Compare and contrast the works of Hawthorne and Poe.

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two authors of Dark Romanticism, both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe explore in their writings the mystical and the melancholy aspects of America's Puritan thought.  In their works, they examine the conflict between good and evil, the psychological effects of guilt and sin, and even madness and derangement in the human mind.  However, it is in their approach to these aspects that they differ. 


Whereas Hawthorne, as a moralistic and didactic narrator examines the dark regions of the soul--what he called "the truth of the human heart"--in portraying the innate depravity of human beings with such characters as Roger Chillingworth of The Scarlet Letter who spiritually transforms into what he himself calls "a fiend,"  Poe finds this darkness more in the human psyche. And, to indicate the effects of man's evil, he utilizes the unreliable narrator who often in the end is terrorized by his own realization of the grotesque workings of his mind and the real horror that lies in what humans are capable of. This is indicated with such narrators as those of "A Cask of Amontillado" and of "A Tell-Tale Heart" who scream out in their horrifying realizations.


Both Hawthorne and Poe make use of symbolism to great effect in their works.  Scarlet letters, black veils, poison bushes, haunted houses often represent secret sin for Hawthorne in his works while Poe employs such symbols as "vulture eyes," black cats, harlequin costumes, catacombs, decaying mansions, ravens, and coffins as objective correlatives to the minds of his characters. 

Hawthorne and Poe both utilize Gothic conventions in their portrayal of the dark side of humanity.  However, Poe often uses these conventions in a subverted manner as only the human beings are the ones who create the terrible deeds as in "The Cask of Amontillado" while Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables, is more traditional in its use of Gothic conventions.

A further similarity between Hawthorne and Poe is in their use of light/dark imagery.  The House of Seven Gables abounds with this imagery; and, for Poe, "The Raven" and "The House of Usher" contain this imagery effectively, as well.

While Poe demands that his stories produce a singleness of effect, Hawthorne's stories do not always possess this tightness of composition.  For instance, Poe's stories, told by the first-person narrator usually reach a single psychological effect; in contrast, Hawthorne's stories such as "Rappacini's Daughter" and "Young Goodman Brown" end with some ambiguity.

lsilien eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think the fundamental differences between these two authors lies in their approach to life.  Hawthorne loved his life, his wife, and his children.  Poe was a chronic alcoholic, suffered a great deal of loss, and was mentally ill with depression at the least.  I think Hawthorne had a basic belief in man's ability to overcome the worst of itself (ie: organized puritanical religion, hypocrisy, the need for revenge, etc.).  I think Poe felt that man was ultimately doomed because of himself.  "The Raven" is about one man's descent into maddness.  "The Scarlet Letter" is about one woman over-coming and 'sticking it' to the system.  Hester was not the victim in "The Scarlet Letter.  These are just two sample works--and the answer above is fairly formalist, but I believe that there differences can also be stated more simply.  Poe was an unhappy man who wrote about nightmares in order to deal with them in his way and to warn the reader of himself.  Hawthorne was a happy man who wrote about man's inhumanity to man in order to tell the reader that he can overcome the worst mankind has to offer.  

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question