‘Once upon a time there yet existed a world in which a small girl could choose the nurturing power of nature rather than the materialistic exploitations of industrial America’.
– Theodore Hovet, ‘Once Upon a Time’, p.68
Throughout the literary tradition of the American short story and, most interestingly, short stories belonging to the nineteenth century, concepts of the wilderness are inextricably linked to the underlying gender politics of American society. More specifically, the wilderness accentuates the constraints of the patriarchally-endorsed social system of the period that sought to oppress and constrain female identity. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1886 A White Heron, the wilderness becomes collocated with the characterisation of their respective female characters; characters find themselves dominated under the fallacy of ‘frontier mythology’, a belief that resulted in the assumption of masculine superiority over women and nature. In this text, female characters are identified with the natural wilderness to accentuate the constraints of a society that demarcated women as inferior. However, it is through this same collocation with the natural world that women challenge and rebel against these rigid gender constructs. The female characters defy enforced gender norms, using their relationship with nature to resist patriarchal subordination.
From the very beginning of Sarah Orne Jewett’s short story, Sylvia’s alignment with nature is demonstrated through her harmonious relationship with the wilderness that surrounds her. This harmony extends into the nature that lies beyond human ownership in the narrative; not only does Sylvia have a peaceful relationship with the nature found on her Grandmother’s farm, but also the wilderness that extends into the heart of the woodland. This relationship is so profound that, even with the absence of light on her walk home with her Grandmother’s dairy cow, Mistress Mooly, ‘their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see or not.’ Sylvia is clearly conflated with her companion in the passage; her eyes, as well as her feet, become shared with the animal she directs home. Such harmony is placed in direct contrast to the discordance experienced by Sylvia during her early years in the city; Jewett’s narrative states that the ‘little maid […] had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town’ (p.119) before being removed to her Grandmother’s farm. Although attempting to grow in the ‘crowded’ environment of burgeoning capitalist industrialisation, Sylvia ultimately finds herself unable to flourish in her birthplace. In this way, Jewett emplaces an opposition between the city and the wilderness; despite her numerous attempts to grow and mature in her original city home, Jewett suggests that the virginal young ‘maid’ (p.119) cannot reach her full potential in the town. This appears to almost immediately change when she is removed to her Grandmother’s farm, where she is able to flourish and be counted by ‘the wild creaturs’ as ‘one o’ themselves’ (p.122). As Elizabeth Ammons expands, ‘Sylvia is nature’s child […] repelled by the city but so at home in the woods that the birds and the animals share their secrets and the earth itself’. Aligned with nature, Sylvia finds herself in direct opposition to the world of the city she left behind.
‘Repelled by the city’, Sylvia finds herself similarly repulsed by the appearance of the hunter, a figure whose ‘clear whistle’ through the forest leaves her ‘horror stricken’ (p.120).
Further aligned with nature through the compound noun ‘woods-girl’, Sylvia’s horrified reaction to the hunter is revealed to have stemmed from the hunter’s likeness to the ‘great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her’ (p.120) during her time in the city. From this introduction, the hunter is immediately polarised from the wilderness he walks through; in his comparison to the ‘red-faced boy’ (p.120), who is described in language laden with violent sexual undertones that Richard Brenzo declares suggests an ‘obvious […] fear of rape’, the hunter is placed in complete opposition to the tranquillity of the woodland. This secularisation is compounded through the hunter’s ‘clear whistle’ (p.120); unlike ‘a bird’s whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness’ (p.120), the hunter’s whistle is defined by its ‘determined, and somewhat aggressive’ tone (p.120). The hunter thus becomes an invading presence; his whistle directly contrasts with the lyricism of the bird song, breaking the harmonious tranquillity of the woodland and introducing discordance into Sylvia’s peaceful walk home. It is the ‘determined’ nature of his whistle that further leads to Sylvia’s denouncement of him as an ‘enemy’ (p.120).
