A White Heron and Other Stories

Major Themes

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Outsiders

Sylvia in ‘A White Heron’ has come from the town but is easily subsumed in to country life. In contrast the hunter remains the outsider as his ways of appreciating nature are to capture and destroy it. The hunter assumes that the offer of money will make the girl give up the secret of the heron’s nest. He does not appreciate that she is bound closer to the birds than him, and he is not part of her world.

The gray man is regarded with suspicion from his arrival. He has an ‘unusual pallor’ and is suspected of being a ‘fugitive from justice’. His kind actions and advice are viewed ‘supernatural’ and his presence is ‘chilling’. The narrative implies that he is ‘unsmiling Death’, trying to be accepted in the community.

Nancy Lane chooses to remain an outsider in her husband’s life when she finally tracks him down to the new life he has made for himself in Shediac. She had decided to challenge him about his deception and ‘call Jerry Lane to account’. However, when she sees him with his new partner and his child, she ‘crept away again’. Her decision means that she accepts being ‘a widow indeed’. As her situation is known by Mrs. Elton, Nancy has become ‘shamed, disgraced and wronged,’

The Dulham ladies, Miss Dobin and Miss Lucinda, are tragic figures in that they do not realise that they are no longer part of popular society, but ridiculed by it. Their pompous and misguided attempts to offer ‘social education’ and then to ‘observe the fashions of the day’ serve to show their detachment from true society.

In ‘A Business Man’, John Craven has been part of a successful business, but illness and the death of his wife have left him detached from his former desires and motivations. He adopts a new persona, Mr. Brown, and revels in helping Mr. Chellis and Miss Brooks build their lives and business together. He becomes a catalyst to their happiness, having paid little attention to his own until it was too late.

Mary and Martha Deans are isolated in the location of their house and by their lack of family contact. It is Mary’s idea to invite their cousin, which rekindles the family unity. In addition, the renewed relationship brings the sisters a link with the society which they have become distanced from. With access to a sewing machine, they are able to work competitively and secure their futures a little more readily.

Nature versus Society

Although Sylvia is initially tempted by the money and the hunter's jack-knife gift, she cannot be bought with his money. Her life with the birds and other creatures of the woods is much more valuable to her. Sylvia is happy that she has left her life in the town, and has no desire to go back.

The people around him reject the gray man, as he appears to create a sense of ‘strange foreboding’. He has an accepted closeness to the natural environment, as he is able to tame wild birds, which ‘come to his call.’

Polly Finch is able to harness and work with nature to make her family farm successful. She is able to make the farm sustainable and productive. She receives some criticism for her decision to take over the farming rather than pursue her teaching plans, but is admired by the wiser elements of the community: ‘Everything seemed to grow that she touched, and it was as if the strength of her own nature was like a brook’.

The story ‘Marsh Rosemary’ compares Nancy Lane to the resilient and sturdy bush. She is shown to have depth and heart, ‘the gray primness of the plant is made up of a hundred colors if you look close enough. The plant, like Nancy, ‘stands in her own place’ and is to be warmed by ‘the same sun’ as her more beautiful counterparts.

Innocence versus Experience

Sylvia is initially repulsed, then bewitched by the ‘handsome stranger’ who offers money for the location of the heron’s nest. She initially wants to please, but when communing with the birds in the high pine tree she realises that she will keep their secret. She is so like them, in her ‘gray eyes’ and gentle understanding, that she will forego the adventure in to the world of womanly desires to remain a child of nature.

The gray man is regarded as suspicious partly due to his wisdom in many areas. He is able to offer guidance to the community on crop rotation, cattle disease, housekeeping, and child rearing. His knowledge is part of what makes him a figure of mistrust, because ‘his horizon was wider than their own.’

Miss Dobin and Miss Lucinda see themselves as sophisticated and educated ladies of the day, whilst in reality they are outdated and blinkered in their outlook. They believe they are ‘ladies’, treated with respect by the French hairpiece salesman who changes their lives, whereas those around them see ‘blessed innocents.’

Mr. Craven is a partner in Mr. Chellis’ business and is actively involved in its success. He has brought his skills and acumen to support his new associate but gains as much as he gets from the union: ‘It was surprising how his youthful zest and ambition seemed, for a time, to return.’ Mr. Craven feels valued and useful for his skill and knowledge, rather than just revered for his name and reputation.

Gender Roles

Polly Finch manages to become Farmer Finch, transcending the title, which indicates her gender and marital status (Miss) to gain a reputation in society based on her skill. Polly initially says that she wishes she ‘had been a boy,’ but begins to realise that her gender is not a barrier to success when she has the support of her family and ‘firm friends’ around her.

