Nathaniel Hawthorne - Literature Essay Example

Nathaniel Hawthorne

            One of the most significant names in the field of literature is that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a man known for his deeply imaginative thoughts and great command over written word - Nathaniel Hawthorne introduction. He was born on July 4, 1804 at Salem, Massachusetts. His father, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sr., was a sea captain who died of yellow fever in one of his voyages in Surinam. Nathaniel and his two siblings, Elizabeth and Louisa, were left under the care of their bereaved mother, Elizabeth Clarke Manning. Mrs. Hawthorne was left with no financial support with which to raise her children thus she turned for help to her parents, who also were established residents of Salem, but were not of Salem’s mercantile elite because they were yeomen and tradesmen. As a boy, Nathaniel lived with his mother and sisters in both of the Manning’s’ homes. It was in the northern home where he learned the love of  unshackled freedom and solitude as he visited the woods, which apparently restored his health because as a child he was described as “delicate.” At the age of nine he suffered a foot injury which caused him to be lame for three years and probably fostered his great interest in reading.

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The Manning’s homes were filled with books, which gradually influenced Nathaniel to become a voracious reader. Among his early favorite authors were Spenser, Bunyan, and Shakespeare. The first two particularly permanently effected his maturing allegorical mind and lead him to see the spiritual significance in natural events. He was later influenced by Sir Walter Scott and Scottish history. With the funding from his family,  He entered Bowdoin College, which was not only less expensive than Harvard but was more associated with the growth of Maine. During his four years (1821-1825) here,  he made several significant friendships. There was his classmate, Horatio Bridge, who helped subsidize the Twice-Told Tales’ publication in  1837; Franklin Pierce, who became the 14th President of the United States and gave Hawthorne a consulship at Liverpool; and his long-time best friend, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who in a prophetical commencement address at Hawthorne’s graduation said, “Already has a voice been lifted up in this land, already a spirit and a love of literature are springing up in the shadows of our free political institutions.” (Newton, 1929).

            After attending Bowdoin, Hawthorne worked as a writer and contributor to some periodicals from 1825 to 1836. His stories were printed in the “Democratic Review”, a magazine published by a friend named John L. O’Sullivan, but these minor successes did not mark the beginning of his fame. In fact, his collection of short stories, “Seven Tales of My Native Land”, were set after they were rejected by publishers. His next attempt was the release of his first novel, “Fanshawe”, which he funded and published anonymously, but likewise did not draw much attention from the public. He expressed his bitterness in his letter to his publisher, William D. Ticknor in 1855, stating:

            America is now wholly given over to a d****d mob of scribbling women, and i should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash          and should be ashamed of myself if i did succeed. What is the mystery of these    innumerable editions of The Lamplighter (by Maria Sussana Cummins), and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be,             when they sell by the hundred thousand. (Reuben, 11)

            Hawthorne continued to make friends with influential men in American history. He made friends with two important thinkers in the transcendentalist movement in the United States, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which also lead to his meeting with  Sophia Peabody. The couple were married in July 9, 1842, took up residence in a house called the Old Manse and were blessed with three children namely, Una, Julian and Rose. Here, Hawthorne wrote numerous stories, some of them were published in a collection entitled Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846, but earnings were meager, which eventually forced him to take another job as a surveyor in 1846. Being a Democrat, Hawthorne’s governmental position at the customhouse became uncertain upon Whig’s victory in 1848. Losing his job at the customhouse was followed by the death of his loving mother. The current events within Hawthorne’s life seemed for him as the darkest hours of his life . Afterwards, when he broke the news of his discharge from the customhouse to his wife, she exclaimed, “Oh, then, you can write your book!” and quickly showed him the small cache of dollars which she had been secretly saving out of his weekly income (Reuben, 12). There were also generous offerings from friends. This marked the beginning of the Scarlet Letter.

            The story grew in every detail within Hawthorne’s mind and expanded into a novel. Hawthorne was so engrossed with its writing that he even wrote to his friend, Horatio Bridge, “It is positively a hell-fired story, into which i found it almost impossible to throw any cheering light.” He found that the novel had seemed to write itself. He initially had doubts that someone would publish it since it was produced by an unpopular author, but to his surprise, the first edition of two thousand copies sold out in ten days. In 1850, he acquired an international reputation. The family later moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, where he met his new friend, the American novelist Herman Melville, who happened to be an admirer of his work. It was during this time that he began to write his 2nd novel “The House Of Seven Gables”. This was succeeded by other novels (cited in “Reuben”, 2008).

