illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne Short Fiction Analysis

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s reading in American colonial history confirmed his basically ambivalent attitude toward the American past, particularly the form that Puritanism took in the New England colonies. Especially interested in the intensity of the Puritan-Cavalier rivalry, the Puritan inclination to credit manifestations of the supernatural such as witchcraft, and the psychology of the struggle for liberation from English rule, Hawthorne explored these themes in some of his earliest stories. As they did for his Puritan ancestors, sin and guilt preoccupied Hawthorne, who, in his move from Salem to Concord, encountered what he considered the facile dismissal of the problem of evil by the Concord intellectuals. He developed a deeply ambivalent moral attitude that colored the situations and characters of his fiction.

In the early masterpiece “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,”

Often, Hawthorne’s characters cannot throw off the burden of a vague and irrational but weighty burden of guilt. Frequently, his young protagonists exhibit a cold, unresponsive attitude toward a loving fiancé or wife and can find no spiritual sustenance to redeem the situation. Brown, Parson Hooper of “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and Reuben Bourne of “Roger Malvin’s Burial” are examples of such guilt-ridden and essentially faithless men.

Another prevalent type of protagonist rejects love to become a detached observer, such as the husband of “Wakefield,” who for no apparent reason deserts his wife and spends years living nearby in disguise. In the stories of his middle and later periods, these detached characters are usually scientists or artists. The former include misguided idealists such as Aylmer of “The Birthmark” and the scientist Rappaccini in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” who experiments remorselessly on female family members in search of some elusive abstract perfection. Hawthorne’s artists, while less dangerous, tend also to exclude themselves from warm and loving relationships.

At their most deplorable, Hawthorne’s isolated, detached characters become, like Ethan Brand in the story of the same name and Roger Chillingworth of The Scarlet Letter, violators of the human heart, unreclaimable souls whose estrangement from normal human relationships yields them little in compensation, either material or spiritual.

Characteristically Hawthorne builds his stories on a quest or journey, often into the woods or wilderness but always into an unknown region, the protagonist emerging enlightened or merely chastened but invariably sadder, with any success a bitterly ironical one, such as Aylmer’s removal of his wife’s birthmark, which kills his patient. The stories are pervasively and often brilliantly symbolic, and Hawthorne’s symbolic imagination encompasses varieties ranging from more or less clear-cut allegory to elusive multiple symbolic patterns whose significance critics debate endlessly.

A century and a half after their composition, Hawthorne’s artistry and moral imagination, even in some of his seriously flawed stories, continue to engage readers and critics. Two of Hawthorne’s most enduringly popular stories—“Roger Malvin’s Burial” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”—appeared initially in the 1832 edition of a literary annual called The Token but remained uncollected until long afterward. Both seem to have been intended for a book, Provincial Tales, that never materialized, and both begin with paragraphs explicitly linking the narratives to historical events.

“Roger Malvin’s Burial”

“Roger Malvin’s Burial” is set in the aftermath of a 1725 confrontation with Native Americans called Lovell’s Fight. Roger is a mortally wounded soldier; Reuben Bourne, his less seriously injured companion, must decide whether to stay with his older friend on the desolate frontier or make his way back to his company before he becomes too weak to travel. Urged to the latter course by Roger, his prospective father-in-law, Reuben makes the older man as comfortable as he can at the base of a huge rock near...

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an oak sapling, promises to return as soon as he can, and staggers away. Eventually, he is discovered by a search party and taken home to be ministered to by Dorcas, his fiancé. After several days of semiconsciousness, Reuben recovers sufficiently to answer questions. Although he believes he has done the right thing, he cannot bring himself to contradict Dorcas’s assumption that he had buried her father, and he is undeservedly lionized for his heroic fidelity.

Eighteen years later, this unhappy and uncommunicative husband takes Dorcas and their fifteen-year-old son Cyrus to the frontier, presumably to resettle but really to “bury” Roger and expiate his own guilt. On the anniversary of the day Reuben had left Roger, Dorcas and Cyrus are led to the rock and the now blasted oak tree, a fatal gunshot is fired, and in a chillingly ambiguous way Reuben relieves himself of his “curse.” This pattern of irrational guilt and ambivalent quest would be repeated in other stories, using New England historical incidents and pervasive symbols such as the rock and oak of “Roger Malvin’s Burial.”

