Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Nine: Haunted Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

At various places in his writing, Hawthorne references his own Puritan ancestors and the burden he labors under for the strict attitudes and beliefs they held, along with consequences of the decisions that they made based upon those attitudes and beliefs. He alludes (perhaps to help sell his works to a curious public) to the fact that he, as an author, labors under something of a curse related to this portion of his family history. [See a listing of Hawthorne's paternal line, especially William and John Hathorne.] He is literally haunted by this past.

This relationship between Hawthorne's biography and his writing provides one of the many ways that readers attempt to interpret this author's ambiguous tales and romances. In a related way, readers come to his tales tempted to interpret them within the culture and historical context of American history in a broader way, through the contrasts between this country's New England Puritanical beginnings and its later democratic impulses and struggles.

Added to these biographical and historical backgrounds, are the direct influences of the other literary romantic writers of Hawthorne's day and age, and the distinctive elements of "dark romanticism" that a handful of key American writers are so well known for.

This writer's focus on ambiguity, or those twilight zones between waking and dream, is often evident in his works. The protagonist (or narrator) is often questioning his or her senses or impressions. He describes it in this manner, in his preface "The Customs House." "The floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other." Repeated readings of Hawthorne's work will reveal his constant qualifying.

To further analyze his works, students will find a range of valuable resources concerning Hawthorne online:

Reuben's Introductory Lecture mentions reasons for continued interest in Hawthorne, along with some of his major themes:

Reasons for Hawthorne's Current Popularity

1. One of the most modern of writers, Hawthorne is relevant in theme and attitude. According to H. H. Waggoner, Hawthorne's attitudes use irony, ambiguity, and paradox.

2. Hawthorne rounds off the puritan cycle in American writing - belief in the existence of an active evil (the devil) and in a sense of determinism (the concept of predestination).

3. Hawthorne's use of psychological analysis (pre-Freudian) is of interest today.

4. In themes and style, Hawthorne's writings look ahead to Henry James, William Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren [realism and modernism].

Major Themes in Hawthorne's Fiction

1. Alienation - a character is in a state of isolation because of self-cause, or societal cause, or a combination of both.

2. Initiation - involves the attempts of an alienated character to get rid of his isolated condition.

3. Problem of Guilt -a character's sense of guilt forced by the puritanical heritage or by society; also guilt vs. innocence.

4. Pride - Hawthorne treats pride as evil. He illustrates the following aspects of pride in various characters: physical pride (Robin), spiritual pride (Goodman Brown), and intellectual pride (Rappaccini). [also certainly illustrated in various flavors by Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth]

5. Puritan New England - used as a background and setting in many tales.

6. Italian background - especially in The Marble Faun.

7. Allegory - Hawthorne's writing is allegorical, didactic and moralistic.

8. Other themes include individual vs. society, self-fulfillment vs. accommodation or frustration, hypocrisy vs. integrity, love vs. hate, exploitation vs. hurting, and fate vs. free will.

Campbell provides focused study questions about Hawthorne's Use of Allegory and an important critical discussion of the differences in Romances, Novels, and the Gothic.

Canada notes another major aspect of Hawthorne's literature on his Hawthorne site, in discussing a dicotmy that Hawthorne discusses himself. He states:

One of Hawthorne's distinctive concerns is that of separating head and heart, intellect and soul. In his notebooks, he wrote that an unpardonable sin is "a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity,--content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart." Hawthorne explored these ideas extensively in the short story "Ethan Brand," and they also help to shape The Scarlet Letter, "The Artist of the Beautiful," and "Rappaccini's Daughter."

Other interesting aspects of Hawthorne and his works, and how readers interpret those works are plentiful.

Two major themes of his writing, which mirror Poe's, are obsession and concealment of obsession. The obsessions of various Hawthorne characters haunt them as they seek to cope with them and their impacts on their lives. Hawthorne, as narrator and moral historian, typically stands outside the obsessions of his characters. His style is genteel, the man of society, but the character's obsessions are sometimes similar to Hawthorne's own.

The ways this writer constructs his stories continue to fascinate critics. Hawthorne's "narrator" (like a modern day 'voice over') often separates himself (voice) from subjects which he writes of, which gives narrative energy to the work

Hawthorne's inward examination of individuals often are referred to in terms of lightness and darkness. In Melville's critical essay, "Hawthorne and His Mosses," this writer is speaking, perhaps, as much about his own work as Hawthorne's when he states:

For spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side--like the dark half of the physical sphere--is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black. But this darkness but gives more effect to the evermoving dawn, that forever advances through it, and circumnavigates his world. Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effects he makes it to produce in his lights and shades; or whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom,--this, I cannot altogether tell. Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.

As previously mentioned, Hawthorne was interest in America's colonial past along with its Puritan past, (Michael J. Colacurcio states Hawthorne's fiction demonstrates a serious and coherent interest in an understanding of this country's colonial history.)

Importantly, these stories are also allegories, the characters (and we, as outside readers) are constantly trying to find meaning in the symbols offered to them (us), just as the Puritans did on a daily basis in their own reflective self-examinations.

This writer understood the genre structures of his day, and readers should, too. Hawthorne's full-length fictions are called ROMANCES (not novels)
- the romancer is not tied to conventional reality, can depart from novelistic realism
- the romancer releases sympathy and dreams, dreams of another "common nature of humanity," related to those "impulses" and "insights" of romanticism
- as Chase says, astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility

Hawthorne's Romances:
Fanshawe 1828
The Scarlet Letter 1850
The House of Seven Gables 1851
The Blithedale Romance 1852
The Marble Faun 1860

Hawthorne's famous story collections:
Twice-told Tales 1837
Mosses from the Old Manse 1846

Hawthorne's more famous short stories
"The Ambitious Guest"
"The Birthmark"
"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"
"Endicott and the Red Cross"
"Ethan Brand"
"Feathertop: A Moralized Legend"
"The Maypole of Merry Mount"
"The Minister's Black Veil"
"My Kinsman, Major Molineux"
"Rappaccini's Daughter"
"Roger Malvin's Burial"
"Young Goodman Brown"

Questions and Considerations

Draw some comparisons or make connections between Irving's historical/political story, "Rip Van Winkle," and Hawthorne's historical/political story, ""My Kinsman, Major Molineux."

Describe how two of Hawthorne's tales, "The Birth-mark," and "Rappaccini's Daughter," contain characteristics of the science-fiction/horror genres.

Should Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter still be taught in secondary schools today? What is gained by doing so? What are modern stories or movies that concern the same themes as this novel?

Works Cited

Campbell, Donna M. "Cracking the Code of Hawthorne’s Allegories." Amlit. Dept. of English, Washington State University. February 24, 2012.

Campbell, Donna M. "Novel, Romance, and Gothic: Brief Definitions." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. February 24, 2012.

Canada, Mark. "Nathaniel Hawthorne." Antebellum and Civil War America, 1784-1865. University of North Carolina at Pembroke, September 20, 1999.

Melville, Herman. signed as By a Virginian Spending July in Vermont. "Hawthorne and His Mosses." Appendix to The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Ed. Scott Atkins. April, 1996.

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 3: Nineteenth Century to 1865 - Nathaniel Hawthorne." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. October 5, 2011.

Other Resources

"Scholars Forum," on Hawthorne in Salem (a wide range of lectures sorted by topic)

Summaries of Criticism on "Young Goodman Brown"

Summaries of Criticism on "The Birth-Mark"

Summaries of Criticism on "Rappacini's Daughter"

Some Views on The Scarlet Letter







Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University