Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Contributing Editor: Rita K. Gollin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Some students find Hawthorne too gloomy, too dense, and too complex.
And few understand Puritan beliefs about self, sin, and America's moral
mission as they evolved into the antithetical beliefs of transcendentalism.
Even fewer recognize how persistently Hawthorne involves the reader in
his own efforts to probe such antitheses.
To address these problems, try approaching Hawthorne as a riddler and
wry joker who challenged all authority including his own. Students enjoy
recognizing Hawthorne's self-mockery and his various forms of ironic self-presentation.
Though self-mockery is most overt in Hawthorne's letters and prefaces (the
introduction to "Rappaccini's Daughter," for example), students
can quickly discern the skepticism underlying Hawthorne's uses of laughter,
his assessments of America's Puritan past and quotidian present, and his
anatomization of his major characters. Introduce recurrent patterns of
character, theme, image, and so forth, then invite students to identify
variations on those patterns within Hawthorne's works.
Comment on Hawthorne's attempts to mediate between Puritan beliefs and
Emerson's, then encourage students to locate how each of his fictions incorporates,
accepts, or rejects particular beliefs. Alert them to Hawthorne's assumptions
about what human wholeness and happiness require--including the interrelationship
of the mind, heart, spirit, will, and imagination, and accommodation though
not indulgence of bodily needs.
One useful strategy is to ask students what a story is "about,"
then what it is also "about." They soon realize that informed
attention yields expanded meaning.
Current debates about canon formation and absolute literary value provide
a useful context for discussing Hawthorne's reputation. Briefly sketch
how criteria for judgment have changed over time (for example, after publication
of The Scarlet Letter
, after Hawthorne's death, during the centenary
celebrations of his birth, and during the heyday of New Criticism), and
provide some comments about current critical approaches to Hawthorne, including
those of feminists and new historicists). Then invite discussion of why
Hawthorne has been considered a major writer from the 1830s to the present.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Hawthorne's major themes and thematic patterns include self-trust versus
accommodation to authority; conventional versus unconventional gender roles;
obsessiveness versus open-mindedness; hypocrisy versus candor; presumed
guilt or innocence; forms of nurturance and destructiveness; the penalties
of isolation; crimes against the human heart; patriarchal power; belief
in fate or free will; belief in progress (including scientific, technological,
social, and political progress) as opposed to nostalgia for the past; the
truths available to the mind during dream and reverie; and the impossibility
of earthly perfection.
Historical issues include marketplace facts--for example, where Hawthorne's
short stories first appeared (unsigned and low-paid), and which stories
he chose to collect in Twice-told Tales
and in later anthologies.
Related issues include how each book was advertised, how well it sold,
how much money Hawthorne earned for it, and how it was reviewed. Students
should also know something about the whys and wherefores of Hawthorne's
career options during and after college, of his undertaking literary hackwork
and children's books, of his interlude at Brook Farm, of his appointments
to the Boston Custom House, the Salem Custom House, and the Liverpool consulate,
and of his efforts to win reinstatement at the Salem Custom House. Additional
historical issues include Puritan versus Whig ideas about the self and
the historical past; the political practices and social climate of Jacksonian
democracy; and genteel assumptions about women's roles. Still other historical
issues concern the particular place and period in which Hawthorne set each
Personal issues include the various ways Hawthorne's family history
and specific events in his life informed his writings--most obviously the
introduction to "Rappaccini's Daughter" and his letters and journals.
Students can easily recognize how "Young Goodman Brown" incorporates
facts about his Puritan ancestors, and they are interested in asking such
questions as whether the concern with female purity in "Rappaccini's
Daughter" and "The Birth-mark" may reflect Hawthorne's anxieties
in the aftermath of his marriage, and how Hawthorne's anxieties about his
role as an artist are expressed in "The Birth-mark" and "The
Artist of the Beautiful." Students might also speculate about how
Hawthorne's experiences of intimacy and deprivation in the aftermath of
his father's death inform his fiction (for example, Robin's nostalgia for
a home that excludes him). Other personal issues that interest students
include Hawthorne's relationship to the Mannings' mercantile values, his
antipathy to Salem, his experiences at Bowdoin College (including his nonconformity
and his friendships with Bridge, Pierce, and Longfellow
), his lifelong strivings to develop his talents and support himself by
his pen (during his self-defined "twelve lonely years," during
his political appointments, and so forth), his secret engagement, and his
identity as doting but fallible husband and father.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
1. Sketch versus tale and short story.
2. Romance versus novel.
3. Characters: recurrent "types" and interrelationships; authorial
intrusion or objective display; heroism, villainy, and what Hawthorne seems
to condemn, admire, or sadly accept.