“My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

“My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is justly considered one of Hawthorne’s greatest stories. The historical introduction here serves to establish the setting as a time of bitter resentment toward Massachusetts colonial governors. The location is left deliberately vague, except that Robin, the young protagonist, must arrive by ferry in a town where he hopes to meet his kinsman, a colonial official. Robin has come from the country with an idea of getting a boost toward a career from Major Molineux. The town is tense and lurid when he enters at nightfall, and the people act strangely. In particular, whenever Robin mentions the name of his kinsman, he is rebuffed. While frequently described as “shrewd,” Robin seems naïve and baffled by the events of this disquieting evening.

Eventually, he is treated to the nightmarish spectacle of the public humiliation of his kinsman, though it appears that Major Molineux is the more or less innocent victim of colonial vindictiveness toward the authority of the Crown. At the climax, Robin finds himself unaccountably laughing with the townspeople at Molineux’s disgrace. By the end of the evening, Robin, convinced that nothing remains for him to do but to return home, is counseled by the only civil person he meets to wait a few days before leaving, “as you are a shrewd youth, you may rise in the world without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux.”

At one level, this is clearly a rites-of-passage story. Robin has reached the point of initiation into an adult world whose deviousness and obliquity he has hardly begun to suspect, but one in which he can hope to prosper only through his own efforts. The conclusion strongly implies that he cannot go home again, or that if he does, life will never be the same. As the stranger suggests, he may well be obliged to stay and adjust to the new world that he has discovered. The historical setting proclaims “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” an imaginative account of the colonial struggle toward the challenges and perils of an independence for which the people are largely unprepared. The ferry ride, reminiscent of the underworld adventures of epic heroes such as Odysseus and Aeneas—and perhaps more pointedly yet, the Dante of the Inferno—leads to a hellish region from which newcomers cannot normally expect to return. The multiplicity of interpretations that this story has provoked attests to its richness and complexity.

Several of Hawthorne’s best stories first appeared in 1835. One of these, “Wakefield,” has been criticized as slight and undeveloped, but it remains intriguing. It poses in its final paragraph an exacting problem: “Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever.” Wakefield “steps aside” by leaving his wife for no apparent reason and secretly taking up residence in the next street. The setting of this story, unusual for Hawthorne, is London, and the couple have been married for ten years. Wakefield seems to be an embryonic version of the ruthless experimenter of several later stories, but here his action is more of a joke than an experiment. He is “intellectual, but not actively so”; he lacks imagination; and he has “a cold but not depraved nor wandering heart.” When he leaves, he promises to be back in three or four days, but he stays away for twenty years. He adopts a disguise, regularly walks by his old home and peers in, and even passes his wife in the street. Wakefield has a purpose that he cannot define, but the author describes his motive merely as “morbid vanity.” He will frighten his wife and will find out how much he really matters. He does not matter that much, however, for his wife settles to the routine of her “widowhood.” Finally, passing his old home in a rain shower, he suddenly decides to enter, and at this point the story ends, leaving unanswered the question of whether he has lost his place forever.

“The Minister’s Black Veil”

Of the many Hawthorne stories that point toward his masterpiece in the novel The Scarlet Letter, “The Minister’s Black Veil” boasts the character most akin to Arthur Dimmesdale of the novel. Like Dimmesdale, Parson Hooper has a secret. He appears one morning at a Milford meeting house (a reference to “Governor Belcher” appears to place the story in Massachusetts in the 1730’s or early 1740’s) with his face shrouded by a black veil, which he never thereafter removes. Unlike Dimmesdale, he thus flaunts his secret while concealing it. The whole story revolves around the veil and its meaning. His sermon, unusually energetic for this mild minister, is “secret sin.” That afternoon, Hooper conducts a funeral service for a young woman, and Hawthorne hints darkly that Hooper’s sin may have involved her. In the evening, at a third service, Hooper’s veil casts gloom over a wedding ceremony. The congregation speculates endlessly but inclines to avoid the minister.

