A Betrayal of Self: Sylvia’s Journey in “A White Heron”

Cheryl Lauersdorf Dabney


In “A White Heron,” author Sarah Orne Jewett shows how damaging the effect can be for a culture or community when using the tenets of the beginning chapters of Genesis as the belief system for its sociological structure. Jewett asks the reader to look at how the man’s relationship with nature differs from the woman’s, to question and consider the possibility that our traditional interpretation of Genesis is culturally biased and designed to fit only the man’s best interests and desires, and to also see that through this interpretation of Genesis, the man is allowed to treat a woman with no more regard or reverence than that which he gives nature. By leaving the city and going with her grandmother to live on the farm, young Sylvia discovers the beauty of nature, her unique, loving connection with God’s creatures, and her strength as a female. However, when the stranger from the city comes to their farm, Sylvia and her grandmother are thrust in the midst of the traditional interpretation of Genesis. Jewett has us witness the transformation of Sylvia when this man of Genesis enters her life. Seeing how a soul that was once loving and nurturing to all of nature could become one that would be content to watch while one of creation is murdered, and complacent to know that the failed creature would then be gutted, stuffed and treated as a trophy with its spark of life removed, should stand as a reminder to the reader that any of us are capable of the same betrayal of self that Sylvia experienced, if we, too, are not ever so watchful and protective of our soul and our truest self. As a society, we need to be reverent of nature and consider its value in the divine plan of nature’s balance. All of creation is given a purpose and the spark of life that each is given by God should be acknowledged and revered. Through Sylvia’s encounter with the guest, Jewett shows that if women’s and nature’s purpose for existence is viewed through the western cultural understanding of the traditional interpretation of Genesis, then they are at risk of being used and abused, devalued and discarded, treated with a lack of dignity and reverence, stripped of their sense of self and true purpose, and used as trophies on a shelf.


Jewett; Genesis; Female-Empowerment

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