However, despite the clear discordance that the hunter’s presence creates in the landscape, the hunter remains oblivious to his effect on Sylvia and the surrounding wilderness. Rather Jewett suggests that, regardless of the cost that his actions have on the wilderness, the ‘young sportsman’ (p.125) will continue his pursuits if only for his own personal gratification. The hunter enforces his own masculine superiority over the landscape he wanders through; this extends to the inhabitants he encounters along his way. The power of his whistle, enough to silence and overpower the wilderness surrounding him, also overpowers and silences Sylvia herself. In this way, the hunter displays notions of heightened masculinity; his characterisation appears founded in ‘frontier’ notions of rugged masculinity. Frontier mythology, derived from Euro-American colonisation and expansion across Northern America throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, essentially led to America becoming ‘a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top.’  Characterised by a rejection of Eurocentric ideology, the movement resulted in the creation of American nationalism and democracy; simultaneously, it also led to a romanticized notion of rugged masculinity that placed man as both the caretaker and conqueror of this ‘new America’. Enacting his own version of rugged masculinity, the hunter attempts to conquer both Sylvia and the wilderness through displays of masculine violence and control.
Through the hunter’s alignment with ‘frontier’ notions of masculine supremacy, the world of A White Heron clearly becomes enmeshed in ecofeminist criticism. First theorised and coined by Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1874, ecofeminist theory examines the collusive relationship between women and nature in order to demonstrate how social norms exert unjust dominance over both.  Historically typecast as chaotic, women are characterised throughout literature by their inferiority to the supposedly more rational and ordered male gender. Due to such literary archetypes, these depictions result in the creation of a masculine fallacy in which men are suggested to be dominant over both women and the wilderness. As Miles and Shiva assert, there is a ‘relationship of exploitative dominance between man and nature (shaped by reductionist modern science since the 16th century), and the exploitative and oppressive relationship between men and women that prevails in most patriarchal societies […]’. This ‘exploitative and oppressive relationship’ is embodied in the hunter’s actions; the hunter conquers and controls the wilderness through an ‘oppressive’ killing of the woodland inhabitants. When interpreted using an ecofeminist discourse, it becomes apparent that the hunter’s desire to control the wilderness is further enmeshed with his desire to conquer Sylvia. In an action not too dissimilar to the animals the hunter preys upon Sylvia does not ‘dare to look boldly at the tall young man’ (p.121). Like his prey, Sylvia similarly shies away from the hunter; she becomes subordinated through her fear of the ‘enemy’, an outsider that comes to threaten the very foundations of her Eden-like world.
Sylvia, despite her superior knowledge of the wilderness, finds herself placed in a position of inferiority due to the imposition of nineteenth-century social values onto the wilderness. Through this same imposition, Sylvia finds her autonomous voice muted. Although having physically witnessed the heron, the presence of stranger essentially silences her. As the two search the forest for the ‘elusive’ white heron (p.124), Sylvia ‘did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first’ (p.124). The hunter, imposing violence onto the one peaceful setting, imposes a patriarchal social system on the landscape he walks through.  As Robert Brault expands:
as the educated outsider, he [the hunter] seeks to impose his value system on a community in which he does not participate. The ornithologist, and the patriarchal society that created him, define culture/civilisation as superior to nature/culture, justifying a hierarchy of domination that destroys the reciprocal relationships developed through years of living interaction.
Sylvia, once free to roam the wilderness around her, finds herself ultimately trapped within this ‘value system’ that seeks to destroy her ‘reciprocal relationships’ with the natural landscape. Sylvia finds herself silenced in the same way as the ‘piteous’ ‘thrushes and sparrows’ that the hunter kills, who drop ‘silent[ly] to the ground, their songs hushed and their feathers stained […]’ (p.124). As Theodore Hovet furthers, ‘there seems little doubt that a symbolic connection exists between the birds killed, stuff, and mounted on the [hunters] wall and the fate of the woman possessed by the modern American male and placed on the domestic pedestal’. Sylvia, silenced by the hunter’s patriarchal power, thus finds herself threatened with this fate that would leave her possessed solely by him, the embodiment of ‘the modern American male’.