One person who does not avoid him is a young woman named Elizabeth, who is engaged to Hooper. Elizabeth unavailingly begs him to explain or remove the veil and then breaks their engagement. In the years that follow, the lonely minister exerts a strange power over his flock. Dying sinners always insist on his visiting them and never expire before he reaches them, although his presence makes them shudder. Finally, Hooper himself sickens, and Elizabeth reappears to nurse him. On his death bed, he questions the aversion of his onlookers and insists that he sees a similar veil over each of their faces. He then expires and is buried with the veil still over his face. A question more important than the nature of Hooper’s transgression concerns his increase in ministerial efficacy. Is Hooper’s veiled state a kind of extended stage trick? (In death a smile lingers on his face.) Is it advantageous to be ministered to by a “mind diseased?” Is Hooper’s effectiveness an implicit condemnation of his and his congregation’s religion? Such questions Hawthorne’s story inevitably raises and just as inevitably does not presume to answer directly.

“The May-Pole of Merrymount”

“The May-Pole of Merrymount” is simple in plot but complex in theme. One midsummer’s eve, very early in the colonial life of the Massachusetts settlement at Mount Wollaston, or Merry Mount, a reenactment of ancient Maypole rites accompanies the wedding of an attractive young couple, Edith and Edgar. Into the scene storms a belligerent group of Puritans under John Endicott, who hacks down the Maypole, arrests the principals, including the flower-decked priest and the bridal couple, and threatens punishment to all, though Edith’s and Edgar’s will be light if they can accommodate themselves to the severe Puritan life hereafter.

Hawthorne uses history but does not follow it strictly. The historical Endicott’s main motive in attacking Merry Mount was to stop its denizens from furnishing firepower and firewater—that is, guns and liquor—to Native Americans. The real Merry Mounters were not so frivolous, nor the Puritans necessarily so austere as Hawthorne depicts them. His artistic purpose required the sharp contrast of two ways of life among early Massachusetts settlers, neither of which he is willing to endorse. The young couple are caught between the self-indulgence of their own community and the “dismal wretches” who invade their ceremony. Like many of Hawthorne’s characters, Edith and Edgar emerge into adulthood in an environment replete with bewildering moral conflicts. It is possible to see the conflict here as one between “English” and “American” values, the Americans being the sober seekers of a new, more disciplined, presumably more godly order than the one they chose to leave behind; the conflict can also be seen as one between a form of religion receptive to “pagan” excesses and a strict, fiercely intolerant one; yet another way of seeing it is as one between hedonists and sadists—for the pleasure principle completely dominates Hawthorne’s Merry Mount, while the Puritans promise branding, chopping of ears, and, instead of a Maypole, a whipping post for the miscreants.

The resolution of the story echoes John Milton’s description of Adam and Eve leaving Eden at the end of Paradise Lost (1667), but Hawthorne has Endicott throw a wreath of roses from the Maypole over the heads of the departing newlyweds, “a deed of prophecy,” which signifies the end of the “systematic gayety” of Merry Mount, which also symbolizes the “purest and best of their early joys” that must sustain them in the strict Puritan regimen that lies ahead.

“Young Goodman Brown”

“Young Goodman Brown,” first appearing in print in 1835, is set in Salem at the end of the seventeenth century—the era of the witchcraft trials. Again, the names of some minor characters are historical, but Brown and his wife, Faith, whom the young protagonist leaves one night to go into the woods, are among his most allegorical. In its outline the allegory is transparent: When a “good man” abandons his faith, he can expect to go to the devil. Hawthorne complicates his story by weaving into it all sorts of subtleties and ambiguities. Brown’s guide in the woods is simultaneously fatherlike and devilish. He encounters a series of presumably upright townspeople, including eventually Faith herself, gathering for a ceremony of devil-worship. At the climactic moment, Brown urges Faith to “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.” The next thing he knows, he is alone in the forest, all his companions having fled—or all having been part of a dream. Brown returns home in the morning, his life radically altered. He can no longer trust his neighbors, he shrinks from his wife, and he lives out his years a scowling, muttering misanthrope.

