Nathaniel Hawthorne(1804-1864)
Image Courtesy Library of Congress
Key Dates: Hawthorne in Context
Consider the classic American works published in a fiveyear period with the United States seventy-five years old:
• 1850 – Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
Emerson’s Representative Men
• 1851 – Melville’s Moby-Dick
• 1852 – Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
• 1854 – Thoreau’s Walden
• 1855 – Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Key Facts about Hawthorne
• Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July
4, 1804, into a family that had long been in the area:
One ancestor had come over in 1630 and another
presided over the Salem witch trials.
• In 1825, he graduated from Bowdoin College, where he
became friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and
Franklin Pierce (later to become the 14th president of the
United States).
• After graduation, he spent the next twelve years in his
mother’s Salem home developing his literary skills. He
called this period his “twelve dark years” in an effort to
create a legend of a gloomy, solitary existence.
• In truth, he visited friends and frequented local taverns;
he took summer tours taking advantage of an uncle’s
stage-line business; and he found himself interested in
long, sensational murder trials.
Key Facts about Hawthorne
• Hawthorne, however, did develop a fascination for
introspection, morbidity, and the dark side of existence.
Thus, those years were more psychologically than
socially dark.
• In 1837, Hawthorne published Twice-Told Tales, a
collection of short stories that he had published in
magazines. Sales were slight.
• Beginning in 1839 and until 1849, he worked at the
Boston Custom House through political connections.
• In 1841, he spent seven months at Brook Farm, the
Transcendentalist utopian community.
• 1842, he married Sophia Peabody and they settled in
Old Manse, the home of Emerson’s ancestors and
Emerson himself when he wrote Nature in 1836.
Key Facts about Hawthorne
• With sales of his writings still meager, he returned to
Salem and took a job as a surveyor in the Custom
House in 1846. That same year, he issued a collection
of short stories, Mosses from an Old Manse. When the
Democrats were defeated in the 1849 election,
Hawthorne lost his position in the Custom House. He
began work on The Scarlet Letter.
• Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter was an immediate
success, bringing Hawthorne fame and profit.
• Now at the height of his powers, Hawthorne published
major works, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
and The Blithedale Romance (1852).
Key Facts about Hawthorne
• In 1852, Hawthorne wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce.
When Pierce, his college friend became U.S. president,
he rewarded Hawthorne by making him consul at
Liverpool (1853-1857). The appointment gave
Hawthorne a chance to tour England and Europe. In
1860, Hawthorne published the allegorical novel The
Marble Faun, inspired by a year in Italy.
• Hawthorne returned home in 1860. His last years were
marked by anxiety over financial worries and the Civil
War.
• Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864 while on a walking
tour.
Key Issues: Hawthorne
and the Puritans
• Hawthorne’s best work was inspired by the Puritans.
Consider The Scarlet Letter, “Young Goodman Brown,”
“The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Maypole of Merry
Mount,” and “Ethan Brand.”
• The Puritans gave Hawthorne artistic material from
which he could speculate about the psyche and the
effects of the past on the present.
• Hawthorne presents the Puritans as dour, gloomy,
narrow-minded, and “dismal wretches” (ATIL, p. 1336).
• For Hawthorne, the Puritan ethos represented a
censorship of the imagination.
• Hawthorne’s portrait of the Puritans is harsh and not
completely accurate. The Puritans did try to enjoy life;
they liked colorful clothes; they took pride in well-kept
homes; and they liked to take a drink, although they
despised the drunkard.
Key Issues: The
Subconscious Mind
• Hawthorne is concerned with internal struggles and
dilemmas, and what lies beneath the conscious mind.
• Internal forces often pull his characters in two directions.
• While Emerson calls on individuals to “trust thyself” and
listen to their inner voice, Hawthorne seems to respond
with a question: which inner voice do I listen to?
• In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Robin Molineux
seems to be looking for his uncle’s residence – and he
is. But is he subconsciously trying to subvert this
intention? What does Hawthorne mean, for instance, by
Robin’s “instinctive antipathy” to authority (ATIL, p.
1303)?
• Consider Wakefield who leaves his wife on a “whimwham” (p. 1321) – remember Emerson’s “whim” in “SelfReliance” (p. 936). Wakefield’s motives seem
inscrutable.
