illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5483

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.

“Wakefield”

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, like a beautiful but elusive melody.

“Wakefield” is not only a psychological study but also a sociological study. How is it possible for a person to be swallowed up so completely by a big city that he is able to live undetected for twenty years within one block of his wife’s residence and never bump into any of the friends who believe him to be dead? That he would wish to do it at all is strange enough, but the fact that this story is regarded as one of Hawthorne’s finest creations shows that many readers are able to identify with Wakefield. Hawthorne is writing about the loneliness and alienation of modern life, one of his favorite themes.

Civilization was becoming more and more complex, and the individual was gradually being swallowed up. Hawthrone does not say how Wakefield managed to live for twenty years without any income, but presumably he would have transferred funds to a bank account held under an assumed name. In earlier times it would have been impossible for most people to survive without interacting with others; however, one of the features of modern civilization is that each individual tends to be a separate and interchangeable component of an enormously complex social machine.

In addition, the story reflects Hawthorne’s personal loneliness and addiction to solitude, which remained with him even after he was married and had fathered three children. Many of the people who knew him best, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, described him as cold and aloof. Only Hawthorne’s devoted wife, Sophie, seemed to understand her husband’s true nature, which was shy, sensitive, and idealistic. Hawthorne’s, and his character Wakefield’s, sense of being totally isolated while surrounded by thousands of people may have been relatively unusual in the first half of the nineteenth century, but it is commonplace today. It is one of the reasons there is so much alcoholism and drug abuse. The ability to capture such important social themes in literature is an unmistakable sign of genius and an indication of why Hawthorne’s works are valuable to modern readers.

“The Minister’s Black Veil”

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

Type of work: Short story

A minister who feels overwhelmed by guilty impulses hides his face behind a veil for the rest of his life, to the consternation of his parishioners.

In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne presents another variation on his favorite theme: that humankind is universally afflicted with the so-called seven deadly sins (pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth). Like all Hawthorne’s short stories, it displays the author’s vivid imagination. It also shows exceptional artistry. Whereas in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne tears off people’s masks and exposes their real faces, in “The Minister’s Black Veil” he hides the face of a single character and thereby creates the impression that the exposed faces of all the other characters are actually masked.

“The Minister’s Black Veil” lacks the relieving humor of stories such as “Wakefield,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Consequently, the single effect it produces by its overall mood is unremittingly grim and unpleasant. It is hard to sympathize with any man who would choose to wear a black veil all of his life, even to bed, and it is certainly easy to understand why his horrified fiancé would decide to reject him. The story is interesting mainly because the minister is an obvious precursor of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s most famous work, the novel The Scarlet Letter.

“The Old Manse”

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

Type of work: Essay

In this peaceful description of his life in an old house in Concord, Hawthorne includes brief descriptions of neighbors Emerson and Thoreau.

“The Old Manse” is an example of the kind of short pieces that Hawthorne published in collections of short stories, although they were not stories but sketches or essays. Other notable examples of such rambling descriptive pieces, which Hawthorne loved to write, are “The Toll Bridge” and “Rills from the Town Pump” in his Twice-Told Tales. As Poe pointed out in his famous review of that book, these nonfiction pieces are characterized by a feeling that Poe called repose. They arc almost in the opposite manner of short stories, in that nothing dramatic ever happens in them. Modern editors frequently refer to such works as “mood pieces.” There is no conflict; they do not have much of a point and do not build to any sort of climax.

Consequently, such pieces are now mostly popular with literary connoisseurs and not with the modern reader conditioned to expect thrills and titillation in his reading matter.

“The Old Manse” was first published as an introduction to a collection of Hawthorne’s short pieces titled Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), which contained such excellent short stories as “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Although “The Old Manse” is not a short story at all, it does evoke a mood of rustic peace and domestic bliss. It also contains interesting thumbnail descriptions of his famous neighbors Emerson and Thoreau. In this introduction, Hawthorne describes his contented life with his wife and children in a big house in Concord, which had formerly been the home of Emerson. It was called The Old Manse and has been preserved for posterity as a national monument.

The Scarlet Letter

First published: 1850

Type of work: Novel

In Puritan times, a young woman is condemned to wear the embroidered letter A (for adultery) over her breast for having an illegitimate baby.

The Scarlet Letter was Hawthorne’s most commercially successful work and is still regarded as his masterpiece. The entire novel is built on the five simple words contained in one of the biblical Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The fact that Hawthorne was able to base such an enduring work on such a simple premise is an indication of genius.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy did much the same thing in his novel Anna Karenina (1875-1877) some quarter of a century later, and no doubt he was influenced by Hawthorne’s example. Another prominent Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, in “The Lady with a Pet Dog” (1899), emulated Hawthorne’s very modern treatment of the psychological turmoil arising from adultery. Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925) deals with a similar theme.

Most people in Hawthorne’s day had orthodox notions of religion, based on the Bible. They thought of God as a bearded super-patriarch living up above the clouds who was somehow able to see everything that was happening on Earth and was keeping a record of everyone’s sins with the intention of punishing them in the afterlife. Hawthorne and his intellectual contemporaries no longer believed in Heaven and Hell, or angels and devils, because modern science was rapidly undermining the authority of the Bible.

