Nathaniel Hawthorne Critical Essays

Nathaniel Hawthorne American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Hawthorne is still required reading in many American literature courses in high schools and colleges, he is not especially popular with young readers. American fiction has changed greatly since his time. Popular twentieth and twenty-first century novelists make Hawthorne seem sententious and tedious, like some elderly relative who dominates the dinner-table conversation. Hawthorne’s style, once considered elegant and aristocratic, now seems artificial and needlessly complicated, the pernicious effect of the study of Latin. He is weak in dramatic construction; he avoids confrontations where confrontations seem obviously called for, as in the case of Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth at the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne has no qualms about stopping his narrative to present long descriptions of trees, flowers, streams, clouds, sunsets, houses, streets, pedestrians, and so forth. He lived at a time when photography was in its infancy and there was no way of reproducing photographs in books or magazines. (One of the principal characters in The House of the Seven Gables earns his living by making daguerreotypes, a primitive form of black-and-white photography.) Readers of Hawthorne’s time enjoyed verbal descriptions of beautiful landscapes or picturesque towns and cities; it was the only means they had of “seeing” them. Modern readers, who are saturated with mass media, have lost the ability to appreciate such detailed verbal descriptions and have a tendency to skip over them in order to get on with the story.

Hawthorne’s characters agonize over moral problems. They often seem impossibly noble or totally sinister to readers who are accustomed to more subtle characterization in fiction. Probably the feature that does the most to date Hawthorne’s stories and novels is his old-fashioned dialogue. As mentioned, the novels of Scott were the rage both in England and the United States during Hawthorne’s day. Hawthorne’s and Scott’s characters speak in the same overblown fashion, full of courtly phrases, noble sentiments, polysyllabic words, and carefully balanced sentences.

Mark Twain, the great American novelist, short-story writer, and humorist, sounded the death knell for this kind of writing—at least in the United States—by producing novels such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which the characters talk like real people and are actuated by credible human motivations.

This being the case, why do English teachers continue to assign Hawthorne’s short stories and novels as required reading in American literature courses? Hawthorne is important as the founding father of genuine American literature—as opposed to the transplanted English literature that flourished on the North American continent before his time. He can also be regarded as one of the creators of the modern short story, a literary form that has been described as America’s unique contribution to world literature.

Additionally, Hawthorne is important because of the influence he had on his successors, particularly in terms of theme and subject matter. He was the first American fiction writer to portray the color and drama in ordinary American life, so later writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and William Faulkner—in fact, all succeeding American writers—are deeply indebted to him. Through his dedication to his craft, Hawthorne showed his successors how to be American writers and not English men of letters living in exile. In practical terms, Hawthorne proved to American writers that they could compete with the more sophisticated English writers for the dollars readers paid for books. His works might be called an artistic declaration of independence.

In the long run, Hawthorne may be regarded as an important writer primarily because of his interest in human psychology and his explorations—daring at the time—of the dark side of human consciousness. Prior to Hawthorne, the function of literature was considered to be to elevate the human spirit. In the words of Henry James (an American writer who moved to England and became a British subject), what most appealed to Hawthorne’s imagination was “the old secret of mankind in general . . . the secret that we are really not by any means so good as a well-regulated society requires us to appear.” According to the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, civilization requires people to suppress and deny their aggressive and sexual impulses, which leads to inner conflict, guilt, and in some individuals to neurosis and psychosis. This is the area of human consciousness that Hawthorne was exploring before Freud was even born. Hawthorne approached it in a guarded way; that is why his works are so full of allegory and symbolism. Modern authors such as horror writer Stephen King have no such qualms.

Hawthorne lived and died before the English naturalist Charles Darwin published his theory, now generally accepted, that the human race is descended from an apelike animal. Most people of Hawthorne’s time believed that humankind had been created by God and was more like the angels than the lower animals. This belief compelled them to deny the animal passions that were seething inside them; however, they could secretly recognize their portraits in such Hawthorne stories as “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) and “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836). In his refined and genteel way, Hawthorne opened up a whole new world of human experience for his literary heirs to explore. His example led to a literature that was more honest in discussing human emotions and motivations. This hypersensitive, reclusive man had a remarkable strength of character which enabled him to carve out a new literature for a new nation.

“My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

First published: 1832 (collected in The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales, 1851)

Type of work: Short story

A penniless country youth searches colonial Boston for an influential kinsman but discovers that the man is being banished in disgrace.

Although on the surface “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” appears to be a simple story, it offers much information about Hawthorne’s experience, attitudes, interests, and artistic aims. This ability to suggest a wealth of meaning in compressed form is a sure sign of genius. The moral of the story is that no one should look to others for help: The individual must learn to look out for himself or herself.