            Cheevers (2006) made an inventory of Hawthorne’s selected works that include:

            His known novels are Funshawe, anonymously published in 1828; The Scarlet Letter,     1850; The House of Seven Gables, 1851; The Blithedale Romance, 1852; The Marble           Faun, 1860; The Dolliver Romance, 1863; Septimius Felton or The Elixir of Life,        published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1872; The Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852; and            Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret, with Preface and Notes by Julian Hawthorne in 1882            (102).

            His short story collections are Twice-Told Tales, 1837; Mosses from an Old Manse,         1846; The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales, 1852; A Wonder Book for Girls            and Boys, 1852; Tanglewood Tales, 1853; The Dolliver Romance and Other Pieces,        1876; The Great Stone Face and Other Tales of the White Mountains, 1889; and The       Celestial Railroad and Other Short Stories (104).

            His selected short stories are My Kinsman, Major Molineux and The Man of         Adamant, both were             published in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1832 and 1837    respectively; Young    Goodman Brown, 1835; The Gray Champion, 1835; The         Maypole of Merry Mount, 1837; The Great Carbuncle, 1837; The Artist of the            Beautiful, 1844; P.’s   Correspondence, 1845; and Rappaccini’s Daughter, published        in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1846; The White Old Maid,      1835; The Ambitious Guest, published in New England Magazine in June of 1835;         The Minister’s Black Veil, published in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1836; Dr.             Heidegger’s Experiment, 1837; The Birth-Mark, published in The Pioneer in March of            1843; Egotism or The Bosom-Serpent, published in The United States Magazine and   Democratic Review in March of 1843; Ethan Brand, 1850; and Feathertop, 1845             (108).

            Among his Nonfiction and other books are The Gentle Boy: A Thrice Told Tale, 1839; Famous Old People, 1841; Grandfather’s Chair, 1841; Biographical Stories for            Children, 1842; A Visit to the Celestial City, 1844; Journal of an African Cruiser,             1845; The Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852; A Rill from the Town Pump, 1857; Our Old        Home: A Series of English Sketches, 1863; Pansie, a Fragment, 1864; The Ancestral         Footstep, the outline of an unfinished romance novel in 1882; and Notes of Travel,             illustrated by Edmund H. Garrett in 1900 (108).

            Major themes in Hawthorne’s fictions are alienation, initiation, problem of guilt, pride, Puritan New England, Italian background, and allegory. Usually, the character is in a state of isolation because of self-cause, societal cause or a combination of both. Sometimes it involves the attempts of an alienated character to get rid of his isolated condition. A character may also feel a sense of guilt forced by Puritanical heritage or by society, which may also be a theme of guilt vs. innocence. Hawthorne treats pride as evil and illustrates it in his works in various aspects like physical (Robin), spiritual (Ethan Brand) and intellectual (Rappaccini). The common background and setting of his many tales are Puritan New England and Italian (The Marble Faun). His writing is allegorical, didactic and moralistic in nature. Other identified themes include individual vs. society, self-fulfillment vs. accommodation or frustration, hypocrisy vs. integrity, love vs. hate, exploitation vs. hurting, and fate vs. free will (Reuben, 3). Most of the themes of Hawthorne’s writings center on New England and many other moral allegories with Puritan inspiration. His two known novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, did not only focus on the sins of men but on the injustice that men do to their fellows.

            Aside from being a novelist, short story writer and Custom House surveyor, Hawthorne also became the United States Consul in Liverpool, England when his friend, Franklin Pierce, was elected President. He lived in England for four years and almost two years in Italy, where he wrote The Marble Faun in 1860. This novel, which explored the conflict between innocence and guilt, was his last novel. In his home in Concord, he wrote the essays in Our Old Home in 1863. He died a year after on May 19, 1864 at the age of 60 (Reuben, 13).

            Hawthorne made several significant contributions in enriching the American literature. He is known as one of the key figures in the development of American literature for his tales of the nation’s colonial history. As a part of the Romantic movement, he and his fellow romanticists uniquely use the frontier, Indian societies, Arcadian communities, shipboard societies and Puritan villages. Hawthorne’s writings are a little removed from the ordinary, not exposing his characters too close enough to be compared with real-life events (cited in “Hawthorne”, 1961). He remained influential and is continuously being acknowledged in schools as a great American writer. The products of his imaginations that were created 150 years ago fit well with the modern interpretations of good and evil, the motivations that lead to unspeakable acts and the creation of modern day antihero (Reuben, 14).

            One of the major romance novels that placed Hawthorne’s in the league of America’s great writers is “The Scarlet Letter”. Within the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne seemed to have answered the question on the actual meaning of  the crimson “A”, which has preoccupied him even before writing the novel. It was expressed in the length and the deep loneliness which Hester Prynne and Mr. Dimmesdale suffered. The Scarlet Letter seemed to be very significant when placed in context of Hawthorne’s life. The characters seemed to assume the actual roles he and his wife, Sophia, play. He knew Hester’s loneliness too well in the way he presented her character, as he had known his wife Sophia because he had experienced it himself. He knew the cruelty which society forced upon Hester by making her wear the scarlet letter because he felt such cruelty himself. His observation of man’s selfishness helped him to produce Roger Chillingworth.