Key Issues: The Journey Within
& the Loss of Innocence
• Unconsciously, Hawthorne’s characters frequently
wander into unfamiliar territories, sometimes
representative of inner explorations, as in the allegorical
“Young Goodman Brown,” whose journey into the “heart
of the solitary woods” can be read as a journey into his
own heart.
• Consider Goodman Brown’s inner investigation. How
does it result in a loss of innocence?
• Frequently in Hawthorne, the loss of innocence or an
awareness of a sin-ridden world has devastating results.
Consider Ethan Brand and Goodman Brown. Why is
Robin Molineux more fortunate?
• Characters are often confused by their new-found
knowledge. Can “Rappaccini’s Daughter” be interpreted
with this in mind?
Key Issues: Sin
• Hawthorne is interested in the psychological aspects of
sin, not the act of sinning or the sin itself. He focuses on
the effects of the sin on the sinners and on those close
to the sinners.
• Hawthorne investigates the effects of inherited sin,
hidden sin, and the consequences of exposing sin.
• Many Hawthorne characters are obsessed with sin.
Consider Ethan Brand, Goodman Brown, Reverend
Hooper, John Endicott, and others.
• In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Beatrice suffers for the sins
of her father.
• The Scarlet Letter is a novel about sin. Consider the
effects of the sin on Hester and Pearl; consider
Dimmesdale’s struggle with hidden sin, and the
corruption of Chillingworth as he pries into the heart of
another in an attempt to expose sin.
Key Issues: Sin
• In “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” Melville writes of
Hawthorne:
Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness
in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic
sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose
visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking
mind is always wholly free.
Key Issues: Isolation
& Withdrawal
• Many of Hawthorne’s characters live in isolation,
frequently self-imposed.
• Hawthorne’s characters seem afraid of revealing
themselves to one another.
• Many characters in Hawthorne’s fiction avoid marriage or
intimacy: Goodman Brown after his loss of innocence,
Rev. Hooper, Ethan Brand, and Aylmer in “The
Birthmark.”
• His characters replace intimacy with other external
concerns.
Key Issues: The Search for
Knowledge & Perfection
• When Hawthorne’s characters strive for perfection of any
sort, the results are devastating for them and their
families.
• Intellectual pride operates throughout Hawthorne’s
fiction: “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Birthmark,” “Young
Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and The
Scarlet Letter.
• Consider “Ethan Brand,” in which the protagonist
explains the “unpardonable sin” and its consequences.
Key Issues: Ambiguities
• Hawthorne’s fiction is complex. He is intentionally
ambiguous as he captures the complexity of existence.
• The interplay of light-dark imagery in several works (
“Young Goodman Brown,” “Ethan Brand,” “My Kinsman,
Major Molineux” in ATIL 11/e, shorter ed.) suggests not
only an awareness of polarities but also the realization
that polarities cannot always be reconciled. (This is also
true of The Scarlet Letter, not included in the volume.)
• Very rarely are Hawthorne’s characters completely good
or admirable, or completely evil.
• Hawthorne’s allegories and parables rarely lend
themselves to neat interpretations. Consider “Young
Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil.” (This is
also true of his complex novel, The Marble Faun.)
Key Issues: Ambiguities
• The world and morality are ambiguous in Hawthorne’s
fiction, and yet as the laughter indicates at the end of
several stories (“Birthmark,” “Molineux”), Hawthorne
seems to be comfortable with ambiguity in a way that
Melville was not. Hawthorne wrote of his friend: “He can
neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief”
(Journal, November 20, 1856).
• Hawthorne seems to demonstrate what John Keats
called “negative capability”: “… that is when man is
capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,
without any irritable reaching after fact & reason …”
(Keats, letter, December 1817).
Key Issues: Intrusive
Narrators & Humor
Intrusive Narrators
• Even in an era that welcomed intrusive narrators,
Hawthorne’s are among the most surprisingly intrusive.
Consider the comments on laughter in “Ethan Brand,” for
example (ATIL, p. 689).
Humor
• From time to time, Hawthorne can be humorous.
• He can be self-deprecating. Consider “The Custom-House”
and his journals (not in this volume).
• He can be ironically humorous. Consider the many
references to Robin Molineux as “shrewd.”
• In their lack of compassion, his characters can demonstrate
perhaps a dark sense of humor: Aminadab’s inappropriate
laughter in “The Birthmark,” Bartram’s comment at the end of
“Ethan Brand,” and the Man in the Moon’s comment at the
end of “Molineux.”