This message is expressed in philosophical terms by Hawthorne’s friend and mentor the Transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous essay “Self-Reliance” (1841). Hawthorne’s early experiences as a poor relation living on the charity of his own “kinsmen” had taught him the bitterness of dependency. The story also shows Hawthorne’s interest in early American history, which he studied assiduously during his “silent years” of self-imprisonment from 1825 to 1837 and used as subject matter for much of his fiction.

It also shows the power of his imagination. “Mr. Hawthorne’s distinctive trait,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe, a contemporary writer of great imaginative talent himself, “is invention, creation, imagination, originality—a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest.” In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Hawthorne performs the difficult feat of re-creating a colonial city of a century before his time, complete with streets, houses, shops, sounds, smells, and a variety of inhabitants. It is this sensation of being transported backward in time that holds the greatest interest for the reader.

Another feature of this story, to be seen again and again in Hawthorne’s later work, is his sardonic, tongue-in-cheek humor, which mercifully brightens some of his grim subject matter. Although Hawthorne seems greatly concerned with matters of religion and morality, he deliberately took a more sophisticated and intellectual approach to these matters than was the case with his Puritan ancestors.

Hawthorne’s technical skill as a prose writer, which he polished during his years of seclusion after graduating from college, is clearly evident. He uses light and darkness as did the great painters Caravaggio and Rembrandt Van Rijn, who called their technique “chiaroscuro.” The story consists of a succession of night scenes feebly lighted by candles and lanterns or flickering fireplaces glimpsed through windows and doorways. The feeling of darkness is maintained until the climax in order to provide a vivid contrast when the protagonist’s proud and influential kinsman Major Molineux is seen in the midst of a horrible parade with all his pain and humiliation pitilessly revealed to the world by the light of all the blazing torches. The brightness of the parade symbolizes the young hero’s sudden enlightenment.

Finally, the story touches on what was Hawthorne’s favorite idea: that everyone, no matter how dignified and righteous he or she may appear, has a dark side of character which is hidden from the world like the dark side of the moon. Hawthorne does not reveal why Major Molineux has been tarred and feathered by the townspeople, but their behavior indicates that he has well deserved it.

“Young Goodman Brown”

First published: 1835 (collected in Mosses from an Old Manse, 1846)

Type of work: Short story

A young man sneaks off to the forest to witness a devil-worshiping orgy and is shocked to find many respected citizens in attendance.

“Young Goodman Brown” is a perfect example of Hawthorne’s favorite theme: that human nature is full of hidden wickedness. The young hero’s journey in the story is symbolic of one’s journey through life, in which each individual gradually loses his or her naïveté and innocence as a result of exposure to greed, lust, envy, perversion, and the other sins of humanity.

The crowning blow to Brown’s naïve conception of the world comes when he discovers that his own meek and innocent wife, Faith, is one of the celebrants at the Walpurgis Night orgy. As is often the case, Hawthorne treats his theme with a tongue-in-cheek humor which arises mainly from the contrast between people’s real characters and the false faces they present to the world. The humor is vital to this story; the reader is enticed along the forest pathway by an illusion of frivolity and comes to realize the full horror intended only after finishing the last page.

Stories such as this entitle Hawthorne to be considered one of the principal founders of the modern short story, a form of literature in which American authors have excelled. The essence of a modern short story, as defined by Edgar Allan Poe in a newspaper review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, is that every detail contributes to a single effect. Prior to Hawthorne’s time, short stories tended to be episodic and loosely structured, often resembling essays. The single effect of a modern short story can be produced by the overall mood, as is often the case in the works of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, or by a surprising or shocking ending, as is usually the case in the stories of the French writer Guy de Maupassant and the American writer O. Henry. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the effect of terror and dismay is produced by the surprise ending. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the effect of horror and disillusionment spiced with sardonic humor is produced by the overall mood.

Hawthorne writes about witches and devils as would someone who does not really believe in such grotesque creatures but appreciates them as colorful and dramatic symbols of humanity’s hidden guilt and fear. Some of his stories are not unlike modern horror films, which evoke laughter from the audience along with shivers and shrieks. This indicates a sophisticated modern attitude which was characteristic of many of Hawthorne’s European and American contemporaries, who were trying to reconcile traditional beliefs with modern scientific knowledge.


First published: 1835 (collected in Twice-Told Tales, 1837, expanded 1842)

Type of work: Short story

On a mere whim, a middle-aged man leaves his wife and lives by himself for twenty years within one block of his former home in busy London.

“Wakefield” has an unusual form: It is part story and part essay. The author does not try to conceal his presence, as is usually done by fiction writers for the sake of achieving greater verisimilitude, but actually invites the reader to participate with him in creating the story and deducing a moral. Instead of aiming at suspense, Hawthorne gives the whole plot away in one sentence: “The man, under pretence of going on a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years.” The form resembles a musical composition in which the theme is stated at the beginning and then embellished with variations until it is recapitulated at the end. The story is a masterpiece: It demonstrates Hawthorne’s imagination and artistic skill. It also has a haunting effect,...

(The entire section is 5483 words.)