Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Central to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romances is his idea of a “neutral territory,” described in the Custom House sketch that precedes The Scarlet Letter as a place“somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” A romance, according to Hawthorne, is different from the novel, which maintains a “minute fidelityto the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.” In the neutral territory of romance, however, the author may make use of the “marvellous” to heighten atmospheric effects, if he or she also presents “the truth of the human heart.” As long as the writer of romance creates characters whose virtues, vices, and sensibilities are distinctly human, he or she may place them in an environment that is out of the ordinary—or that is, in fact, allegorical. Thus, for example, while certain elements—the stigma of the scarlet letter, or Donatello’s faun ears—are fantastical in conception, they represent a moral stance that is true to nature. Dimmesdale’s guilt at concealing his adultery with Hester Prynne is, indeed, as destructive as the wound on his breast, and Donatello’s pagan nature is expressed in the shape of his ears.

A number of recurring thematic patterns and character types appear in Hawthorne’s novels and tales, as Randall Stewart suggests in the introduction to The American Notebooks (1932). These repetitions show Hawthorne’s emphasis on the effects of events on the human heart rather than on the events themselves. One common motif is concern for the past, or, as Hawthorne says in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, his “attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” Hawthorne’s interest in the Puritan past was perhaps sparked by his “discovery,” as a teenager, of his Hathorne connections; it was certainly influenced by his belief that progress was impeded by inheritance, that “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, andbecomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” For Hawthorne, then, the past must be reckoned with, and then put aside; the eventual decay of aristocratic families is not only inevitable, but desirable.

Hawthorne’s understanding of tradition is illustrated in many of his works. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, he explores the effect of traditional Puritan social and theological expectations on three kinds of sinners: the adultress (Hester), the hypocrite (Dimmesdale), and the avenger (Chillingworth), only to demonstrate that the punishment they inflict on themselves far outweighs the public castigation. Hester, in fact, inverts the rigidified Puritan system, represented by the scarlet letter, whose meaning she changes from “adultress” to “able.” Probably the most specific treatment of the theme, however, is found in The House of the Seven Gables, in which the Pyncheon family house and fortune have imprisoned both Hepzibah and Clifford, one in apathy and one in insanity; only Phoebe, the country cousin who cares little for wealth, can lighten the burden, for not only her relatives but also Holgrave, a descendant of the Maules who invoked the original curse. In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne goes to Italy for his “sense of the past,” although Hilda and Kenyon are both Americans. The past in this novel is represented not only in the setting but also in Donatello’s pagan nature; at the end, both Miriam and the faun figure engage in a purgatorial expiation of the past.

Another recurring theme is that of isolation. Certainly Hawthorne himself felt distanced from normal social converse by his authorial calling. The firsthand descriptions of Hawthorne extant today present him more as an observer than as a participant, a stance over which he himself agonized. In writing to Longfellow about his apprenticeship years, he complained that he was “carried apart from the main current of...

(The entire section is 5,541 words.)