At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. 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?
Sylvia, a shy young girl who lives with her grandmother in rural New England, climbs an enormous tree. This is an arduous undertaking, done in secret.
The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch.
She makes this climb in the hopes of spotting where the elusive white heron hides its nest. A friendly hunter has offered her and her grandmother money if she can find out where the bird lives.
Will Sylvia discover the location of the heron's nest? If she does, will she tell the hunter where to find it, so that she can earn money and approval, while the hunter bags himself another bird for his collection of specimens?
That's the part that makes Sylvia uneasy:
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. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.
One of the best elements of Sarah Orne Jewett's story, "A White Heron", is its exploration of different kinds of love.
Sylvia loves the creatures of the woods with a kind of sympathy to them; she loves them as they are ("The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together...").
The hunter loves the birds chiefly because of what he is able to get out of them - another addition to his collection, a reward for his skills, the satisfaction of having the specimens stuffed and in his possession to admire and study as he pleases.
The story got me thinking about the ways in which we love other people. Is it more with a sense of fellowship, of loving another like yourself and as they are? Or do we love them insofar as they are useful to us and satisfy whatever urges and desires require satisfaction (a kind of love that ties into the "pageant of the world"). Is it a blend of both?
Sylvia might get her chance to win some money and admiration, the currency of a wider world with which she's had little contact (and never really fit into before she went to live with her grandmother). But what would she be giving up to earn these rewards? And what would she be losing if she turns away from the money and approval and the kind of love society might offer her?