Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hawthorne’s style is ironic. The common fate he speaks of at the beginning of the story, for example, is not simply the meeting of minds between the guest and his hosts but also the death they will share, that everyone must ultimately share. Such a terse style allows the narrator to comment subtly on the characters without ever seeming intrusive or impeding the flow of the story. His technique is to understate the theme, giving over most of the narrative to description and dialogue. Nearly every paragraph is carefully balanced between the ease with which the characters behave and speak, on the one hand, and the disruptive, saddening sounds of nature that punctuate the human conviviality, on the other hand.

Always a master of sly, subtle repetition, Hawthorne is able to insert several references to discordant sound that serve as a counterpoint to the human harmony. Even that human harmony is usually shaded by qualifying phrases, such as the one that introduces the lively guest: “His face at first wore the melancholy expression, almost despondency, of one who travels a wild and bleak road, at nightfall and alone, but soon brightened up when he saw the kindly warmth of his reception.” Thus, sentences as well as paragraphs are set off against one another, the first part establishing a mood that gives way to its opposite in the second part.

Hawthorne’s style, in other words, aims to capture the rhythms of existence itself, rhythms that are contradictory and reversible and that elicit the intense concentration of the ironist. The implication is that all human beings are on the verge of confronting the end of their world. As the grandmother thinks of her death, the guest thinks of how “mariners feel when the ship is sinking.” It is almost as if these words occasion the story’s ending—so tightly has Hawthorne constructed the denouement. The house trembles and the earth shakes “as if this awful sound were the peal of the last trump.” The biblical phrasing here emphasizes the parabolic nature of the author’s style and themes. In his mind, the short story itself becomes the synecdoche of human fate.

The Ambitious Guest Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Millington, Richard H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Muirhead, Kimberly Free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: A Critical Resource Guide and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Literary Criticism, 1950-2000. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Stoehr, Taylor. Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978.

Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.