But when she gets back to her grandmother's house, and finds the young hunter and her grandmother waiting at the door, and questioning her, and when that "...splendid moment has come to speak of the dead hemlock tree" and the treasure it holds, she "...does not speak after all, though the old grandmother fretfully rebukes her." This man can make them "rich" with his ten-dollar reward, and they are very poverty stricken.
Here is where Jewett shows the realism in her literature. Sylvia's character is very important at this point in the story because she decides against selling the white heron out for ten dollars. Sylvia isn't sure why she is doing it, and is even a bit perplexed; "...when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird's sake?" Jewett poses. Sylvia hears the "murmur of the pine's green branches" in her ears; she recalls how beautiful that white bird was as it came flying through "...the golden air" and how she and the white heron witnessed the sea and the morning "together."
No, she can't sell the bird out. This is an ethical decision she must make, which is in line with the definition of realism. And according to author Richard Chase (who wrote the book the American Novel and Its Tradition), writing in the Washington State University Web pages (www.wsu.edu/-campbelld/amlit/realism.htm),in realism, "...characters appear in their real complexity of temperament and motive." and, Chase continues, characters in realism-based literature are "...in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past." In Sylvia's life she has a strong link and connection to nature, much stronger than any relationship with people (yes, she loves her grandmother, but she loves the woods and its critters more); and she has a strong relation to her own past, which was not all that pleasant and she is not eager to return to a situation in the city where a bully can push her and scare her.
The end of the story leaves quite a bit to be desired, in the mind of this reader. She has made her decision, and she has chosen nature over commercial profit. Readers respect that and hence this has been seen as a "conservation book" according to Griffith's essay. And so, in standing up for the natural world and its creatures - even after being love-struck to a degree by this handsome young man - readers would like to think of Sylvia as a hero. But the way Jewett ends the story is baffling. "Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in the day," Jewett writes in the last paragraph (603-04). If he had been able to shoot the coveted white heron, and if he had stayed around longer, Sylvia "could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves!"
She is not talking about puppy love her, but she is talking about devotion, because dogs are very devoted to their owners. And this isn't some foolish little girl having a star-struck relationship with an older fellow - this is a thoughtful, bright girl who has found a place for her in this woods. In hindsight, she hears the "echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path" as she brings the cow home in the evenings. She even forgets how sad she was at the sight of him killing birds and seeing "their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood." A bird dropping quietly to the ground, after it had the magical ability to fly free in the air above and around the trees, is a very tragic sight.
And, Jewett wonders if the birds she loves so much were "...better friends than the hunter might have been?" Well, "who can tell," Jewett goes on. That spot might have been a good one to end this story, but Jewett went on another couple sentences, asking readers to "...bring your gifts and graces and tell...
Why would Jewett write that Sylvia will be lonely now, when before the hunter's arrival she thrived in the woods, and loved the sound of birds (not the shrill sound of a hunter's whistle)? Griffith sees Sylvia as a hero, who is now risking loneliness after saving the life of the white bird.
Another critic, Gwen L. Nagel, writing an essay in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, agrees with the scholarship of Catherine B. Stevenson, who suggests Jewett (through Sylvia's ethical decision as to whether or not to sell out the heron's nest position to the hunter) is creating a "...rite of passage from the safe world of childhood to the precarious, lonely, self-determined world of adulthood" (Nagel 1994). This seems a reasonable and safe observation of the theme of realism within the story; it could be added though that maybe Jewett was also suggesting that there is no safe world, anywhere, ever, and when a previously secure natural world is interrupted by the potential of violence, good sense and ethics must prevail. And it might also be suggested that women are better prepared to make those ethical decisions, even as children.
Another writer that Nagel brings into her essay, Annis Pratt, sees the story as "a version of the traditional fairy tale," Nagel explains. Other scholars see a psychoanalytic reading, Nagel goes on, and still others find "...a complex pattern of sexual symbolism in the story."
Still another critic alluded to by Nagel, Eugene H. Pool, sees "a parallel between Sylvia's repudiation of mature love and Jewett's own choice never to marry." Some feminist critics believe that the story represents a "confrontation between a patriarchal value system" - a young man with cash in his pocket and a weapon for power - and the "matriarchal world" where a female-focused "natural sanctuary" exists.
Is the story a "repudiation of the Cinderella text"? That's how critic Josephine Donovan sees it, according to Nagel's essay. Donovan asserts that the story "culminates the anti-romance tradition" that is a "hallmark of women's literary realism."
Writing in Studies in Short Fiction, critic Michael Atkinson observes that Jewett's ending has a "satisfying impact" which puts the reader "to rest." Leading up to the conclusion, the scene in which the tree talks to the girl is a "genuinely extravagant" bit of narrative, Atkinson writes. Having a tree's thoughts reported to a girl who is playing a heroic role is the author's way of "urgently whispering counsel to the main character," Atkinson goes on. And although the tree speaking its mind is a departure from the realism of the rest of the story, is seems "perfectly natural" to the reader because what the tree does and says contributes "so directly to the effect of the tale."
Echoing what this paper asserted at the beginning - that loss of innocence is a big part of this story - Atkinson relates that "loss of innocence" has been a "mainstay of literature and myth from Genesis through Milton, Joyce, Salinger, and beyond - a theme of proven power." That said, Atkinson then goes on to say that Jewett's story is about innocence "preserved," and since that theme is much more rare than innocence lost, it adds class and depth to the story. Atkinson is absolutely correct in saying that Jewett has successfully convinced readers emotionally that by staying in her world of innocence Sylvia has taken a positive step "in her development as a person."
By making the decision to keep the white heron's nest a secret, Sylvia did not come across as a person "retreating" or "cowering" but rather she shows strength, the same kind of strength she showed by climbing the tree, in Atkinson's viewpoint. The climb up the tree is "frightening," Atkinson explains, but readers pull for her to not only make it safely up to the top, but they also pull for her to locate the mystical white bird so she then can make her decision as to whether to help the hunter or not. Nature rises up to help the girl in the tree scene, Atkinson continues, and once she is up there higher than she has even been before, the entire fiction of the story "...has transcended its human limitations." By transcending those human bonds, the story then steps "outside the limits of human relationship which lured and threatened Sylvia."
Atkinson views the scene with the talking tree as confirmation (through "human wisdom") that the natural intelligence of the world is a steadying influence. The consciousness of the tree and the voice of the narrator at this point "transcends other viewpoints…
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