            The scarlet letter is said to be a classic novel of hypocrisy.  It is a story of a young woman, Hester Prynne, has been found guilty of adultery after she got pregnant when her husband was away. As a punishment, she must wear a scarlet A on her dress as a sign of shame and must stand on the scaffold for three hours, exposed to public humiliation. As Hester approaches the scaffold, many of the women in the crowd are angered by her beauty and quiet dignity. Hester refused when forced to name the father of her child. Then, as she looks out over the crowd, she noticed a man, whom she recognized to be her long-lost husband, presumed lost at sea and dead. When the husband saw what was happening to Hester, he inquired and was told the story of his wife’s adultery. He got furious and demanded that  the child’s father, the partner in the adulterous act, should also be punished. He committed and swore in public to find the man. He disguised and chose a new name, Roger Chillingworth, to aid him in his plan for revenge.

            Reverend John Wilson and Arthur Dimmesdale, questioned Hester, but she refused to name her lover. When she returned to her prison cell, Roger Chillingworth, disguised as physician, forced and demanded Hester to reveal the identity of the child’s father. When Hester refused, he insisted that she never reveal that he is her husband and if she ever does so, he warned her that he will destroy the child’s father. Hester agreed to Chillingworth’s terms even tough it was against her will. When she was released in prison, Hester lived in a cottage at the edge of town and earns a meager living with her needlework. She lives a quiet, somber life with her daughter, Pearl. As an infant, Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet A  and as she grows older, her behavior became unruly. There were rumors that Pearl will be taken away from her thus, Hester appealed to Reverend Dimmesdale and the minister in turn persuaded the governor to let Pearl remain in Hester’s care.

            Reverend Dimmesdale’s health began to weaken and because of this, Chillingworth arrived. It was during this time that he suspected the minister to be Pearl’s father and believed that his illness was a result of some unconfessed guilt. One evening, Chillingworth saw something strange on the sleeping minister’s pale chest: a scarlet A. This incident caused his suspicions to grow stronger. Several days later, Hester met Dimmesdale in the forest, where she removed the scarlet letter from her dress and identified her husband and his desire for revenge. She convinced Dimmesdale to leave Boston secretly with them and start a new life in Europe. This somehow gave Dimmesdale new energy, but Pearl refused to acknowledge either of them until Hester replaces her symbol of shame on her dress.

            On the Election Day, Dimmesdale gave a very inspiring sermons. As leaves the church, he stumbled and almost fell. Seeing Hester and Pearl in the crowd watching the parade, he climbed the scaffold and confessed his sin and died in Hester’s arms. The witnesses swore that they saw a stigmata in the form of a scarlet A upon his chest. Losing his revenge, Chillingworth died shortly thereafter and left Pearl a great deal of money, enabling her to go to Europe with her mother and make a wealthy marriage. Several years later, Hester returned to Boston and resumed wearing the scarlet letter. She became a person to whom other women turn to for solace. When she died, she was buried near the grave of Dimmesdale, where they shared a simple tombstone with the inscription “On a field, sable, the letter A gules.”

            Hawthorne was truly creative in the way he narrates his story. The words he used were different from the ordinary novel. They are full of allegories and would really entice the reader to imagine vividly every single event that is taking place in the story, yet one isn’t lost in the process. His style of writing is not literal yet it is not also ambiguous. The entire novel was crafted with descriptions from beginning  to end. It is a story that depicts true to life events in the society. It is a story portraying man’s desire to sacrifice things to adhere to the pragmatic rules – rules accepted by the society. It is a story of one may struggle behind the shadows of guilt, to the point of making you weak not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically.

            Having read the novel, there’s no doubt on why this creation of Hawthorne has placed his name in the league of America’s great writers. He has not just captivated the imagination of the readers by his unique style of writing but has opened the society’s eyes as well to the real situation concerning moral issues.

            One of the critical essays discusses the symbolism of the scarlet letter. According to this essay, Hawthorne has a perfect atmosphere for the symbols in The Scarlet Letter because the Puritans saw the world through allegory (cited in “Critical Essays, 2000).

            For them, simple patterns, like the meteor streaking through the sky, became religious     or moral interpretations for human events. Objects, such as the scaffold, were        ritualistic symbols for such concepts as sin and penitence (1).

            This essay criticizes the way some of Hawthorne’s symbols changed their meaning, depending on the context. According to the article, many of Hawthorne’s symbols change—particularly his characters—depending on their treatment by the community and their reactions to their sins (cited in “Critical Essays, 2000)..

