Wilderness, Ecofeminism and Patriarchy in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’

‘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.[1] 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.’[2] 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.[3] 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’.[4] 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).[5]

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.[6] 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.’ [7] 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’.[8] 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. [9] 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 […]’.[10] 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.[11] 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. [12] 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.[13]


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.[14] 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’.[15] 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’.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18] ‘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.’[19]

Cover Image- Front cover illustration by Barbara Cooney, as taken from the 1964 edition of Jewett’s text. 

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] Elizabeth Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, Colby Quarterly, 22 (1986), pp.6-16, p.7.

[5] Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, p.7.

[6] 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.

[7] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), p. 5.

[8] 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).

[9] Heather Eaton and Lois Ann Lorentzen, Ecofeminism and Globalization: Exploring Culture, Context, and Religion (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004).

[10] Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books, 1993), p.3.

[11] Miles and Shiva, Ecofeminism, p.3.

[12] 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).

[13] 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.

[14] Brault, ‘Silence as Resistance’, p.87.

[15] 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.

[16] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.67.

[17] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hemlock [Accessed 20/03/2018].

[18] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”’, p.67.

[19] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.68.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Unattainable Perfection in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To the Skylark

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;

Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, To The Skylark, ll. 13- 15

Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ is a poem that encapsulates a clear yearning for the blissful joy and unattainable perfection that the skylark comes to represent. Herbert Grierson and James Smith argue that the speaker’s admiration for the skylark encourages him to ‘escape from human life… into the joyous, free and irresponsible life of Nature’.[1] The speaker is captivated by the bird’s beautiful music and longs to experience its happiness too:

‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love and wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
(ll. 66- 70)

Here, the ‘flood of rapture so divine’ conveys the overwhelming immortality of the skylark’s song. The fluidity of its music is reflected in the stanza’s form; the fifth line of the stanza is longer to suggest that the sound is ‘flood[ing]’ over the quatrain. In comparison to overflowing water, the poem’s form is uninterrupted and continuous. The enjambment between lines 68-70 linguistically presents the music as unblemished, as well as displaying the speaker’s thoughts as gushing and all-consuming. His admiration for the immortal bird transcends him into a fantasy of desire. Shelley inscribes the skylark as a representative of inspiration when he asks it to ‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird’.

Death is not so much desired in Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’. The bird is compared to ‘a glow-worm golden’ (l. 46). The glow-worn itself is hard to see in the ground, yet the light it radiates is prominent. This is arguably a comparison to the skylark who cannot be seen by the speaker yet it’s beautiful music can be heard. The glow-worm’s luminescence underground suggests that it is a symbol that prevents death. Its ‘golden’ description portrays the bird as a beacon of hope and guidance for the speaker who is surrounded by darkness. Similarly, the paradoxical simile ‘like a star of Heaven,/ In the broad day-light’  (ll. 18- 19) alludes to light imagery in order to show how the skylark is ever-present in both light and darkness. This imagery complements a later piece of artwork by Samuel Palmer, ‘The Rise of the Skylark’ (1839). In the painting, there is no sign of the bird aside from in the title. The multi-coloured, bright sky represents the joyous nature of the skylark and the prominence of the sunlight is captivating in comparison to the dark land. In the centre of the painting is an opened fence, which can symbolise the gateway for mankind to escape the fields of reality and join the skylark through an imaginary transcendence.

Similarly, Shelley suggests that because man is restrained by sorrow, he cannot transcend to the life of the perfect skylark:

‘If we were things born
Not to shed to a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.’

Without the imperfections of human life, we still cannot compare to the ideal. This extract contradicts the concept of ‘tabula rasa’, as even when humans are ‘[re]born’, they will not be entirely pure from worldly grievances. Shelley is recognising that the world is full of joy and sorrow, yet the skylark’s world only embodies joy. The paradox of happiness and sorrow within mankind is discussed in Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.[3]

Hence, hearing the skylark reflects Shelley’s keen awareness of the mixture of his personal sorrows and the pure joy from his imagination; he compares the mortality of the real world with the immortality of the imagined to suggest that mankind will always be tainted with an unfavourable ‘humanness’.

