Symbolism in literature can convey a much deeper meaning than what we interpret at the first reading of a story. This is one reason it is always a good idea to go back and read a passage or story more than once for analysis purposes. Our opinions can vary greatly from one reading to another, even after reading a piece several times. We may end up with five different versions of what the story conveys to us. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a master at using symbolism in his writings. Moral responsibility and symbolism go hand in hand in most of his works. Allegory, in which characters or events represent ideas, is also commonplace in the writings of Hawthorne. Many of the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne use allegory and symbolism as the suggestion that sin and evil are among the most inherent qualities of humans.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804. His paternal grandfather, John Hathorne, was the only judge from the Salem witch trials that never repented from his wrongful accusations of innocent victims. In order to distance himself from his relations, Nathaniel decided he would add a “w” to his last name. This was the best method he could find to disassociate himself from the dreadful reputation of his relatives for such harsh sentencing of those presumed to be wicked. Hawthorne’s father died in 1808 while on a trip during his job as a boat captain. This left Elizabeth Hawthorne with the task of raising her young son and daughters with the assistance of her parents for the next ten years. It is understood by critics that his strict Puritan background and upbringing greatly affected the thematic elements that Hawthorne used when writing his stories. C-Span’s brief online biography of this great author explain his writings in this way, “Hawthorne’s dark, brooding, richly symbolic works, reflecting his Puritan heritage and contrasting sharply with the optimism of his Transcendentalist neighbors, achieve a depth and power that make them one of the greatest legacies in American literature” (American Writers).
In author Robert Milder’s article about Hawthorne and his issues with life in New England, he states simply that “To suggest that Hawthorne understood these things is not to say that he escaped their hold” (Milder). In other words, are we as humans able to distinguish between right and wrong and consistently make sound moral decisions regarding our conclusion? Some would say yes, some would answer no when confronted with this debate. Others would yet be stuck somewhere in between depending on the particular circumstances. Nathaniel Hawthorne tackles the prospect of good versus evil in a large percentage of his stories. Among the most popular of his stories containing allegorical and symbolic content is “Young Goodman Brown.” In this very famous short work, we find that the events unfolding display a sense of something more sinister than what the wording of the story relays as two men taking an evening stroll down a wooded lane.
The underlying feeling is one that puts the reader on edge. Faced at the end of the lane with what appears to be a “Witches Sabbath,” the Young Goodman and his companion appear to part ways. Upon a second reading of the passage, we realize that perhaps the companion has assumed the role of the dark figure that beckons to the witches that have gathered for their communion. In the end, we are left to wonder, as is Young Goodman Brown, was this occurrence a dream or a reality? Near the end of the story, we find the dark figure quoting to his observers, “By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places-whether in church, bedchamber, street, field, or forest-where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot” (Meyer 409). Interpreting this quotation, we can see that the devil is promising to give Young Goodman Brown a new outlook on life. He is a success in doing so. In the beginning of the story, the young man possessed a positive and somewhat naïve standpoint when it came to his fellow man. In the end, he is left with the new ability to see the dark side in all humans. The sins of his friends, acquaintances, and family affected Young Goodman Brown in such a negative way that he was presumably never able to recover the idealistic perception of them that he once had. The remainder of his life was to be dark and gloomy.
In his most famous novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” we find symbolism that is representative of sin as well. However, in this novel, the scarlet “A” that main character Hester Prynne is forced to wear after being found guilty of adultery changes from a sinful symbol to one of grace and pride. By doing such a beautiful job of embroidering the letter upon the bosom of her dress, Hester is showcasing her talents. This, in turn, gives her the opportunity to make a living as a single parent. Living in Puritan Boston, this was virtually unheard of, unless there was a death of one of the parents of a child. Even in those instances, the widow or widower often remarried quickly, as to have assistance with the duties of raising their children.
