A White Heron and Other Stories

A White Heron and Other Stories Summary and Analysis of 'Farmer Finch'


It is a bleak December day when John Finch returns home across the salt marshes. He has bad news, and the landscape seems to reflect his despair. At the same time, his daughter Polly returns home. She too carries disappointment, but is distracted by the sight of a barberry bush that ‘seemed to be glowing with rubies. Polly reflects on what she has seen and resolves that ‘there are two ways of looking at more things than barberry bushes.’

Mary Finch, Polly’s mother, waits anxiously for her family. She was formerly a determined and driven woman, but her luckless husband grinds her down. We are told of their sacrifices to keep Polly in education, and the ease with which Polly adapts to study with the prospect of becoming a teacher.

Polly has to inform her parents that even the teaching job at the local school has gone: having been offered to the district agent’s niece. This is a severe blow, as John Finch reveals that they have lost all their money as the bank has ‘failed’. He had not managed their property well, and a fire had destroyed the cleared wood he had hoped to sell. He is very worried about their future –‘I declare I don’t know how we shall get along.’

Polly resolves to turn her hand to farm work, explaining she will ‘help father same as if I were a boy.’ Mary Finch is initially sceptical, wanting Polly to take her ‘right place in the world.’ Polly shows her determination by doing the milking, which her father had forgotten.

Mr. Finch falls ill that night, and Polly goes for the doctor. On her way, she meets Jerry Winton, with whom ‘something almost like love-making had showed itself not long before.’ However, now she finds him rude and ignorant.

She reaches the elderly doctor and helps him with his horse. He has ‘a warm glow of admiration’ for Polly. Her father has ‘bad trouble about the heart’. Polly takes the news bravely and asserts her intent to save the farm – ‘I’d rather work with a hoe than a ferrule any day.’ Polly has observed the potential of the land, and she becomes adept at ‘farmkeeping’. The country doctor supports her endeavours with encouragement and a loan. Mrs. Winton, Jerry’s mother, appears the next day, ‘an unpleasant, croaking sort of woman.’ She gossips about her son courting another girl, but Polly puts her in her place:

‘If you mean Mary Hallet, she was married in September.’

John Finch and his family endure his ‘long, hard illness’ and ‘slow convalescence’. Polly manages the farm without the help of the Wintons, as ‘her quick instinct had detected an assumption of condescension and patronage’. Mary Finch is worried that her daughter has passed over the opportunity of ‘a home of her own’ but Polly is clear she has made the right choice, saying ‘I wouldn’t marry Jerry Winton if he was the President.’

Polly is well thought of in the community but she is also ‘lonely’. Old Mrs. Wall visits and Polly reveals her farming plans. Mrs. Wall is impressed, explaining about her own cousin who ‘used to run the farm, and lived well. They used to call her Farmer Allen.’ Mrs. Wall reminds Polly of the inevitableness of growing old’ and makes her more determined to succeed ‘I am going to be renowned as Farmer Finch’.

Mr. Finch begins to appreciate his daughter’s ‘power’, and he sees how it is possible to ‘do old work in new ways.’ The farm thrives under Polly’s care and she became ‘as happy as a queen.’ Two school friends who ‘caught the spirit and something of the enjoyment of her life’ visit her. Polly had her failures and disappointments, but paid back the loan from her ‘firm friend’ the old doctor and was out of debt by Thanksgiving. There is speculation in the town as to the seemliness of Polly’s farm life, but the doctor supports her. The omniscient narrator tells us that Polly ‘conquered circumstances’ rather than being ‘the victim of circumstances.’

At the end of the story, Polly sees her barberry bush was to be pulled up and destroyed. She digs the bush up and takes it home where she can contemplate it always – ‘when things look bad or troublesome.’


‘Farmer Finch’ is a neatly constructed story illustrating how one summer in Polly Finch’s life has changed her, and others’, perspective forever.

The story makes effective use of pathetic fallacy with the bleak December setting reflecting the depressing gait and demeanour of John Finch, as he returns with the news that the family is in serious financial strife. His surroundings are ‘frozen, windswept and beaten’. Jewett uses a harsh metaphor to describe the changing seasons: ‘no resurrection could follow such unmistakable and hopeless death.’