In Shelley’s poem, it is the speaker’s intense wish to reach the bird which alludes to his unfulfilled desire. The use of incessant questioning emphasises the inadequacy of the imagination in poetry: ‘What thou art we know not;/ What is most like thee?’ (ll. 31- 32). The anxious questioning of this stanza closely links to an extract from Shelley’s essay ‘On Life’ (1819):

For what are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?… I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived.[4]

Here, Shelley is mirroring the same ravenous desire that is apparent in ‘To a Skylark’. It emphasises an insufficient understanding of the imagination, as the skylark cannot answer Shelley’s questions. The strong longing for answers opposes what Keats terms ‘Negative Capability’: ‘that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[5] This concept requires the poet to maintain an aesthetic distance from the object, and not give himself over to it. In the poem, the speaker sacrifices them self to the bird because it is seen as a more powerful entity than them. It can be argued that, in ‘To a Skylark’, the skylark is not merely a bird but also a metaphor for creativity and poetic impulse. It is evident that the creature is a natural metaphor for poetic expression with the simile ‘Like a Poet hidden’ (l. 40). This metapoetic characteristic is common in the second-generation Romantics. Jeffery Cox observes that poets like Shelley offer a self-awareness in their work, which is ‘shaped as much by editor’s pens and government writs as it is by some internal muse’.[6] Shelley finds himself less immersed in the moment compared to his predecessors, entering a circle of poetry that associates with the external world.[7]

Stewart Wilcox observes that Shelley also enters a delusional state in his poem, yet not through alcohol but by the ancient concept of ‘furor poeticus’.[8] When escaping under the power of the skylark’s song, Shelley is possessed with a ‘harmonious madness’ (l. 103). Scholars consider the Romantic period to be the beginning of scientific inquiry into ‘poet madness’.[9] It is believed that a poet’s inspiration comes from the transition of thought beyond their own mind, leaving them in a state of divine frenzy. Shelley’s oxymoron, ‘harmonious madness’, reimagines transcendence to the ideal as an experience that is creatively debilitating as well as inspiring.

The chaotic tendencies of the imagination are also reflected by the temporal and eternal states of transcendent experience. The eternal quality of the bird in ‘To a Skylark’ is inscribed in the lines:

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun
(ll. 13- 15)

The dynamic verbs ‘float’, ‘run’ and ‘begun’ present the bird and the imagination as boundless entities with an everlasting existence. This eternality is also reflected in the form of Shelley’s poem; the regular rhyme and consistent meter mirrors the triumphant music of the skylark and the blissfulness of the ideal world. The poem ends with the speaker announcing, ‘as I am listening now’ (l. 105). The present progressive verb ‘listening’ suggest a continuation of the imagination and a wish for Shelley’s transcendent thoughts to continue.

For Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’ illustrates a journey forever striving to obtain a happier ideal. The immortal bird singing beyond the boundaries of human life brings an allusion of the unescapable facts of human existence. Shelley longs to be transported to the idealistic world of the skylark. Although Shelley shows an awareness for the real world’s limitations, he is less defeated and more motivated by his imaginative power. It is the transcendence from reality to the ideal that allows both poets to encounter the beauty of the imagination whilst also reveal the damaging truths of reality.

Featured Image– Samuel Palmer, The Rising of the Skylark, 1839, Oil on Panel (30.8 x 24.5cm), National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

[1] Herbert Grierson and James Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (London: Peregrine, 1947) p. 335.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘To a Skylark’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1215- 1217 (ll. 66- 70) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1233- 1247.

[4] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘On Life’ 1832 in Approaches to Teaching Shelley’s Poetry. ed. Spencer Hall (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990) pp. 111- 113 (p. 111).

[5] John Keats, ‘To George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 December 1817’ in John Keats Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp. 40- 42 (pp. 41- 42).

[6] Jeffery Cox, ‘Keats Shelley and the Wealth of the Imagination’ Studies in Romanticism, 34 (1995) pp. 364- 400 (p. 367).

[7] See John Keats ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ for another poem about the self-awareness of art and poetry.

[8] Stewart C Wilcox, ‘Sources, Symbolism and Unity of Shelley’s Skylark’ Studies in Philology, 46 (1949) pp. 560- 576 (p. 575).

[9] See Joseph Meringolo, The Sanity of Furor Poeticus: Romanticism’s Demystification of Madness and Creativity (University of New York, 2014).

Written by Emily Warren.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.