“John Finch was a cheerful man naturally, and very sure of the success of his plans.” In reality, John Finch is an ailing and unsuccessful farmer. He has made poor use of his land and is struck by a heart condition when he discovers that he has lost all of his money due to a bank failure. He has supported his wife Mary and their daughter Polly to this point. Polly had been allowed to stay at school and John cites this as one of the causes of their debt. He is both childlike (his wife sees him as “boyish”) and, with “the manner and faults of an elderly and unsuccessful man.” John’s daughter Polly runs the farm during his “long hard illness” and “slow convalescence.” He is skeptical at first, but sees she is able to do what he could not.
Sylvia is the nine-year-old granddaughter of Mrs. Tilley, and is the protagonist in the story, “A White Heron.” She is a young girl removed from the restrictive and uncomfortable town, who revels in the joys of the freedom of farm and country life. A stranger, an ornithologist who hunts and collects birds, visits her world of natural innocence. He wishes to use Sylvia’s knowledge of the bird life to help him track and kill a white heron for his collection. He offers her ten dollars for her help. Sylvia considers the offer but chooses to remain loyal to the birds rather than betray them to the young man.
An ornithologist, the hunter tries to convince the young Sylvia to lead him to the nest of the rare white heron so he can kill and add it to his collection. He seems unmoved by the fact that his collection of these creatures involves killing them. As a town dweller, he measures value through possessions and money. His lack of natural compassion is symbolized by his gun, and the jack-knife he gives to Sylvia. Though tempted, Sylvia does not reveal the place of the heron to him.
Mrs. Tilley is Sylvia’s grandmother. She has brought her granddaughter out of the busy town to live with her, as the child is “afraid of folks.” Mrs. Tilley appreciates her granddaughter’s help, especially with the wayward cow. She is proud of Sylvia’s understanding of animals. Mrs. Tilley is generous and hospitable, offering the stranger a place to stay.
The Gray Man
Originally described as “a stranger” with a pale complexion, the gray man is initially believed to have an unusual past, and possibly a “fugitive from justice.” His good deeds and helpful ways see him accepted in to the community, but many are suspicious and wary of him, as he seems “supernatural.” The gray man leaves the community but is seen later, on the battlefield. He is believed by the farm boy who last sees him to be “unsmiling Death.”
Mary is the wife of John Finch, and mother of Polly. She had been seen as a woman of potential, which has slowly faded into her hard life: ‘Mary directed her ‘pride and ambition’ to her husband’s ‘plans and purposes’ but as he becomes increasingly less successful Mary ‘begins to live more and more in her daughter’s life.’
Mary is full of fortitude: She was a kind, simple-hearted, good woman, this elder Mary Finch, and she had borne her failing fortunes with perfect bravery’ though her trials have aged her. Her husband notes that ‘his wife looked old, and her face was grayish, and the lines of it were hard and drawn in strange angles.’ She is initially unhappy at her daughter’s decision to take over the farm, saying ‘I want you to be somebody, Polly, and take your right place in the world.” She would like her daughter to have the choices she did not.
Polly or ‘Farmer’ Finch is a ‘bright, good-natured girl of about twenty’. Polly is ‘friendly and social by nature’. She is a determined and visionary young lady, who notes that ‘there are two ways of looking’ when faced with a situation. She is a bright girl whose parents have supported her to stay at school to become a teacher. She is despondent at not getting a teaching job and, when told her family are in debt and her father is ill, Polly decides to take over the family farm. ‘I’m going to help father same as if I was a boy.’ Polly is excited and energised by her new challenge. She shows her determination in her plans for the farm, and is supported by the elderly doctor who tends her father. She is offered help by Jerry Minton, a former beau, but has the strength to manage alone: ‘She was as happy as a queen.’
Polly matures greatly over the summer she successfully runs the farm: ‘Her own character had made as good a summer’s growth as anything on her farm’ She is admired by the narrator as a girl who ‘conquered circumstances, instead of being what cowards call the victim of circumstances.’
Mrs. Minton, Jerry Minton’s mother. She is described as ‘an unpleasant, croaking sort of woman’ who suggests to Polly that Jerry has been courting another girl. She is simply being cruel to Polly when her fortunes are low.
Jerry Minton was a former companion of Polly Finch: ‘it was between Jerry Minton and herself that something almost like love-making had showed itself not long before.’ He offers support to Polly once he realizes that the bank failure will have affected her father’s affairs. He is unsubtle and direct, and angers Polly with his ‘condescension and patronage’. Jerry is surprised at her rejection.
An elderly neighbor who visits Mr. Finch and gives Polly Finch some wise advice. She tells Polly about her niece, who ran her farm after her husband was killed in the war. She gives Polly the idea for the title she adopts. Mrs. Wall also illustrates ‘the inevitableness of growing old’ and she inspires Polly to make something of the farm and use her talents well. She also illustrates to the reader that such radical actions as a woman running a farm are not new, and can be accepted by even those most firmly rooted in the past.