This did not by any means imply that Hawthorne rejected traditional morality. He realized that it was the basis of civilization and wanted to place morality on a foundation of reason. The Scarlet Letter shows people being punished for their sins in the here and now through the operation of natural cause and effect. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is punished by his own feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame. Long before the time of Sigmund Freud, Hawthorne showed how mental problems create physical ailments. Dimmesdale eventually dies of guilt, although his mind is relieved by his public confession.

Hawthorne’s novel was a financial success. No doubt it was popular because it dealt with sexual matters, although in a heavily veiled manner. Much has been made of Hawthorne’s use of symbolism; however, it may be that he employed it mainly because he was not able to describe certain things more explicitly. For example, the sin of adultery means sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than the lawful spouse. It was utterly impossible for Hawthorne to depict this graphically in his day; his book would never even have been published if he had mentioned such an act.

His solution was ingenious: Hester Prynne gives birth to a little girl who is living proof of the sin. So Pearl, her daughter, is a symbol of the act of adultery. Hawthorne also calls Pearl “a living hieroglyphic,” which simply means that as she gets older it should be possible to “read” her father’s identity from studying her facial features. Thus she is not only a symbol of adultery and a symbol of guilt but also a symbol of Dimmesdale’s craven fear of exposure.

The scarlet letter “A,” which Hester is condemned to wear over her breast, is another symbol of unlawful sexual intercourse. In a sense it might be described as a fetish: an object that arouses sexual desire, or at least sexual thoughts. Modern readers accustomed to explicit descriptions of sexuality would hardly find Hawthorne’s novel titillating, but the mere suggestion of unsanctioned sexual intercourse—or, indeed, any sexual behavior at all—was daring for Hawthorne’s time.

Like the minister’s black veil in the story of that name, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter has a dual nature. It is a continuing accusation directed at all the members of the community: It suggests that all of them should be wearing their own letters over their breasts, although not all of them would wear the same letter. The fact that Hester’s letter “A” is ornate, like the letters in a book from which a child learns the alphabet, and the fact that her little daughter is constantly touching it and trying to understand its meaning, suggest that there is a whole alphabet of sins that could be attached to the gowns and shirt fronts of the other citizens.

Dimmesdale deserves more than one letter: He could wear a “C” for cowardice, an “H” for hypocrisy, or an “L” for lying. The novel implicitly refers to the famous incident in the New Testament in which a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was brought before Jesus. Jesus was asked if it was permissible to stone her to death as prescribed by Mosaic law. Jesus replied: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Everyone in the mob withdrew in silent admission of his or her own hidden guilt.

Hawthorne created the character of Roger Chillingworth because an antagonist was needed to move the plot along. One of Hawthorne’s weaknesses as a fiction writer was that he tended to lavish his attention on visual elements, such as descriptions of landscapes, and to avoid heated interactions between his characters. This weakness may be attributed to Hawthorne’s shy and passive character. Static plots with heavy emphasis on visual description might suffice for short works, but a full-length novel needs an ongoing conflict to retain reader interest. Chillingworth’s behavior is strange; why does he not kill Dimmesdale, for example, if he feels so outraged? He could certainly denounce him to the whole community, which might even be worse. It is only because of Chillingworth’s odd notion of revenge that the novel is able to move forward to its conclusion.

It is hard to see exactly what Chillingworth is trying to accomplish by his sadistic treatment of Dimmesdale; although he is indispensable to the plot, he is the least believable of all the characters. This seems like an artistic flaw in the novel, yet Hawthorne is masterful in demonstrating how human sins are not punished in some hypothetical afterlife but in the here and now through the suffering they bring. A sensitive man such as Dimmesdale must suffer for the suffering he causes others, and an insensitive man such as Chillingworth blinds himself to the harm he causes and is condemned to go through life as a blind man.

The House of the Seven Gables

First published: 1851

Type of work: Novel

A man who builds a house on land obtained through perjury incurs a family curse which brings misfortune for the next two hundred years.

The House of the Seven Gables is based upon another of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” To illustrate his thesis, Hawthorne drew upon another verse from the book of Exodus, which reads in part: “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” Hawthorne’s scope in this work was considerably more ambitious than that of The Scarlet Letter, a story which covered a time span of less than ten years.

In The House of the Seven Gables, the author tries to show how Old Maule’s curse afflicts his false accuser and all his descendants for two centuries. In this, Hawthorne is not entirely successful, but his was a gallant effort. Henry James said of this novel:[I]t has always seemed to me more like a prologue to a great novel than a great novel itself. I think this is partly owing to the fact that the subject . . . of the story, does not quite fill it out, and that we get at the same time an impression of certain complicated purposes on the author’s part, which seem to reach beyond it.

