Shape-Shifting Short Stories of American Literature— 1886-1894

1886          Sarah Orne Jewett’s short story “A White Heron” targets the subject of innocence, similar to hosts of American short story writers’ stylistic paths— J.D. Salinger for instance. However, Jewett veers in a different direction than that of a destination of innocence lost, zeroing in on the option of preserving innocence, as is the case of Jewett’s main character Sylvia.

            Only eight years of age, Sylvia’s nature is strong and her mind brilliantly thoughtful and aware. She may perhaps harbor a slight animosity for the opposite sex, as is detailed in memory of “the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her” (Jewett 623). This explains Sylvia’s wariness of the young bird-hunter boy, who emerges from the woods that Sylvia frequents daily. Sylvia has become somewhat of an expertise in her element, specifically navigating the woods and studying the various local, indigenous species— including the treasure that the bird-hunter is seeking: a white heron.

            Ultimately Sylvia is afforded a choice, a choice between giving up the whereabouts of the white heron to the bird-hunter (whose actions are not fueled by the sport of the kill but rather preserving a collection of the birds utilizing taxidermy) or of keeping the prize safe from harm, thereby cultivating the continuance of the heron’s influence on her own quality of life— as it so well thrives in her vast, natural backyard. However, Sylvia’s decision to delay the inevitability of the heron’s death (and her very own loss of innocence), is not so simple, for she has, in many aspects, become fond of the bird-hunter and partly wishes to please him: “the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love” (626). In the end, Sylvia chooses not to forsake the bond of nature for the tempting allure of the human relationship, and preserves her wandering, observant and imaginative innocence, at least for the moment.

            Culturally perceived aesthetic beauty transcends gender roles in the short story “Desiree’s Baby” written by Kate Chopin. Born into an age when a mere drop of African American blood reduced a male or female to a sliver of an individual, Chopin grew to become a social activist hidden between the lines of her writing, analyzing the oppressive culture surrounding her. She channeled her stance on civil rights and feminism into words of ammunition, firing scattered shots at a wide target audience. Her most masterfully crafted work, “Desiree’s Baby” is without a doubt, one of the most reflective stories of her time, with efficient prose saturated with boundless imagery and symbolism. However, the real value of the story is the underlying message that bleeds through the text. It is ugly, demanding of attention, and invades the heart. If read today, the ways in which Chopin’s characters react to miscegenation seem, at first glance, completely foreign, shocking, and immediately raise civil and ethical questions:

He coldly but gently loosened her fingers from about his arm and thrust the hand away from him. “Tell me what it means!” she cried despairingly. “It means,” he answered lightly, “that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.” A quick conception of all that this accusation meant for her nerved her with unwonted courage to deny it. “It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray… you know they are gray. And my skin is fair….” (Chopin 281)

How could this cruel oppression have existed? How were such life-stifling decisions regarding skin color made and carried out with clear consciences? The answers seem to evade us.

            Perhaps a more important question, however, is one that we can answer, and that is: Can the aforementioned questions be applied today?

            The desperation in the voice of the accused character, Desiree, is desperation that continues to plague many individuals, even today. Inasmuch as the act of slavery has long since been abolished in America, the cruelty of social judgment has survived, and for many, remains a severely negative influence. The perception of what is considered aesthetically acceptable in society continues to exist, as misguided and repetitive as the actions of a career criminal.

            There are many aspects of “Desiree’s Baby” that allow for imaginative conclusions. For instance, when Desiree retrieves her baby and commences a dysphoric walk into the wild overgrowth of the bayou, the outcome could be interpreted as a hopeless one, hinging on the act of suicide and likewise, a baby’s murder. For what hope was there for both Desiree and her child after such humiliation and severed love? On the other side of the coin, optimistically, she may have just required some time to think, or perhaps hide until she regained her bearings in developing a plan of further escape. 

            In the greater picture, the message of the story is not far beneath the surface. In fact, it is about the surface –the surface of skin, and the mindless oppression surrounding its many shades of color.

            Published in the same year as “Desiree’s Baby” (1892), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is largely autobiographical. Gilman creatively transfers her own experiences of socially influenced inner conflict into “The Yellow Wallpaper,” raising awareness for post-partum depression and other mental concerns of women that were at the time being haphazardly misdiagnosed and mistreated.

            Gilman utilizes an anthropomorphic medium to divulge the narrator’s growing disconnectedness with both herself and society: the upstairs baby-less nursery wallpaper is torn, misshapen and stained (perhaps the narrator’s own doing?), day by day becoming more grotesque: “There is a recurrent spot where the [wallpaper] pattern lolls like a broken neck, and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (Gilman 465).

            There is also the undercoating of psychological abuse and control referencing the narrator’s husband John, who is paraphrased from the narrator’s perspective: “He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency” (464).    

            Revisiting the counter culture of Kate Chopin’s literary themes, “The Story of an Hour” brandishes the emotional wrought of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, who becomes freed from the topic at hand, only to then be shocked into death by unexpected, unwonted reality. When Louise is delivered the news of her husband’s unprecedented, accidental death, she expresses grief immediately and assuredly, and then locks herself in her bedroom to reflect. Chopin borrows outdoor imagery that flirts with symbolic positivity, hinting that Louise may in fact be inwardly relieved. As she looks out the window:

The delicious breath of rain was in the air… The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly… countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves… There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds…. (Chopin 283)

Of course, in the latter stages of this story, it is made more obvious that Louise was in fact reveling, not in the morbid sense of her husband having perished, but in the fact that she was now free to be what she wanted, free to be a woman: “’Free! Body and soul free!’ she kept whispering” (284).                       


Works Cited/Referenced:

Chopin, Kate. “Desiree’s Baby.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 8th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 633-642. Print.

___________. “The Story of an Hour.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 8th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 680-691. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 8th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 1188-1209. Print.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 8th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 1188-1209. Print.


About Hudson Saffell (36 Articles)
Freelance Writer / Editor
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