The Old Doctor
The old doctor supports Polly Finch in her efforts to support her family by running the farm. He recommends a ‘strong country boy’ to help her with her labors. He is ‘Polly’s firm friend…as fond of her as if she were his own daughter. Polly trusts him and accepts the private loan he offers, repaying him in the summer. He offers her a loan for the subsequent year too as he sees that she has really made the best of her situation: ‘I have found that people who look at things as they are, and not as they wish them to be, are the ones who succeed.’
Husband of Nancy Floyd. Jerry is a dreamer and philanderer: ‘True enough, he was good-looking, but that did not atone for the lacks of his character and reputation.’ He complains constantly of his wife’s expectations on him, and finally they are both relieved when he goes to sea again. His wife is told that he has gone down with his ship. The truth is revealed some years later that he had jumped ship and was living with another woman, by whom he had a child.
Ann Lloyd /Nancy Lloyd/Nancy Lane
Nancy (or Ann as she is also called) is a self-sufficient woman; ‘hard, honest kindly’ but also ‘a lonely soul.’ She accepts the courtship of Jerry Lane despite knowing of his wayward reputation and idle ways. She is mocked for her decision to marry Jerry, but she ‘cherished him tenderly.’ She is pleased when he chooses to go to sea. Over time, she misses him and when told of his death at sea ‘there was not a sadder nor a lonelier woman in Walpole.’ She is however, more distressed to discover that her husband is in fact alive and living with another woman. She is filled with ‘smoldering rage’ and seeks him out. However, she resolves not to ‘break another heart’ when she sees Jerry with his new wife and baby.
A known hypochondriac, Mrs. Elton judges Nancy Floyd harshly for her foolish marriage to Jerry Lane. It is she who prophesizes that Nancy’s bereavement is not the end of the trouble caused by Jerry Lane. Mrs Elton is the person who gloatingly reveals that Jerry is not dead, but living in another town with another woman.
Miss (Harriet) Dobin
Elder of the Dobin sisters, she is generally encouraged in to word and action by her sister, Miss Lucinda, though she takes the initiative to enter the Frenchman’s wig store. She is deemed the one cultured enough to share her understanding of French with the merchant and offered ‘a gracious Bong-sure’. She, like her sister, is a tragic figure stuck in the past, though accepted for their ‘innocence’ by the community around them. She is determined to ‘hold the standard of cultivated mind and elegant manners.’
Miss Lucinda (Dobin)
The younger and most outspoken of the Dobin sisters, Lucinda is a little more perceptive than her sister is. She is able to see that their position in society is waning, ‘Perhaps they were getting a little dull.’ Miss Lucinda acknowledges the ‘sad secret’ of the sisters’ hair loss. She is not perceptive enough, however, to see that they are very much behind ‘the fashions of the day.’
John Craven from ‘A Business Man’ is an ageing professional who has focused on his business affairs throughout his life. His first love was money – ‘the thought of his thousands and hundred thousands.’ He had been driven to think ‘little of his personal relation to society, and still less of his relation to the next world.’ However, after an illness, then the death of his wife, Mr. Craven becomes conscious of his lack of influence in the changing business now managed effectively by his son. Mr. Craven finds a new lease of live in anonymously mentoring William Chellis, and supporting him with both his business and his personal life.
A young shopkeeper who pities the unkempt ‘Mr. Brown’ who is really John Craven the successful businessman. Chellis is grateful that the old man agrees to go into business with him, and it is presented as a great benefit to both of them. With Craven’s financial backing, Chellis makes enough to marry his sweetheart, Miss Brooks.
Fiancée to William Chellis. She takes kindly Mr. Craven and mends his coat. She is as surprised as her husband when Mr. Craven’s identity, and legacy to them, is revealed.
The kind and gentle Dean sister, who decides that they should advance some hospitality to the Dean’s cousin, John Whitefield, for Thanksgiving. Mary is devoted to her sister and is recognized as a charitable and affectionate soul. Mary enjoys the occasion and is very pleased that their cousin offers them a sewing machine.
Martha is the harsher but more practical of the Dean sisters. She is a strong woman, who initially does not understand her sister’s desire to entertain their cousin. She is the more active lady, who writes to invite John Whitefield and prepares the best meal they can offer. She is delighted that Mary’s impulse is so well received by their cousin that he offers them a sewing machine.
John Whitefield is the cousin of the Dean sisters. He was close to them as a child, and has recently lost his wife. He quickly becomes ‘warm friends’ with Mary and has his coat mended by Martha. He responds by offering them his wife’s sewing machine as a gesture of thanks.
A White Heron and Other Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A White Heron and Other Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.