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At the end of the story a large portion of the mountain is going to collapse on the Notch in the White Hills where the family is living, killing all of them, including the enthusiastic young guest who is staying overnight. Hawthorne provides numerous descriptive passages to foreshadow that this is going to happen sooner or later. The reader is strongly inclined to wonder why this family could be so foolhardy as to set up a permanent home and business establishment in this dangerous location. Even in the first paragraph, Hawthorne foreshadows approaching disaster:
They dwelt in a cold spot and a dangerous one, for a mountain towered above their heads, so steep, that the stones would often rumble down its sides and startle them at midnight.
That is the last sentence of the first paragraph; the first sentence of the paragraph also begins with a less portentious foreshadowing:
One Spetember night a family had gathered round their hearth, and piled it high with the driftwood of mountain streams, the dry cones of the pine, and the splintered ruins of great trees that had come crashing down the precipice.
Throughout the story, the reader has the impression of a tiny family living in a flimsy dwelling beneath a towering mountain which is continually making rumbling noises and occasionally sending down boulders.
It was one of those primitive taverns where the traveller pays only for food and lodging, but meets with a homely kindness beyond all price.
The ambitious young guest has just introduced himself and sat down by the fire
. . . when something like a heavy footstep was heard without, rushing down the steep side of the mountain, as with long and rapid strides, and taking such a leap in passing the cottage as to strike the opposite precipice. The family held their breath, because they knew the sound, and the guest held his by instinct.
"The old mountain has thrown a stone at us, for fear we should forget him," said the landlord, recovering himself.
According the Hawthorne's description, the big stones do not roll all the way down the side of the mountain. Instead, they come bouncing and thudding against the ground "as with long and rapid strides." This latest one takes such an enormous leap as it passes the cottage that it strikes the mountain on the opposite side.
There are many references to the wind, such as:
The daughter had just uttered some simple jest that fiilled them all with mirth, when the wind came through the Notch and seemed to pause before their cottage--rattling the door, with a sound of wailing and lamentation, before it passed into the valley.
The wind is not a threat to their lives, but its continual howling suggests the terrible power and danger of nature. The whole tale is built on the contrast between the fragile humans huddled by their fire and the dangerous outside world which has no awareness of nor concern for their existence. The confidences the people exchange about their ambitions seem pitiful in view of the fact that they are all doomed to die sooner or later.
This is one of Hawthorne's bleakest stories. It is comparable in its existential angst to such stories as Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," Jack London's "To Build a Fire," Ernest Hemiingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," and Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"--and it preceded all of them. Hawthorne seems to have been haunted by the fear that life was meaningless and that religious faoth might be only a vain illusion.
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