Nathaniel Hawthorne Nathaniel Hawthorne Short Fiction Analysis

Nathaniel Hawthorne book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Nathaniel Hawthorne Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Nathaniel Hawthorne Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 4,057 words.)