4. Image clusters and patterns (for example, dark versus light, natural
versus unnatural, sunshine and firelight versus moonlight and reflections,
5. Subjective vision (including fantasies, reveries, dreams, and narrator's
questions about objective "reality.")
6. Narrative antecedents, including biblical parable, Spenserian romance,
allegory (Dante, Bunyan, and others), Gothic horror tales, sentimental
love stories, old wives' tales, fairy tales, and so on.
7. Reworking of notebook entries into fiction, and the relationship
between earlier works and later ones.
8. Hawthorne's open-ended endings.
9. The relation of prefaces and expository introductions to Hawthorne's
For the tales and sketches: students should know something about the
gift books and periodicals that published Hawthorne's early work (including
the practice of anonymous publication, payment, and other material published
in a volume where Hawthorne appeared), and reasons for Hawthorne's difficulty
in publishing a collection.
For the collections: Hawthorne's 1837 letter to Longfellow; Hawthorne's
selections and sequence for a particular volume; his publishers; reviews
For the novels: Hawthorne's aims as expressed in letters, journals,
and prefaces and through his narrators; marketing, sales, and reviews;
James T. Fields as publisher, editor, banker, and friend--and securer of
For all the fiction : Hawthorne's challenges to period assumptions about
gender roles, parent-child relationships, social and scientific progress,
the trustworthiness of sense data ("seeing is believing"), and
the importance of the inner life.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
: Use of America's
past including folktales, popular myths, picturesque and sublime settings
: Use of Gothic settings,
themes, and characters; interest in dreams and other threshold states,
and in sensitive individuals' propensities to madness
of the dark depths of the human mind, antipathy to authority, celebration
of individual striving and sympathetic nurturing
of striving toward self-fulfillment, criticism of hereditary privilege,
and the "damned
mob of scribbling women": Celebration of women's capacities for dignity
and heroism, religious piety
: Sensitive hero/narrator;
psychological scrutiny; unresolved questions
Conrad: Journeys to the heart of darkness; parallel of outer and inner
: Minute attention
to nature and to unheroic characters
: Comic irony,
ambivalence, anti-authoritarianism, densely detailed landscapes
, Borges: Queries
into the mystifying complexities of human behavior, dark comedy
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Provide some information about books that helped shape Hawthorne's imagination
(including historical and scientific writings and the popular literature
of his day). Students can better appreciate "Rappaccini's Daughter"
after learning about Hawthorne's uses of Milton, Spenser, Dante, and the
Bible, his variations on the courtship plot in popular magazines, and his
skepticism about contemporary scientific experiments (as well as scientific
controversy in Renaissance Padua).
Students enjoy connecting particular works with subsequent ones-- most
obviously, tracing connections of "Mrs. Hutchinson," "Young
Goodman Brown," "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "The
Minister's Black Veil," Hawthorne's letters to Fields, and The
"Cultural" questions that students enjoy addressing include
attitudes toward art in general and fiction in particular in nineteenth-century
America. (Here they need definitions of such terms as picturesque and sublime.)
Formal questions that students can ask of each story include a comparison
of the first and last views of a particular character; Hawthorne's ambivalent
treatment of women, writers, and artists, but also father figures; the
questions the narrator raises but leaves unanswered; Hawthorne's use of
"preternatural ambiguity"--offering alternative naturalistic
explanations for what seems to be supernatural; exposition versus dramatized
scene; parallels between inner and outer landscapes; and a story's formal
design (symmetries, contrasts, repetitions, suspense, and climax, and so
In addition to the secondary works mentioned in the anthology, I would
recommend recent books on Hawthorne and his period by Nina Baym, Michael
Davitt Bell, Sacvan Bercovitch, Gillian Brown, Laurence Buell, and Philip
Fisher, but also books written decades ago by Richard Harter Fogle, Roy
R. Male, Leo Marx, and F. O. Matthiessen.