Nathaniel Hawthorne

1804-1864

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Issues and themes

Like his contemporary Herman Melville, whom he knew, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote some of the best-known and most respected fiction in American literature. A short-story writer who turned to novels in the middle of his career, Hawthorne produced classic examples in each form, including the short stories "Young Goodman Brown" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" and the novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables.

Hawthorne shares other qualities with Melville, as well as Edgar Allan Poe. All three took a special interest in human psychology. The later American novelist Henry James, who also explored the mind in his fiction, wrote: "The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it" (140). Of particular interest to Hawthorne was the nature of evil. Indeed, in an essay called "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville betrayed his own fascination with the darkness in colleague's work, writing that half of Hawthorne is "shrouded in a blackness, ten times black" (678). As The Scarlet Letter, "Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil," and other works demonstrate, Hawthorne's studies of evil often coincide with his studies of religion, particularly Puritanism, which his ancestors in Salem practiced in the 17th century. Like his two famous contemporaries, Hawthorne also made extensive use of symbols. His scarlet letter ranks alongside Melville's white whale and Poe's pit and pendulum, and symbols play important roles in all of his important short stories, including "The Birthmark," "The Artist of the Beautiful," and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." Furthermore, Hawthorne's works often hint of the supernatural, the unreal, or the uncommon. Hawthorne might have spoken for both Melville and Poe when he wrote in his introduction to The House of the Seven Gables that the "romance," a word he used to contrast his form of long fiction from the novel, may "present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation." The romance writer, he explains, may "mingle the Marvellous" in his work. Hawthorne sometimes used the metaphor of everyday objects seen in moonlight to explain the material of the romance. In the introduction to The Scarlet Letter, he writes that the atmosphere of a parlor at night suggested to him the world of romance--a region between reality and imagination. The ordinary objects he sees there "are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect." Finally, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe all reacted against the major literary and philosophical movement of the day, Transcendentalism. Hawthorne, for example, tried to live at Brook Farm, a community experiment begun by some Transcendentalists, but was repelled by what he perceived as hypocrisy and excessive idealism--flaws he chronicled in his roman á clef about the experience, The Blithedale Romance.

One of Hawthorne's distinctive concerns is that of separating head from heart, intellect from soul. In his notebooks, he wrote that an unpardonable sin is "a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity,--content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart." Hawthorne explored these ideas extensively in the short story "Ethan Brand," and they also help to shape The Scarlet Letter, "The Artist of the Beautiful," and "Rappaccini's Daughter."


Work

"My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

"Rappaccini's Daughter"


Bibliography


© Mark Canada, 1997

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