in the countryside, which would later contribute to her capacity as a “local color” writer.

Jewett’s work found a focus on the environment and the communities of southern Maine, to which she was extremely attached. Her fiction is branded by intimate views of her rural Yankee characters, unspoiled by city influences. They reflect characteristics that exemplify native New Englanders, such as common sense, acceptance of hardship, frugality, and a deep connection to the natural world. Much of Jewett’s writing is peppered with subtle humor and dry wit.

Often heralded as a feminist writer, Jewett never married. She supported herself financially by writing, an option that had opened up for women by the late nineteenth-century. She became kindred spirits with the writer Annie Fields, widow of the editor of The Atlantic. Together, they traveled extensively and interacted with literary circles in Europe. Jewett’s creativity flourished in that arena.

“A White Heron”

While Jewett's novels were well received, critics generally agree that her short fiction represents her most important literary accomplishment. The White Heron and Other Stories collection was published in 1886. In it, Jewett employed a flexible narrative structure of the “sketch” to create sensitive, realistic depictions of specific characters, customs, and places. This genre is more flexible and less dependent on traditional conventions of plotting and structure than the novel. It enabled Jewett to experiment with narrative forms that do not follow predictable linear patterns.

“A White Heron” begins: “The forest was full of shadows as a little girl hurried through it one summer evening in June. It was already eight o'clock and Sylvie wondered if her grandmother would be angry with her for being so late.” It ends with a question to the reader: “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been—who can tell?” In between those bookends, we follow Sylvie into the Maine woods and enter the psyche of a girl on the brink of adolescence. Ultimately, we are left to wonder about the choice she makes. Would we have done the same?

This unconventional narrative is rife with late nineteenth-century America dichotomies—rural/urban; female/male; and nature/civilization. It straddles the gulf between a child/adult worldview as it turns the traditional female initiation story on its ear. We are offered a glimpse a heron’s secret nesting place while witnessing a young girl’s initial awakening to romantic attraction (“the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.”) A major dilemma must be resolved when emotional needs clash with personal values. How she arrives at a solution will resonate with students grappling with their own mature choices.

“A White Heron” appears on the list of Common Core State Standard English Language Arts exemplar texts for grades 9–10.

Close Reading

EDSITEment’s student interactive Launchpad: “A White Heron”: A Common Core exemplar, provides excerpts from the original text and offers English Language Arts students a guide through an independent close reading. This resource includes selected websites with valuable background information.

Aligns with CCSS Anchor Standard for ELA-Reading Literacy. CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

After unlocking the central themes in the text, the Launchpad invites students to try their hand at expository and creative writing that directly align with CCSS Writing Standards. A few of these activities are summarized here:

  • Compare the idyllic opening paragraphs of Rachel Carson’s Silent Springto theopening passage of “A White Heron” and identify the similarities/differences in the two texts along with an analysis of how each relays its author’s message.

    Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9.a: Apply grades 11–12 Reading standards to literature.
  • Study the habits of the white heron (also known as the great egret) to consider why the author may have selected this type of bird for the story.

    Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • Write a creative narrative modeling the style of Jewett. Set the story in the near or distant future with the main character, Sylvia as a teenager or an adult. Consider how her additional life experience may or may not lead to a different conclusion for the story.

    Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3.b: Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.