As in “The May-Pole of Merrymount,” Hawthorne’s motive in evoking an episode of New England history is not primarily historical: No one proceeds against witches; there is no allusion to Judge John Hathorne. Rather, the setting creates an atmosphere of guilt, suspicion, and unstable moral imagination. Breathing this atmosphere, Brown falls victim not to injustice or religious intolerance but to himself. In a sense it does not matter whether Brown fell asleep in the woods and dreamed the Black Sabbath. Regardless of whether he has lost faith, he has manifestly lost hope. His apparent capacity to resist evil in the midst of a particularly unholy temptation dispels his own guilt no more than the guilt he, and seemingly only he, detects in others. “Young Goodman Brown” is a masterful fictive presentation of the despairing soul.

All the preceding stories had been published by the time Hawthorne turned thirty-one. For about three more years, stories continued to flow, although most of those from the late 1830’s are not among his best. He broke a subsequent dry spell with a series of stories first published in 1843 and 1844, many of which were later collected in Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. Most notable of these later stories are “The Birthmark,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

“The Birthmark”

In these later efforts, the artist-scientist appears frequently. Aylmer of “The Birthmark” becomes obsessed by the one flaw in his beautiful wife, Georgiana, a birthmark on her left cheek that had not previously bothered her or her prior lovers. To Aylmer, however, it is a “symbol of imperfection,” and he undertakes its removal. Hawthorne foreshadows the result in many ways, not the least by Georgiana’s observation that her brilliant husband’s “most splendid successes were almost invariably failures.” She submits to the operation nevertheless, and he succeeds at removing the mark but fails to preserve her life, intertwined somehow with it.

Aylmer equates science with religion; words such as “miracle,” “votaries,” “mysteries,” and “holy” abound. He is also an artist who, far from subjecting Georgiana to a smoky laboratory, fashions an apartment with beautiful curtains and perfumed lamps of his creation for her to inhabit during the experiment. Neither hero nor villain, Aylmer is a gifted man incapable of accepting moral limitations and therefore unable to accept his wife as the best that life could offer him.

The artist appears in various guises in Hawthorne’s later stories and novels. He may be a wood-carver as in “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” a poet like Coverdale of The Blithedale Romance, a painter like Kenyon of The Marble Faun, or, as in “The Artist of the Beautiful,” a watchmaker with the ambition “to put the very spirit of beauty into form.” Owen Warland is also a peripheral figure, not yet alienated from society like many twentieth century artists real and fictional but regarded as quaint and ineffectual by his companions. Like Aylmer, he attempts to improve on nature, his creation being a mechanical butterfly of rare and fragile beauty. Owen appears fragile himself, but it is part of Hawthorne’s strategy to reveal his inner toughness. He can contemplate the destruction of his butterfly by a child with equanimity, for the artifact itself is only the “symbol” of the reality of art. Owen suffers in living among less sensitive and spiritual beings and in patiently enduring their unenlightened patronization, but he finds security in his capacity for beauty.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter”

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” has three familiar Hawthorne characters. His young initiate this time is an Italian university student named Giovanni Guasconti, whose lodgings in Padua overlook a spectacular garden, the pride and joy of a scientific experimenter, Dr. Rappaccini, whose human subject is his daughter Beatrice. A scientific rival, professor Baglioni, warns Giovanni that Rappaccini much prefers science to humankind, but the young man falls in love with Beatrice and thus comes within Rappaccini’s orbit. This scientist is more sinister than Aylmer and exerts his power over Beatrice more pervasively than does Aylmer over Georgiana. Beatrice’s very life is bound up with the powerful poison with which he grows the exotic flowers in his garden. Giovanni, who has himself imbibed the poison, tries to counter its effect on Beatrice by offering her a medicine obtained from Baglioni, but its effect on her, whose whole life has depended on the poison, is fatal.

This story and its four main characters have generated a bewildering variety of interpretations. One reason for the critical quarrels is a subtle shift in point of view late in the story. For most of the way, the reader is with Giovanni and knows what Giovanni knows, but about four-fifths of the way, an omniscient narrator begins to comment on the limitations of his perceptions, the truth being deeper than he can plumb. This double perspective creates difficulties in gauging his character and that of the other three principals.