To deal with all the descendants of the greedy and malicious Colonel Pyncheon over a period of two hundred years would require several thick volumes. Hawthorne attempted to cope with this artistic problem by dramatizing the plight of the last few descendants and referring to the others in expository flashbacks. As James suggests, however, this does not give satisfactory proof of his proposition that a curse could affect every member of a family for such a long period of time.

In The Scarlet Letter it is quite easy to see how the sin of adultery can be “punished” through natural laws. The minister succumbs to passion and then feels guilty when he is forced to witness the suffering he has caused. The biggest question raised by the story of The House of the Seven Gables, on the other hand, is whether a house can carry a curse for two hundred years, and, if so, how. Furthermore, if Matthew Maule had the power to invoke such a curse, then Colonel Pyncheon was not bearing false witness when he caused him to be hanged for witchcraft.

The writer William Faulkner was obviously influenced by this novel. Many of Faulkner’s works deal with the theme of how entire Southern families were cursed for the sin of exploiting black slaves. In his famous novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), he shows the degeneration of an old Southern family in a manner echoing the degeneration of the Pyncheon family in The House of the Seven Gables. In Faulkner’s long story “The Bear” (1942), the protagonist gives up title to the land he inherited from his slave-owning ancestors to get rid of the curse he feels he inherited along with it.

Faulkner’s treatment of the theme of succeeding generations being visited with the iniquity of their forefathers seems more plausible than Hawthorne’s; it is easy to see how white aristocrats would be forced to perpetuate their unjust treatment of blacks in order to maintain their status. Each generation would be morally weakened by the parasitical dependence on exploited labor and at the same time forced to see the visible results of their sins in the debasement of the people they exploited.

In The House of the Seven Gables, however, Hawthorne does not clearly illustrate the mechanism by which Colonel Pyncheon’s sin is passed on to his descendants. If a man makes a fortune through wicked business practices and then leaves the money to his son when he dies, is it necessary that his son will be injured by the money? It is also possible to imagine that the son will enjoy the money and live a happy life.

In The Beautiful and Damned (1922), a novel by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, the hero expects to inherit the bulk of an estate valued at 100 million dollars that was accumulated by his grandfather through ruthless business dealings. The protagonist becomes a drunken wastrel because he feels no need to do anything for himself. This seems entirely plausible; the reader can readily understand the psychological process by which this result would come about (and, in fact, it was exactly what happened to many so-called playboys of Fitzgerald’s generation).

In chapter 20 of The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne writes, “Old Maule’s prophecy was probably founded on a knowledge of this physical predisposition [to have strokes] in the Pyncheon race.” Here he is deliberately trying to show a rational, natural explanation for the apparent punishments inflicted for mortal sins. Like the great English epic poet John Milton, one of Hawthorne’s favorite authors, Hawthorne is trying “to justify [or rationalize] the ways of God to man.” Because he is dealing with dozens of descendants over two centuries, however, the nature of the punishment is not as convincing as that of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.

The House of the Seven Gables, like The Scarlet Letter, is a series of well executed tableaux. One of the finest of these, as well as one of the most unusual and most characteristic of Hawthorne, is chapter 18, titled “Governor Pyncheon.” Hawthorne wrote for a slower-paced world in which one day was pretty much the same as the next and people rarely traveled more than a few miles from their homes; his writing must be read slowly and savored. Chapter 18 describes a dead man sitting in a chair. He died of a stroke, another apparent victim of Maule’s curse. His watch, which he was holding in his hand at the time of his death, is still ticking, and Hawthorne describes that ticking, the only sound to be heard in the room.

The author loved such details. He describes the changing patterns of light inside the room as the sun moves from east to west.Meanwhile, the twilight is glooming upward out of the corners of the room. The shadows of the tall furniture grow deeper, and at first become more definite; then, spreading wider, they lose their distinctness of outline in the dark, gray tide of oblivion, as it were, that creeps slowly over the various objects, and the one human figure sitting in the midst of them.

Hawthorne speculates on where the dead man might have been expected and what some people might be thinking of his unexplained absence. The dead man was going to be nominated for governor that very day: It was to have been the crowning moment of his externally honorable but secretly vicious career. The moonlight comes in the window, and still the dead man sits there. Hawthorne imagines the ghosts of Pyncheon’s ancestors coming out of the shadows to stalk the room, along with the ghost of Matthew Maule, the wronged man who originally placed a curse on the house of the seven gables.

The modern reader who tries to skip over or race through such long descriptive passages is missing the very best that Hawthorne has to offer: the use of his powerful imagination to create finely detailed word pictures. These images bring a vanished world back to life, so that the reader can step through the picture frame and enter the town of Salem as it existed in the first half of the eighteenth century.

It is worth repeating that Hawthorne was not personally as obsessed with guilt as his stories and novels might suggest. According to his great admirer Henry James,Nothing is more curious and interesting than this almost exclusively imported character of the sense of sin in Hawthorne’s mind; it seems to exist there merely for an artistic or literary purpose. . . . What pleased him in such subjects was their picturesqueness, their rich duskiness of colour, their chiaroscuro; but they were not the expression of a hopeless, or even a predominantly melancholy, feeling about the human soul.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne Short Fiction Analysis