illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne lived among, and had friendly relations with, the Concord transcendentalists for several years. What is the basis of his resistance to their general philosophical outlook?

Examine the interwoven themes of hidden sin and hidden guilt in Hawthorne’s fiction.

By what means does Hawthorne create “the sensation of being transported backward in time” in his fiction?

What are the structural principles governing The Scarlet Letter?

How does Hawthorne characterize Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter? In particular, how does he manage to establish her dignity in her degraded social circumstances?

There is little or no evidence that Hawthorne felt personally guilt-ridden. How can his obsession with guilt in his fiction be explained?

Given Hawthorne’s own psychological penetration, how can you account for the sinister aura surrounding his psychologically penetrating characters?

Other Literary Forms

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is a major American novelist whose early Fanshawe: A Tale (1828) did not lead immediately to further long fiction. After a period largely given to tales and sketches, he published his classic study of moral prejudice in colonial New England, The Scarlet Letter (1850). In the next decade, three more novels—he preferred to call them romances—followed: The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860). He wrote books for children, including A Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls (1852), and travel sketches of England, Our Old Home (1863). His posthumously published notebooks and letters are also important.


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This seminal figure in American fiction combined narrative skill and artistic integrity as no previous American writer had done. A dozen of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories remain anthology favorites, and few modern American students fail to become familiar with The Scarlet Letter.

His influence on subsequent American writers, especially on his younger American friend Herman Melville, and on Henry James, William Faulkner, and Robert Lowell, has been enormous. Although he wrote comparatively little literary theory, his prefaces to his novels, preeminently the one to The House of the Seven Gables, and scattered observations within his fiction reflect a pioneering concern with his craft.

Other literary forms

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Many of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories were originally published anonymously in such magazines as the Token and the New England Magazine between 1830 and 1837. Several collections appeared during his lifetime, including Twice-Told Tales (1837; expanded 1842), Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), and The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (1851). Houghton Mifflin published the complete works in the Riverside edition (1850-1882) and the Old Manse edition (1900). Hawthorne also wrote stories for children, collected in Grandfather’s Chair (1841), Biographical Stories for Children (1842), True Stories from History and Biography (1851), A Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls (1852), and Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853). With the help of his sister, Elizabeth, he edited the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (1836) and Peter Parley’s Universal History (1837) and, as a favor to would-be president Franklin Pierce, wrote a biography for the presidential campaign. His last completed work was Our Old Home (1863), a series of essays about his sojourn in England. At the time of his death, he left four unfinished fragments: Septimius Felton, The Dolliver Romance, The Ancestral Footstep, and Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret.


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Few other American authors, with the possible exception of Henry James, have engaged in so deliberate a literary apprenticeship as Nathaniel Hawthorne. After an initial period of anonymity during his so-called solitary years from 1825 to 1837, he achieved an unfaltering reputation as an author of short stories, romances, essays, and children’s books. He is remembered for not only furthering the development of the short-story form but also distinguishing between the novel and the romance. The prefaces to his long works elucidate his theory of the “neutral...

(This entire section contains 188 words.)

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ground”—the junction between the actual and the imaginary—where romance takes place. He is noted for his masterful exploration of the psychology of guilt and sin; his study of the Puritan heritage contributed to the emerging sense of historicity that characterized the American Renaissance of the mid-nineteenth century.

Hawthorne is unrivaled as an allegorist, especially as one whose character typologies and symbols achieve universality through their psychological validity. While he has been faulted for sentimentality, lapses into archaic diction, and gothicism, Hawthorne’s works continue to evoke the “truth of the human heart” that is the key to their continuing appeal.


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Argersinger, Jana L., and Leland S. Person, eds. Hawthorne and Melville: Writing a Relationship. Athens: Georgia University, 2008. Fourteen essays that focus on the relationship that the two authors shared during the time that Melville was writing Moby Dick. The essays also discuss how each writer affected the other’s work. Essential for anyone interested in either writer.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. Discusses Hawthorne’s major short stories in three categories: isolation and community, artists and scientists, and perspective, humility, and joy. Includes excerpts from Hawthorne’s journals, letters, and prefaces; also includes excerpts on Hawthorne from Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and several contemporary critics.

Charvat, William, et al., eds. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962-1997. This continuing multivolume edition of Hawthorne’s works will, when complete, contain the entire canon. Somewhat unevenly accomplished by a variety of editors, the volumes contain a considerable amount of textual apparatus as well as biographical and critical information. Volumes 9, 10, and 11 give the texts of all known Hawthorne short stories and sketches.

Doubleday, Neal Frank. Hawthorne’s Early Tales: A Critical Study. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1972. Doubleday focuses on what he calls “the development of Hawthorne’s literary habit,” including Hawthorne’s literary theory and the materials from which he fashioned the stories of his twenties and early thirties. The index, while consisting chiefly of proper names and titles, includes some features of Hawthorne’s work (“ambiguity,” “irony,” and the like).

Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and the Dark. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. One of the first critics to write full analytical essays about the short stories, Fogle examines eight stories in detail as well as the four mature novels. He sees Hawthorne’s fiction as both clear (“light”) and complex (“dark”). He is particularly adept, although perhaps overly ingenious, in explicating Hawthorne’s symbolism.

Keil, James C. “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender.” The New England Quarterly 69 (March, 1996): 33-55. Argues that Hawthorne places his story in the seventeenth century to explore the nexus of past and present in the attitudes of New Englanders toward theology, morality, and sexuality. Points out that clear boundaries between male and female, public and private, and work and home were thresholds across which nineteenth century Americans often passed.

Kelsey, Angela M. “Mrs. Wakefield’s Gaze: Femininity and Dominance in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Wakefield.’” ATQ, n.s. 8 (March, 1994): 17-31. In this feminist reading of Hawthorne’s story, Kelsey argues that Mrs. Wakefield finds ways to escape and exceed the economy of the male gaze, first by appropriating the look for herself, then by refusing to die, and finally by denying her husband her gaze.

Mackenzie, Manfred. “Hawthorne’s ‘Roger Malvin’s Burial’: A Postcolonial Reading.” New Literary History 27 (Summer, 1996): 459-472. Argues that the story is postcolonial fiction in which Hawthorne writes the emerging American nation and recalls European colonial culture; claims that Hawthorne rehearses the colonialist past in order to concentrate and effectively “expel” its inherent violence.

McKee, Kathryn B. “’A Small Heap of Glittering Fragments’: Hawthorne’s Discontent with the Short Story Form.” ATQ, n.s. 8 (June, 1994): 137-147. Claims that Hawthorne’s “Artist of the Beautiful” and “Downe’s Wooden Image” are examples of his dissatisfaction with the short story as a form; argues that the fragile articles at the center of the tales mirror the limitations Hawthorne saw in the short-story genre.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. In this substantial, readable, and illustrated biography, Mellow provides a number of insights into Hawthorne’s fiction. Refreshingly, the author presents Sophia Hawthorne not only as the prudish, protective wife of the Hawthorne legend but also as a woman with an artistic sensibility and talent of her own. Mellow’s book is a good introduction to a very interesting man. Suitable for the student and the general reader.

Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. A large biography of more than six hundred pages, illustrated with more than fifty photographs and drawings. Miller has been able to draw on more manuscripts of family members and Hawthorne associates than did his predecessors and also developed his subject’s family life in more detail. He offers interpretations of many of the short stories.

Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. Margaret Moore explores the relationship between Salem, Massachusetts, and its most famous resident, author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Newberry, Frederick. “’The Artist of the Beautiful’: Crossing the Transcendent Divide in Hawthorne’s Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50 (June, 1995): 78-96. Argues that the butterfly’s appearance is Hawthorne’s endorsement of the transcendent power of imagination over nineteenth century empiricism.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. For each of fifty-four stories, this valuable guide furnishes a chapter with four sections: publication history; circumstances of composition, sources, and influences; relationship with other Hawthorne works; and interpretations and criticism. The discussions are arranged alphabetically by title and keyed to a bibliography of more than five hundred secondary sources.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Includes chapters on the novel’s background and composition history, on the contemporary American reception, on the early British reception, on the growth of Hawthorne’s reputation after his death, on modern criticism, and on The Scarlet Letter on stage and screen.

Swope, Richard. “Approaching the Threshold(s) in Postmodern Detective Fiction: Hawthorne’s ‘Wakefield’ and Other Missing Persons.” Critique 39 (Spring, 1998): 207-227. Discusses “Wakefield” as a literary ancestor of “metaphysical” detective fiction, a postmodern genre that combines fiction with literary theory. “Wakefield” raises many of the questions about language, subjectivity, and urban spaces that surround postmodernism.

Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Argues that for Hawthorne the art of telling a story depends on a carefully created fiction of an authorial presence. Examines Hawthorne’s narrative strategies for creating this presence by using contemporary narrative theory. Analyzes a small number of early Hawthorne stories and the criticism that has amassed about Hawthorne’s fiction.

Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Divided into nineteenth and twentieth century commentary, with a section of new essays, an introduction, and a chronology of the tales.

Waggoner, Hyatt. Hawthorne: A Critical Study. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Waggoner is acute in his tracing of patterns of imagery in Hawthorne’s fiction. This book is both a clear exposition and an incentive to plumb Hawthorne more deeply—virtues that have impelled some readers to challenge Waggoner’s interpretations. For Waggoner, intuition, rather than biographical data, is the better tool to bring to the study of fiction.

Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2003. An analysis of Hawthorne’s often contradictory life that proposes that many of Hawthorne’s stories are autobiographical.


Critical Essays