Symbolism and Themes in Jewett's A White Heron and Hemingway Big Two-Hearted River


Sarah Orne Jewett and Ernest Hemingway both use nature to develop the main characters in their short stories. True meaning in the charaters’ lives, as well as sanctuary and guidance to inner peace through nature are common qualities shared in work by each author, though their stories were written a century apart.

Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron”

In Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” the main character Sylvia is a young girl who seeks refuge in the desolate wilderness of Maine. Afraid of people, and brought to the wilderness by her grandmother, she escapes the crowded manufacturing town she had lived in the previous eight years of her life. Everyone notices an improvement in her well-being but “as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm” (Jewett, 250). Sylvia loves nature, and the only thing she misses from back home is “a wretched dry geranium that belonged to a town neighbor” (Jewett, 250).

Sylvia had been unable to embrace society or make friends with her peers, and she still remembers with fear a boy, “the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her” (250), from the crowded town in which she used to live. She befriends animals; not humans, and it is therefore when she initially hears a whistle on her walk home she sees it “not a bird’s whistle which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy’s whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive” (250).

This whistle represents Sylvia’s fear of people in general, and the man who made it represents a part of the crowded town she had left as a child of eight. Bringing him home to her grandmother so he has a place to stay, he is “surprised to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness. The young man had known […] the dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens” (251). This stranger clearly does not belong on the farm, or in the near vicinity, and views it as dwellings of a lower society which surprises him in its ability to provide comfort. He would easily identify with Sylvia’s life of the past and feels separated from her life in the present.

The young man, a hunter trying to gather birds for his collection, views Sylvia as a means to get a white heron he desires after her grandmother reveals that “‘There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatur’s counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds” (252). To Sylvia, these animals are her friends, her real friends she gained when she left the taunting red-faced boy of her old town behind. In contrast, to the stranger, wildlife is not something to be treasured in itself as Sylvia treasures it, but something that must be killed and stuffed to admire for all time, something that must be manufactured much like things were manufactured in her industrialized former home.

However, this stranger also loves the birds and can share interesting facts about how they live, and therefore Sylvia enjoys being in his company. Though, the same birds Sylvia lovingly fed from her hands are brought down with the stranger’s gun: “Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much” (253). Yet they still bond over their similar admiration for the birds, although they have different means of expressing it, and “Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. The woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (253).

Sylvia must now choose; she cannot save a white heron’s life and help her new-found friend in his mission to add it to his stuffed bird collection simultaneously. Her new improved life now is threatened by this man who represents the mentality of her old home, yet she is eager to please and to help him in his endeavors. She knows of the white heron that he seeks, knows the tree in which it lives, but “now she thought of the tree with a new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest?” (253).

In this quest Sylvia risks betraying the life that has been her safety and her comfort, where she belongs and where she is accepted, and where she is viewed as one of the animals herself, all in exchange for gratifying her new friend: “Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!” (254). She climbs up to the top of an old tree to discover the white heron’s nest and is blinded to the beauty of the nature around her in her sudden desire to help a man destroy a part of it: “Where was the white heron’s nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks” (255).

She discovers the location of the white heron’s nest, its secret, thinking only “over and over again what the stranger would say to her, and what he would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron’s nest” (255), instead of the negative results of revealing such information. Yet when the time comes to reveal the secret, she realizes she cannot speak, although her grandmother and the stranger urge her to: “What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing, and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird’s sake?” (255-6). Sylvia’s chance to share something with another person, to bond with another person outside of her family, to end her life of endless social awkwardness vanishes.

Her chance vanishes as she recalls the moments she shared with the heron in the early morning, “and how they watched the sea and morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak, she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away” (256). Sylvia cannot sacrifice a part of her newfound sanctuary to help a stranger representing the society of her past, for she belongs in the wilderness and is a part of it. She would be betraying herself as well as the bird if she let a stranger manufacture an ornament out of the wildlife of her home. Yet, it is hard to lack human companionship, and “she forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the piteous sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood” (256) as she realizes her friendship with the man is now over. Where some delight in the companionship of people, Sylvia chose instead the companionship of animals: “Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been,--who can tell?” (256).

But before this stranger entered her life and promised her the possibility of human companionship in exchange for the life of her animal companions, Sylvia cherished the world around her and was satisfied and grateful for her animal friends. And it is therefore, that the end of the story closes with the promise of satisfaction to again be achieved through nature, that if Sylvia can now see the beauty of the world around her instead of being blinded by human interest in taking it and owning it, she will again find peace and tranquility and satisfaction in life: “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!” (256).


Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”

Similarly, Nick, the main character in Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” also seeks out nature for a sense of comfort, and as an escape. He left his former home behind, much like Sylvia, but for entirely different reasons: “The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground” (Hemingway, 1322).