            His characters, the scarlet A, light and darkness, color imagery, and the settings of          forest and village serve symbolic purposes. Pearl is the strongest of these allegorical images because she is nearly all symbol, little reality. Dimmesdale sees Pearl as the “freedom of a broken law” while Hester sees her as “the living hieroglyphic” of their   sin; and the community sees her as the result of the devil’s work. She is the scarlet letter in the flesh, a reminder of Hester’s sin. Chillingworth is consistently a symbol        of cold reason and intellect unencumbered by human compassion. He is fiendish, evil,    and intent on revenge.

            The issue pointed in this essay centers on the differences in the interpretation of the character’s symbolism, depending on the context it is being viewed. Example of this would be Chillingworth’s character, who is portrayed in the story as someone who is evil. If we will interpret it based on the actual context, He will not be viewed as someone that bad at all because he is the victim, betrayed by his wife’s adulterous acts. Likewise, Hester cannot also be considered as someone deserving of shame for she did not know that her husband is still alive, though she shouldn’t have had an affair since she was still married to someone else then in the eyes of God and in the eyes of men.

            Another critical essay on The Puritan Setting, analyzed the novels description of the Puritan setting with the actual (cited in “Puritan”, 1).

            The Puritans were stern and repressive, with little room for individualism. In this            society, the “path of righteousness” was very narrow and taught through stern            sermons on guilt and sin. The irony, of course, is in the difference between public          knowledge and private actions. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, both “sinners” for      their part in this drama, are valued and revered members of this repressive             community, while Hester is an outcast because of her publicly acknowledged sin.           These “iron men and their rules” provide a backdrop for Hawthorne’s story that keeps           the conflict alive because public appearances and penance were dramatically important parts of the Puritan community.(2)

            Hawthorne had deep bonds with his Puritan ancestors and produced a story that both highlighted their weaknesses and their strengths. The novel showed Hawthorne’s attitude toward these Puritans of Boston in the way he portrayed their characters, including the plot and themes of his story.   They criticized his works by stressing that his gift for ironic understatement should be balanced by the sense that he feels connected to his Puritan ancestors and admires a number of their qualities.

            The two earlier cited critical essays did not mention controversies that would challenged the novel’s greatness. In the first essay, i agree that with the author in describing symbolizing as context specific. It is indeed dependent on one’s cultural orientation. On the other hand, I am not in total agreement to the critic’s point in the second essay. For me, there was no bias in the way Hawthorne described the Puritan community. He even praised the community in the initial part of his novel, which implies balance.

Works Cited

Arvin, Newton. Hawthorne. New York: Russell & Russell, 1929 (Reissued 1961), pp. 190-       193.

Cheevers, Susan (2006). American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson,       Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau; Their Lives,      Their   Loves, Their Work. Detroit: Thorndike Press. Large print ed. pp. 102, 104 &      108)

“Critical Essay: Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter.” 2000. 4 March 2008              <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/The-Scarlet-Letter-Critical-Essays-     Symbolism-in-The-Scarlet-Letter.id-167,pageNum-86.html>

“Critical Essay: The Puritan Setting in the Scarlet Letter.” 2000. 4 March 2008              <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/The-Scarlet-Letter-Critical-Essays-     Symbolism-in-The-Scarlet-Letter.id-167,pageNum-86.html>

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. United States: Classics, 1981, pp. 1-158.

“Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1860 – 1864).” New Encyclopedia. Vol.12. 1979.

Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 3: Nineteenth Century to 1865 – Nathaniel Hawthorne.” PAL:           Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide. 23 February       2008 <http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap3/hawthorne.html.

Annotated Bibliography

Barlowe, Jamie. The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne. Carbondale:   Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

Bellis, Peter J. Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and   Thoreau. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2003.

Clack, Randall A. The Marriage of Heaven and Earth: Alchemical Regeneration in the   Works of Taylor, Poe, Hawthorne, and Fuller. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Crain, Patricia. The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England   Primer to The Scarlet Letter. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement.     Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

Elbert, Monika M., Julie E. Hall, and Katharine Rodier. eds. Reinventing the Peabody    Sisters. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2006.

Hudock, Amy E., and Katharine Rodier. eds. American Women Prose Writers, 1820-1870.        Detroit: Gale, 2001.

Franklin, Benjamin Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Documentary. vol.5 (ed. and introd.). Detroit:        Gale, 2003.

Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism.        Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Maibor, Carolyn R. Labor Pains: Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcott on Work and the Woman      Question. NY: Routledge, 2004.

McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. NY: Grove, 2004.

Pennell, Melissa M. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, CT: Greenwood,    1999.

Valenti, Patricia D. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, A Life, 1: 1809-1847. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2004.

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