However, it is this same ‘fate’ that is inscribed on nineteenth-century women that allows Sylvia to challenge and refute her patriarchally subordinate position; Sylvia essentially uses her silence as resistance to the hunter’s imposition of destructive social values on the natural landscape. Through the removal of her ‘song’ (p.129), Sylvia resists the temptations presented by the capitalist patriarchal society that the hunter embodies; she refutes the offers of money and sexual fulfilment that the young man proffers her. This rejection is demonstrated through Sylvia’s refusal to ‘tell the heron’s secret and give its life away’ (p.124), despite finding the white heron’s nest in ‘the dead hemlock-tree by the green marsh’ (p.127). In the same way as the heron, who is found to have built its nest in the dead remains of a highly poisonous plant of European origin, Jewett suggests that Sylvia will also rise above the poisonous temptations of the hunter’s violently sexualised world. In refusing to reveal the heron’s location, Sylvia ultimately finds herself able to make a nest out of what is left of the world that essentially ‘dies’ for her when the hunter leaves ‘disappointed’ and empty-handed (p.128); she is consequently able to restore harmony to the wilderness. In doing so Sylvia refuses to be ‘placed on the domestic pedestal’, made into yet another ‘wretched geranium’ (p.120) that is stifled in a city founded on a fallacy of masculine supremacy and fuelled by capitalist egotism. ‘Once upon a time’, as Hovet concludes, ‘there yet existed a world in which a small girl could choose the nurturing power of nature rather than the materialistic exploitations of industrial America.’
Cover Image- Front cover illustration by Barbara Cooney, as taken from the 1964 edition of Jewett’s text.
 In A White Heron, Jewett creates clear distinctions between the different kinds of wilderness in the narrative. Within the story, the natural world of the farmland comes to be distinguished from the nature that lies beyond human ownership; this is shown in the woodland in which the heron makes its nest. This motif is later internalised in the representation of the white heron itself. For more information, see Nicole Steurer, The Function of Nature in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron”’ (Munich: GRIN Publishers, 2003).
 Sarah Orne Jewett, ‘A White Heron’ in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 118-128, p.119. All further references to Jewett’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.
 The Industrial Revolution, beginning after the end of the American Civil War, led to the creation of burgeoning commercialism. This, alongside the rapid increase in job opportunities, led to the creation of metropoles and the rise of both capitalist ideology and more specified social roles for men and women to abide by. For more information, see Richard Franklin Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialisation, 1877-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
 Elizabeth Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, Colby Quarterly, 22 (1986), pp.6-16, p.7.
 Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, p.7.
 Richard Brenzo, ‘Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia’s Choice in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’, Colby Library Quarterly (1978), pp.36-41, p.37.
 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), p. 5.
 For more information on the Myth of the Frontier, see Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York City, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1948).
 Heather Eaton and Lois Ann Lorentzen, Ecofeminism and Globalization: Exploring Culture, Context, and Religion (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004).
 Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books, 1993), p.3.
 Miles and Shiva, Ecofeminism, p.3.
 For more information on the social positions afforded to women in nineteenth-century America, see Tiffany K. Wayne, Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 2007).
 Robert Brault, ‘Silence as Resistance: An Ecofeminist Reading of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron”’ in New Directions in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism, ed. Andrea Campbell (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), pp.74-90, p.87.
 Brault, ‘Silence as Resistance’, p.87.
 Theodore R. Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”: Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” as a Fairytale’, Studies in Short Fiction, 15 (1978), pp.63-68, p.67.
 Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.67.
 Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hemlock [Accessed 20/03/2018].
 Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”’, p.67.
 Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.68.
Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.
One thought on “Wilderness, Ecofeminism and Patriarchy in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’”
This review reminds me of Jay Griffiths’ “Wild”. She describes her journey in the wilderness (Amazonia, Arctic, and desert) in the book. Each trip enables her to connect in a different way with nature and question the impact of our western societies on the secluded community that she visits.
One thing that I really appreciated in her writing is how she gives power to women through the depiction of nature. In my opinion, by doing so, Griffiths breaks the western conceptions of women and also enables an empowering reading for women.
I vividly recommend the book as another way to view wilderness and the connection between the wild and femininity.