It has also been suggested in critiques of “The Scarlet Letter,” that this was a semi-autobiographical story of Hawthorne or perhaps his mother. His novel was written after losing his job at a local “Custom House,” which was an establishment that processed paperwork for the import and export trades. In Nina Baym’s critical insight article regarding the story, she is of the opinion that “to write a story which favored the outcast so heavily against the establishment might have been an act of sweet revenge on the author’s powerful enemies” (Baym). Perhaps Hawthorne was expressing his own anger and humiliation at losing his job by using such a defiant heroine in his novel. The psychological effects of losing his job and the recent loss of his mother played an important role in the themes that unfolded in this famous novel.
Hawthorne’s story, “The House of the Seven Gables,” is a tale of how past sins can affect future generations of a family for centuries. In this darkly romantic tale, we find that Colonel Pyncheon, the family patriarch, was rumored to be responsible for the hanging of Matthew Maule. Maule was accused of witchcraft and hanged for his crimes. But, before his death, Maule placed a curse upon Pyncheon from the scaffold upon which he went to his death. Colonel Pyncheon had coveted Matthew Maule’s property for some time and it is believed that he knew the outcome of his accusations would lead to his ability to obtain the land as his own. For years to come, several members of the Pyncheon family would suffer from apoplexy, a type of brain hemorrhage. All the while, a portrait of the Colonel looms over the family members in the great room of the home. While a tenant in the Pyncheon home, a young man by the name of Holgrave, acquires a fondness for Phoebe Pyncheon, one of the descendants of the Colonel.
Unbeknownst to the family, Holgrave is actually a descendant of Matthew Maule. During a conversation with Phoebe in the latter part of this novel, Holgrave goes into a rant about how families should do away with their past history. He states, “[I]t will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word! . . . We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! . . . Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” (Hawthorne). His argument is that the legacies of homes such as the Pyncheon house should be overthrown, forgotten about, and rebuilt in hopes of a better future. The house and its bad reputation for the conviction of the entire Pyncheon family are the main symbols that show us how the lingering effects of past sins can reach for generations. The looming symbol of the portrait of the Colonel is a constant reminder to family members of the curse that has been bestowed upon them. Upon a closer examination of the story, we see that it is not actually the curse that Hawthorne is trying to show that caused the downfall of the Pyncheons. Rather, it is the greed and grasping for excessive wealth and power that causes the downfall of the family.
We can see by most of his writings that Nathaniel Hawthorne was very good at the interpretation of the sins of humans. His strict upbringing most definitely would have played a major role in how guilt, hypocrisy, sin, and evil played out within his stories. Hawthorne could have quite possibly been caught between the Puritan beliefs and the newly founded Transcendentalist views of his time. Transcendentalism was the founded on the belief that all people were inherently good. The Puritan view was quite the opposite. One famous Transcendentalist was the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became a close friend of Hawthorne.
This could have had a significant impact on the way Hawthorne now viewed the world. By becoming friends with someone that had completely opposing views than what he was used to, he may have possibly opened up his literary career to a new movement. In his story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” he seemed to be sending a message to people about how to live your life by being open and not hiding your sins. This story was written after Hawthorne and Emerson became friends and starting sharing their religious views with one another. The use of symbols in his works gave Hawthorne an edge over many writers of his time. He seemed to take hold of human qualities and place them into a symbol with much deeper meaning that what just appeared on the surface. This gives the advantage of enhancing his stories to engage even readers with only a mild curiosity about his writing.
American Writers: A Journey Through History.www.americanwriters.org/writers/hawthorne.asp.
C-Span. 2012. Web. 7 November 2012
Baym, Nina. “Critical Readings: Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Mother: A Biographical
Speculation.” American Literature 54. March 1982: 242-271. Print. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. House of the Seven Gables. 16 May 2012. Kindle e-book file. Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
Milder, Robert.” Hawthorne and the Problem of New England.” American Literary History.
Volume 21 Issue 3 (2009): 464-491. Print.