Nathaniel Hawthorne Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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