Pathetic fallacy is more subtly used as we are introduced to the character of Polly, John’s daughter. Polly also has bad news: she has not secured the last available teaching position so the investment in her education seems in vain. However, Polly views her barren position with a different point of view. Firstly, she approaches from ‘a different direction’, and this statement is a metaphor for her ability to adopt an altered perspective on her life and future than that of her family. She travels in the same harsh environment as her father, and at the same time. However, she sees ‘exquisitely delicate silhouettes,’ and the sun ‘shining out pleasantly’. Polly sees a barberry bush, a harsh, spiny shrub. On first glance, it is ‘gray and winterish’, but then ‘from the other side’ she is drawn to the bright berries, which are described as ‘rubies’. This metaphor indicates the wealth that can be found in the natural world and the treasure that is concealed in plain sight.

Mrs. Finch is revealed as a woman who ‘clung to her husband’s plans and purposes’ then, realising this was an unsatisfying approach, ‘began to live more and more in her daughter’s life.’ Mary Finch has chosen to live vicariously, and this does not give her comfort, though ‘she had borne her failing fortunes with perfect bravery.’

When the family’s dire straits are made clear, Polly decides to take action and adopt the role of a ‘boy’ in helping around the farm. We see the omniscient narrator’s admiration for this brave young woman, stepping outside the stereotype. ‘She made up her mind to be son and daughter both.’

Polly’s decision makes her immediately stronger. She dismissed her former beau Jerry, and his gloating mother, as they look negatively on her father’s situation: ‘She felt as if she had grown years older instead of hours.’ She has the presence of mind to see that the farm can provide a sustainable future for them. Her father had focused on destruction – the cutting of trees for wood, the killing of the cow for meat. Polly sees that the land has more potential than her father realised: ‘It seemed as if the farm was there only to feed us, and now I believe I can make it feed a good many people besides.’ Polly has more business acumen and skill than her father, and already feels like a ‘business woman’.

Mrs. Finch shows her allegiance to traditional values as she sees Polly should have ‘a home of her own.’ Polly is embarrassed by this, and this reminds us of her youthful innocence which contrasts with her sophisticated management of the farm.

The character of Mrs. Wall serves to illustrate to Polly that it is important to act positively before growing old. She also establishes to Polly and the reader that her actions in running the farm are courageous, but not unique, as she regales the story of her cousin, Farmer Allen, ‘as nice a woman as I ever knew.’ Polly in turn strives for the title of Farmer, illustrating her position rather than her gender or marital status as the titles Miss or Mrs. indicate. This is truly a liberal idea.

Polly manages to show her father her true strength and ingenuity; ‘Polly’s got power’, he observes. The use of alliteration in this phrase increases its effectiveness in highlighting her force to the reader. Her key influence is really to demonstrate that boldness and determination can win through.

She is greatly satisfied with her work, her success and her position. Polly retains her interest in academic pursuits, but she is captivated by her outdoor life. We see her life echoing that of the Romantic poets: there clearly a Wordsworthian touch in her outlook; ‘There is something delightful in keeping so close to growing things, and one gets a great sympathy with the life that is in nature.’

Those who know her admire Polly, and the elderly doctor becomes a ‘firm friend’. There is some speculation and mockery in the village amongst those ignorant of Polly as a person. Again, this illustrates that even those in the community who may have the reputation of being too traditional or narrow-minded could support such a bold feminist move. The doctor seems to have a resemblance to Jewett’s own father in his compassionate, understanding ways. He makes wise observations about Polly, which serve as stirring homilies to the reader-‘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.’

The voice of the omniscient narrator takes over for the final two paragraphs of the story. We see the admiration felt for Polly and her tenacity:’ she made the best of things, and conquered circumstances, instead of being what cowards call ‘the victim of circumstances.’ We are told that Polly sees the barberry bush again, about to be destroyed, and she takes it and plants it on her own property. The narrator indicates that Polly retains her wisdom and open-minded outlook, reminded by the symbol of the bush: ‘I suppose she will say to herself as long as she lives, when things look ugly and troublesome, “I’ll see if the other side is any better, like my barberry bush.’