Key Issues:
“Young Goodman Brown”
• Hawthorne wrote “Young Goodman Brown” in 1835. It
has become an American classic and, in many ways, is
Hawthorne’s representative short story.
• In “Goodman Brown” Hawthorne explores his dominant
themes, themes that would later find full force in The
Scarlet Letter.
• Consider Puritanism in “Goodman Brown”:
– Goodman Brown appears to be a potential leader of his Puritan
community. Consider why he goes into the woods? Could he
have been asked to investigate some kind of evil doings?
– Is Brown, like many of Hawthorne’s Puritans, preoccupied with
the goodness and evil in others and himself? Does he seem
morbidly introspective? Is he humorless and joyless?
Key Issues:
“Young Goodman Brown”
The Subconscious Mind and the Journey Within
• Consider the internal forces operating on Brown, which
might include doubts about his own goodness and purity.
Brown, newly married, is in a transitional state in his life.
• Consider the story as an allegory. Could the forest be
Brown’s own heart and soul? Note how “in the heart of
the dark wilderness” Brown was “the chief horror of the
scene” (p. 645) or the reference to “the heart of the
solitary woods” (p. 646).
• Consider the “sudden appearance of his companion”
who bears “a considerable resemblance” to Brown (p.
642). Could he represent a part of Brown himself? The
part Brown tries to resist but must yield to in his
investigation?
Key Issues:
“Young Goodman Brown”
The Journey Within, the Loss of Innocence,
Isolation and Withdrawal
• Consider the following: “The fiend in his own shape is
less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man”
(p. 646 ).
• Brown’s “companion” tells him that all must “penetrate, in
every bosom, the deep mystery of sin” (p. 648). Brown
then realizes “all that was wicked in his own heart” and
that “evil is the nature of mankind” (p. 648).
• Brown’s discovery, or self-discovery, leads him to lose
his innocent “Faith,” as he “shrank from the bosom of”
his wife (p. 649), withdrew from his community, and
sank into a solitary and lifelong melancholy.
Key Issues:
“Young Goodman Brown”
Sin and Perfection
• Do Brown and the Puritans seem obsessed with sin in
the story? Do they have an implicit belief that near
perfection is possible?
Ambiguities
Light and dark images and shadows suggest
distortion, uncertainty, and a lack of clarity. Consider
the following:
• The “dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees”
concealed maybe Indians or maybe the devil (p. 641).
• At the time of the journey it was “deep dusk” and much
could only be “nearly discerned” (p. 642).
Key Issues:
“Young Goodman Brown”
• Consider the field, with “red light” and a fire “blazing,”
hemmed in by the dark wall,” where “the congregation
alternately shone forth, then disappeared in a shadow,
and again grew … out of the darkness” (p. 646).
• “The four blazing pines … obscurely discovered shapes
and visages of horror on the smoke wreaths” (p. 647).
• Consider the “lurid light” and the questions about the
basin hollowed in the rock (p. 648).
• In addition, sounds are unclear, “indistinct” (p. 645).
• Ultimately, the story poses a question: had Brown fallen
asleep and dreamed his vision or did he witness an
actual witch-meeting?
Readings
The American Tradition in Literature 11/e
• Read the heading and selections for Nathaniel
Hawthorne (pp. 626-97)
Ariel American
• Visit Ariel American and explore the resources on
Hawthorne, including an electronic version of “Young
Goodman Brown” with hyperlinked notes and a video clip
of a dramatization of this classic tale.
Writing Topics
Compare Hawthorne’s and Poe’s use of Gothic settings
and imagery, dreams and hypnagogic states (the state
between sleep and wakefulness).
• Consider the hypnagogic state of Goodman Brown (pp.
640-49) with that of the narrator of “The Raven” (pp. 57477). How because of this state do their surroundings
take on different meanings?
• Consider the importance of setting to “The Birthmark”
(particularly the laboratory) (pp. 657-68) with that of
“Ligeia” (pp. 581-91).
• Consider the Gothic overtones and the quests of the
protagonists of “The Minister’s Black Veil” (pp. 649-57)
and “Ethan Brand” (pp. 686-97) with that of “The Fall of
the House of Usher” (pp. 597-604)