Nancy Lane was revealed to be self-sufficient when she was Ann Lloyd, unmarried seamstress. She marries Jerry Lane to stave off loneliness, but ends up supporting him too. She carries on resolutely when she receives news of his death, and acts with gracious respect when she discovers his new family. Nancy remains strong through all the trials that her marriage brings, and maintains her dignity though her heart is broken.

Change and Time

The summer that Polly Finch dedicates to her family farm is to change her forever. ‘She said over and over again that she never should be happier than she had been that summer’. She becomes defined in the title of the story by her achievements during this time. Interestingly though, the elderly Mrs. Wall tells Polly that her decision to run the farm is not a new one: she explains that her cousin had done a similar thing years before – ‘They used to call her Farmer Allen.’ It appears that such innovation in women was not new, just not recorded: a theme prevalent in Jewett’s own observations as a writer.

Ann Lloyd is conscious of time passing when she decides that she should accept Jerry Lane’s advances, emphasised by the symbol of the kitchen clock ‘ticking faster than usual.’ She knows he is ‘shiftless and vacillating’ and her opinion is simply compounded over time and her marriage is clearly a ‘mistake.’ She chooses to be seen as a ‘widow’ rather than destroy his new life, and will manage, as before, alone.

The Dulham ladies revel in being called ‘young ladies’ by the French shopkeeper, and they respond with ‘girlish’ actions. As they have remained single and inexperienced, their points of reference are in the past and they rely on the codes and attitudes of a bygone age. Their adherence to past fashions and their reliance on tales of their ancestors isolates them from society, yet their inability to interact and engage realistically with those around them leads to their fashion statement ‘that has set the clock back forty years or more.’ They become a sad relic of the past, accepted as they are by those who care for the ‘innocent Christian babes.’

John Craven was feeling redundant from his own business after his illness meant his son successfully took over the running of the company. He feels he is treated as ‘an old woman’, emasculated and, after the death of his wife and the emotional distance from his children, alone. He is given a new lease of life in working with the ‘fresh faced’ William Chellis who thrives on his advice. John Craven recalls ‘the old grandfather who had trained him used to sit on a high stool.’ He becomes this figure in the life of William Chellis.

Mary and Martha Deans are being left behind by society as they age and their hand sewing skills are in less demand. As they live out of town, and times are hard, they have to think carefully about their future, as ‘they could not go out to work much longer’. The promise of the sewing machine from their cousin will bring them up to date in their industry.

The Color Gray

The color gray appears in many of the stories. Sylvia from ’A White Heron’ has ‘shining gray eyes and watches the hawks with ‘gray feathers …’as soft as moths’ as she climbs the great pine tree. The second story cataloguing Death’s attempts to be accepted in society refers to him as ‘The Gray Man’. In ‘Farmer Finch’, Polly’s return from the unsuccessful teacher interview is heralded by a sky that was ‘gray and heavy’. Her waiting mother is ‘not a little gray’ after her hard life. When the Dulham ladies are trying to decide on the location of the garter belonging to the eminent Knights of the Garter, Miss Lucinda’s gray sock is used to illustrate her theory. They also recall their father’s wig, which was increasingly sprinkled with gray to suggest natural ageing. The ladies’ gray eyebrows’ offer a ridiculous contrast to their chestnut hairpieces. Mary and Martha contemplate the ‘gray sky’ outside their isolated home.

It is in the story ‘Marsh Rosemary’ that the use of gray as a symbol is explained. Ann Lane’s hair is ‘streaked with gray’ by the time that she finds that her husband is not dead, and she wears a gray bonnet when she goes to challenge him. The story concludes with the narrator revealing that the marsh rosemary plant appears gray but it is in fact ‘made up of a hundred colors if you look close enough to find them.’ This quotation is important for understanding Jewett’s use of gray as illustrating not dullness, but depth in the characters it is connected to.

Moral and Social Education

Each of the stories is told by an omniscient narrator, which gives the impression that they are presented as illustrative anecdotes to deliver a moral or social message. ‘A White Heron’ reminds the reader of the value of nature and its fragility, at a time when conservation to protect endangered species was not featuring large on the social agenda. ‘The Gray Man’ reminds us of the close proximity of Death, and the gentler benefits of this usually ‘black’ figure. ‘Farmer Finch’ encourages us to think beyond gender stereotypes in to the scope of the individual, and ‘Marsh Rosemary’ warns of the effects of trusting a ‘shiftless’ individual and giving them one’s heart. ‘The Dulham Ladies’ show us the dangers of looking back instead of forward and ‘A Business Man’ illustrates the need to value more than just money. Finally, ‘Mary and Martha’ show that family rifts – however ancient – can be healed, and kindness is often to everyone’s advantage.