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.