His former home is now nonexistant, burnt away by fire, and Nick cannot find comfort in the buildings and houses which are now gone. The only thing he can rely upon is the river, which continues to endure when everything else has been scorched away: “Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there” (1322).

Nature can move Nick; he looks over the ruins of the town without emotion, but looking down into the water of the river, “Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling” (1322). The river is the only thing that appears unchanged, and flows on, and it is therefore the one thing that can bring back powerful memories of the past, of how things were and used to be before the change. Nature is his refuge, and he can be one with nature, without a need to communicate to the outside world, but instead just exist and feel happy and carefree: “Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him” (1323). Nick prefers to be separated from society, much as Sylvia does.

He takes the quiet environment as a chance to slowly come to terms with his past, to take comfort in the enduring wilderness around him, and he sees the landscape as an unchanging guide on this quest: “Nick sat smoking, looking out over the country. He did not need to get his map out. He knew where he was from the position of the river” (1323). Nick has been greatly traumatized and effected by the destructive events of the past, but he has adapted in order to survive; he has separated himself from a life he does not want, but he is still negatively affected. Much like the grasshoppers are affected, changing color to better suit their changing environments, Nick has changed to suit his abruptly altered situation: “he realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land. He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the grasshoppers were all black now. He wondered how long they would stay that way” (1323), most likely much like he wondered how long he also would be noticeably affected by the fires.

Nick no longer needs anything but nature. He can catch fish for food, gather water from the stream, and be lulled to sleep by the comfort of the earth itself: “The earth felt good against his back. He looked up at the sky, through the branches, and then shut his eyes. He opened them and looked up again. There was a wind high up in the branches. He shut his eyes again and went to sleep” (1324), sleeping until the sun had nearly set, a long sleep one cannot accomplish without peace of mind. The act of sleep itself cannot be performed without complete relaxation and a sense of safety and protection, which Nick finds underneath a tree.

In this deserted nature Nick can take things at his own pace, accomplish things of his own accord and make progress through the wilderness to his own chosen destination: “It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it” (1325). Home for Nick is where he chooses in the wilderness, no longer where the burnt remains of a former town used to stand.

Nature can be a neutral safety for Nick, but material goods he has brought with him represent his former life, and he remembers an old friend while making coffee: “Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough. He spilled the coffee out of the pot” (1327), emptying the coffee and simultaneously emptying himself of memories and thoughts of the past life which would never again exist.

Nick finds excitement in the simple pleasures in life, the river: “Nick was excited. He was excited by the early morning and the river” (1328) and fishing: “Nick felt awkward and professionally happy with all his equipment hanging from him” (1329). Fishing for Nick is a pleasure of the past, but still an activity he can just lose himself in, getting caught up in the excitement of the catch. However, in his delicate emotional condition even too much excitement can be damaging: “Nick’s hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too much. He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down” (1331). Shaking, he finds comfort sitting in the river, dangling his feet in the water: “He did not want to rush his sensations any. He wriggled his toes in the water, in his shoes, and got out a cigarette from his breast pocket” (1331).

Yet, like for Slyvia, Nick also comes to find nature a force which will ultimately test his strength. Nick’s test unfolds in the swamp, where “the river became smooth and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that” (1333). Nick does not see a purpose to hooking trout in the swamp, where they would be impossible to capture, and only needlessly hooked: “He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them” (1333), a situation Nick finds threatening. Furthermore, Nick does not see the point of needlessly harming the fish, which would have hooks tear into their mouths and sides without the ability to be unhooked: “In the deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the steam any further today” (1333).

Nick may feel a certain affinity to the fish, which would be harmed without purpose, much like those of the former burned downtown were harmed without a purpose. Because of this, the swamp also represents his past and coming to terms with the tragedy that formerly befell him, yet Nick can take his time to confront such inner demons: “He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (1334).

The characters Sylvia and Nick are both at odds with their pasts, Sylvia chose to separate herself from her former life and Nick was taken away from his by much more sinister circumstances. They both find comfort and consolation in nature, a separation from society in which neither one wishes to remain—Sylvia’s former industrialized town and Nick’s origins from which he arrived at Seney. Both are comfortable by themselves with nature and use it as an opportunity to discover their true identities. They find who they are: Sylvia decides she is one with the animals, a part of nature, and Nick discovers that he can find inner peace through following the river and relying on the support and guidance of nature to help him find his way.


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Comments 3 comments

mae 4 years ago

what is the theme of a story ?

jose rizal 3 years ago

coo coop

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 17 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Great hub. I read Jewett's work back in school with another story. Nicely done. Voted up!

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