Nathaniel Hawthorne Symbolism

Modified: 6th Jun 2017
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The Mastery of Symbolism in the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the most influential American Romantic authors of the nineteenth century, was born Nathaniel Hathorne on July 4th, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. Nathaniel found interest in reading and writing as a young child and continued his interest well into his late teenage years when he began attending Bowdoin College. While in college, Hawthorne befriended Henry Wadworth Longfellow, a fellow Romantic author of the nineteenth century. Nathaniel Hawthorne changed his surname shortly after graduating from college from “Hathorne” to “Hawthorne”. The change is speculated to have been due to Hawthorne tracing his family’s lineage back to John Hathorne, a great-grandfather of Hawthorne who was one of the judges involved in the sentencing of many women during the Salem Witch Trials. Out of embarrassment and superstitious of a curse upon the “Hathorne” family name, Hawthorne added the “w” to his surname. During Hawthorne’s mid-twenties and early thirties, he wrote in silence in the family room of his home. It was during this time Hawthorne practiced his craft for writing and spent a great amount of time perfecting his writing. Furthermore, for a short time in Hawthorne’s life, he joined a transcendentalist utopian society called Brook Farm, but he soon became dissatisfied with its lifestyle and left. The Brook Farm experience, along with his time spent tracing his lineage and time spent alone in contemplative writing, influenced Nathaniel Hawthorne’s philosophy and writing style, and lead Hawthorne to become one of the most well known authors of the American Romanticism literary movement.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s philosophy and writing style is a part of the literature style of American Romanticism. Considered the “first illustration of American literary genius” by Jennifer Hurley, book editor of American Romanticism, the literature of American Romanticism was written between the late 1830’s and 1861, right before the rise of the Civil War. American Romantics, like Hawthorne, were unified by a concern with the internal world, the world of the psyche, as explained by Hurley on page twelve. Hawthorne’s aspect of American Romanticism exemplified the desire to explicate the qualities of human nature, such as its individuality, imagination, and intuition. Hawthorne, like other Romantics, explored the individual’s isolation from society by providing complex psychological portraits of his protagonists (Hurley 12). While the United States of America was unstable, transforming from agrarianism to industrialism and political turmoil being at its peak during the nineteenth century, Romantics, such as Hawthorne, found stability in seeking out the peace, beauty, and simplicity of nature and its relation to humankind. Hawthorne’s aspect of Romanticism was concerned with the psychological and symbolical analysis of certain types of human character and moral situations.

Hawthorne extensively uses the literary technique of symbolism to convey an idea to his audience. Symbolism was a popular literary device of Romantics, where an object represented an idea. Symbols could have been a word, place, character, or any other object in which a meaning extended beyond the item’s literal context. Symbolism is a technique of the Romantics that has continued to be a popular literary device, and is a broad category in which allegory, a specialty of Hawthorne’s writing technique, is under its hierarchy. Hawthorne drew upon his personal and cultural history to create his intensely symbolic works that investigated the depths of the national American character. The symbolism of his works focused on isolation and guilt of the individual, the uncertainties of good and evil, and the continual hold of the past on the present. Hawthorne focused on his Calvinist lineage and America’s Calvinist ideological past, as well, in hopes of coming to terms and making sense of it. Hawthorne was deeply fascinated by the shifting and treacherous nature of the Puritan lifestyle, as explained by David Morse, author of American Romanticism: From Cooper to Hawthorne. The Puritans were endlessly attentive for symbolism in their daily lives. The Puritans’ “clothing, gesture, behavior, language…all had their meaning which must be deciphered” (Morse 182).

Hawthorne’s writing is full of symbolic characters, settings, and objects. Hawthorne’s characters and settings are not always actually important for what they are, but for what they exemplify. Hawthorne’s audience finds the meanings of his symbols as they grow among his characters’ efforts to tell the audience what the symbols represent. Hawthorne uses the development of events in different settings to convey the meanings of his symbols as well. Hawthorne’s genius was in his technique of developing the symbolism of the story via the characters and events because Hawthorne, by intention, makes the characters and their actions the direct allegorists instead of the narrator of the narrative himself. Hawthorne’s genius is also in his efficiency to make his symbols so commonly placed and natural that they go overlooked. The meanings conveyed by these symbols become more effective when placed so naturally, they conceal themselves because it requires deeper intellectual and intrinsic thought on the behalf of the reader.

One of Hawthorne’s least recognized works came from his publication of his short story collection Twice-Told Tales, published in 1837. The short story “The Hollow of the Three Hills” is one unfamiliar to most. Summarized by Gary L. Pullman, author of “‘The Hollow of the Three Hills’: Hell on Earth”, as:

