Friday, April 17, 2009

Disparate Obligations in "A White Heron"

“Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, - who can tell?”

After all this talk about The Yellow Wallpaper being perceived as propaganda(!), I figured I'd find a short story that, while having a clear agenda, manages to not suffocate its readers. I came up with Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron". Through her use of a third-person omniscient speaker, Jewett makes a persuasive case for her environmentalist platform, while permitting the reader room to make his or her own choices and not feel stifled by the author’s beliefs.

I can relate, even if in a very small way, to the decisions that Sylvia, the young heroine of "A White Heron", had to make between the environment and money and between the environment and personal relationships. As a member of the ASPCA, an organization whose members are often staunch vegetarians, some vegans, there is pressure from that community to follow suit (but I love MEAT! and the costs of being an aspiring vegetarian in a house full of adamant meat eaters piles up QUICKLY lol), so with this glimpse into the life of the little girl who had to make a very tough decision between her obligation to the environment and forces pulling her in opposing directions, I can certainly empathize.

Jewett does a great job of implanting objective information, making sure that by the story's end the reader knows Sylvia’s answer to the question (“Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, - who can tell?”) , and prompting the reader to ponder his or her own obligations and biases.

Alongside her lengthy descriptions of the permanency and beauty of nature and the transience (and vulgarity?) of human life, Jewett places the story of a young girl's first romantic attraction and coming of age - balancing both with care not to seem biased, so the reader feels they themselves are forming these opinions. The noted literary critic J.V. Cunningham asserts that "When style is overpowering it takes us over. We think we have said what we have heard,"; Jewett's style has that effect.

Once Sylvia is faced with the choice between her romantic interest, a young scientist who happens upon her house in the wilderness hoping to find and kill or capture the eponymous white heron, and nature, the scientist's position in her circle of obligation slowly degrades. The scientist goes from being regarded by Sylvia first as an “enemy” with a “very cheerful and persuasive tone”, and a “stranger” with a “kindly” tone, to a “companion”, to the professional title of “ornithologist”, then a “handsome stranger”, and finally to a “friendly lad” once the two become acquainted and she grows to enjoy his company. He once again becomes a “stranger” and is then assigned the generic term “sportsman” when her decision to save the bird is made. By the end of the story, he is merely “the hunter”.

The reader takes the journey with young Sylvia and admires the scientist, who is never named, as Sylvia does, fears him as she does, trusts him as she does, and is left with the choice to take or leave him as she does.

"A White Heron" remains relevant today because people chose between the environment and money, the environment and convenience, or the environment and profits all the time. Reports of large corporations struggling over the importance of environmental effects of their products or byproducts are printed almost daily. Every time someone pumps gasoline into their car, or throws away a diaper, or disposes of a paper cup on a city street, they are making a decision about what they think is important in their lives.

If anyone can make the argument that this is a piece of propaganda, I'd love to hear or read it lol.