Hawthorne’s allegorical propensities also complicate one’s understanding of the story. For example, Beatrice can be seen as an Eve, an already corrupted temptress in the garden; as a Dantean, who guides her lover through what is for him, initially at least, Paradise; and as the Pomona of Ovid’s tale of Vertumnus, the vegetarian god who wins her love and takes her away. (There is a statue of Vertumnus in Rappaccini’s garden.) Obviously, Beatrice is not consistently any of these figures, but each of them leads to further allegorizing.

Perhaps the ultimate explanation of the interpretative difficulties arising from “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is the author’s profound ambivalence. In this fictional world, good and evil, beauty and deformity, are inextricably intermingled. Is Baglioni, for example, wise counselor or jealous rival, the protector of Giovanni or the vindictive agent of Beatrice’s destruction? He fulfills these roles and others. In this story he conjoins with three other familiar Hawthorne types, the young initiate into life’s malignities, the trusting victim of a detached manipulator, and the insensitive violator of his victim’s integrity. Nearly every conceivable critical method has been applied to “Rappaccini’s Daughter”; ultimately each reader must make up his or her own mind about its primary significance.

After these three stories of the mid-1840’s, all viewed incidentally as landmarks of science fiction by historians of that genre, Hawthorne, back in Salem and busy with his customhouse duties, wrote little for several years. Before turning his attention to long fiction in 1850, however, he completed a few more short stories in the late 1840’s, the most important of which is “Ethan Brand.”

“Ethan Brand”

Like several of his best stories, this one occupies the time from nightfall to the following dawn, but unlike “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” it has a contemporary setting. Bartram is a lime burner attending his fire on Mount Greylock in northwestern Massachusetts with his son Joe, when a man appears, a former lime burner who long ago decided to devote his life to searching for the Unpardonable Sin, which, by cultivating his intellect at the expense of his moral sense, he found in his own heart. All this he explains to the unimaginative and uncomprehending Bartram. The sensitive son fears the glint in the stranger’s eye, and even Bartram cringes at Ethan Brand’s sinister laugh. Since Brand has passed into local folklore, Bartram dispatches Joe to inform the villagers that he is back, and soon a contingent of neighbors comes on the scene. When Brand demonstrates his abrogation of human brotherhood, they retire, and Brand offers to watch Bartram’s fire so that the latter and his son can retire for the night to their nearby hut. When Bartram and Joe awake in the morning, they find Brand gone, but a look into the fire reveals his skeleton burned to lime, his hardened heart also burnt but distinctly outlined.

What was the sin? Hawthorne subtitled this story “A Chapter from an Abortive Romance.” No fragments of such a romance have ever turned up, although the story alludes briefly to past relationships between Brand and some of the villagers, including an “Esther” on whom Brand had performed a “psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process.” Hawthorne seems to have intended no specifying of this or any other of Brand’s activities but succeeded in delineating a character who represents the ultimate development—at least in his short fiction—of the coldly intellectual seeker who has denied his heart, exploited others in relentless quasi-scientific experimentation, and isolated himself from humanity. Hawthorne would depict such characters in more detail in his novels but never one who acknowledged his sin so completely and regarded suicide as the only act remaining to him.

At one time, Hawthorne’s short stories were viewed mainly as preliminaries to the novels to which he turned shortly after publishing “Ethan Brand” in January of 1850, but he is now recognized as a master of the short story. Unlike all other major American writers of his time, he devoted his creative energies almost exclusively to fiction. Only Edgar Allan Poe, who began to publish his fiction shortly after Hawthorne’s early stories appeared, approaches his position as the United States’ first artist of short fiction. If Poe excelled at the psychology of terror, Hawthorne prevailed at the psychology of guilt. Both brilliantly characterized the isolated or alienated individual, but only Hawthorne regularly enriched the cultural significance of his stories by locating these characters within the context of an American past and thus contributing imaginatively to his readers’ sense of that past.


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