A young woman who suffers from “an untimely blight” rendezvous “at an appointed hour and place” with a withered, old hag (a witch) in the circular hollow situated in the center of three hills, having come to the crone to learn what has become of the husband and daughter whom the young woman abandoned years before. Their “fate was intimately bound” at one time, she concedes, although they are “cut off forever” from one another now. The witch, reminding the young woman that their time together is short (“there is but a short hour that we may tarry here”) and directing her to kneel and lay her head upon her knees, pulls her cloak over the young woman’s head, thus blinding her to the exterior world. The witch utters a profane prayer, by which she works a spell that enables the young woman to hear the voices of her parents and those of her family, whom she abandoned. Her parents, now old, lament the “shame and affliction” her desertion of her family has brought them. The witch tells the young woman that her parents are “weary and lonesome.” Next, her husband speaks from within the confines of a mental institution, complaining of his wife’s “perfidy” and “of a wife who had broken her holiest vows, of a home and heart made desolate.” Apparently, his wife’s desertion of him and their daughter has caused him to lose his mind. The young woman lifts her head, replying to the witch’s question as to whether it seems likely that there could be “such merry times in a madhouse” by saying “there is mirth within its walls, but misery, misery without.” The young woman longs to hear one more voice (presumably her daughter’s), and the witch obliges her, telling her to lay her head again upon her knees. The old woman begins “to wave her spell again,” but, as dusk deepens toward night, a funeral bell tolls, and a funeral procession approaches, several of the members of which revile the dead, pronouncing “anathemas” upon the deceased for her having abandoned her husband and daughter. When the witch shakes the motionless young woman whose head rests upon her knees, to rouse her, she discovers that the young woman has died, and the witch says, “Here has been a sweet hour’s sport!”

The young woman is portrayed as having left her loved ones because of an unforgivable dishonor or deceit she has committed, therefore, fled into nature, to loneliness and isolation. There she seeks comfort in the lap of the old witch. It is in this moment in the story the question of this allegorical story begins. Is the comfort the young woman seeks from the witch her damnation or salvation? Hawthorne explores an issue of critical summation, the greatest allegory of the story, of whether or not the witch is the woman’s salvation or damnation in the narrative. Hawthorne demonstrates, though, that the sole way for the reader, through the development of events and the characters’ courses of actions, to know is through his identification of the context that defines whether the witch’s nature is of damnation or salvation for the young woman.

To discover Hawthorne’s brilliance of symbolism in “The Hollow of the Three Hills”,

the audience must only open its mind to understand how Hawthorne may be expressing a metaphor. For example, “In those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen’s reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life,” (“The Hollow of the Three Hills” 5), hints to the reader that the story is between the border of subjectivity, the inner world of the psyche, and objectivity, the outer world of nature. In another instance, when the witch says to the young lady, “Here is our pleasant meeting come to pass according as thou hast desired. Say quickly what thou wouldst have of me, for here there is but a short hour that we may tarry here,” the woman’s death is being foreshadowed. It is also suggested that the two meet because of a greater power which intertwines the fates of the young woman and the witch.

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Continuing symbolism in the story is found in the third paragraph of the narrative in the word “sepulchre” of the phrase, “…like a lamplight on the wall of a sepulchre,” (“The Hollow of the Hills” 5) and again when the young woman’s head is rested on the knees of the witch and covered by the cloak, as described on page six of “The Hollow of the Hills”. “Sepulchre” indicates the young lady is near death in the presence of the witch. The “darkness” of the covering cloak symbolizes and foreshadows what the young lady’s afterlife will be like without repentance of her sins. The “darkness” represents that she will not be reborn into life, but into death, physically and spiritually, and therefore both lives, her mortal and spiritual, will be claimed by damnation of sin.

Toward the end of the narrative, Hawthorne’s symbolism is yet to cease. “The golden skirts of day were yet lingering upon the hills, but deep shades obscured the hollow and the pool, as if sombre night were rising thence to overspread the world,” (“The Hollow of the Three Hills” 8), is a representation of the life of the young woman as her life and what little happiness she attempted to retrieve from listening to the voices of her loved ones slips away and is overcome by death and misery. In the last moments of her life, the young woman, troubled with the guilt of abandoning her family, wonders the fate of her family. She seems to want to know their fate more to satisfy her curiosity than because she has come to a position of repentance. After all, the young lady accepts the services of a witch instead of seeking a reverend. By visiting the witch, she is dying on her knees in the spell of a witch rather than in prayer, and as a result, she dies in sin. Both of the woman’s lives, the physical and spiritual, are in transgression. Furthermore, in death the young lady is not released of her sins, but is given an eternity of suffering and torment of what the witch pleases. The young woman is not only the servant of the witch, but ultimately the servant of the “Power of Evil”, the symbolical description of Satan.

The bells at the end of the story make the reader aware, as if the bells were an alarm, that the story is a warning that the fate of the woman could happen to anyone. Hawthorne’s own religious beliefs come through in the story through expressing the need of repentance. “The Hollow of the Three Hills” examines human nature and its inevitability to fall short of perfection. According to Hawthorne, it is why man sins and must, therefore, repent of his imperfections. The symbolism of this tale related to the moral issues of his time period because while society was evolving into a modern industrial community, Hawthorne used his symbolism to express his opinion that society will unavoidably change, but for its cultural survival, the need for individual intuition and moral s must stay intact, or otherwise face great downfall, like the woman’s fate in the narrative, because societal perfection nor individual perfection is attainable. The symbolism within the story and allegorical message of the story is timeless because the symbols within the story and allegorical message of the story are still relevant today. American society will never outgrow the need for individuals to express intrinsic thought and need to stay in touch with one’s morals and intuition because it is part of America’s philosophical and literary ancestry and one will always draw inspiration from Hawthorne’s symbolism. The timeless effects of Hawthorne’s symbols and allegories, along with his brilliance in his technique of developing the symbolism of the story via the characters and events and in his efficiency to make his symbols so commonly placed and natural that they go overlooked, are what make him the master of symbolism.


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