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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Hopeless Romantic

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Having just waded through Hawthorne’s
Twice-Told Tales
again, enduring not only the brilliant items like “The Minister’s Black Veil” or “The Gentle Boy” but also the considerably less than brilliant–“The White Old Maid” or “The Great Carbuncle”–as well as the simply charming–“Sights from a Steeple” or “The Seven Vagabonds”–I’m left considering the themes that continue to crop up in the young Hawthorne’s writing.

The one thing that first pops into my mind as I read these tales, penned several years before Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody wed and took up residence in the “Eden” of the Old Manse, is the attachment that is shown to domestic bliss.

“The Maypole of Merry Mount,” discussed in the previous post, focuses on the wedding of a couple. While Endicott and his Puritan cadre put and end to the mirth of the Merry Mounters, the wedding of the couple is blessed and they proceed into a more sober and successful future.

Another young couple features prominently in “The Great Carbuncle.” After pursuing the mythic treasure of the carbuncle, this pair, upon reaching their goal, turn from it, demonstrating the same sort of wisdom that O. Henry would describe in “The Gift of the Magi.”

Matthew and his bride spent many peaceful years, and were fond of telling the legend of the Great Carbuncle. The tale, however, towards the close of their lengthened lives, did not meet with the full credence that had been accorded to it by those who remembered the ancient lustre of the gem. For it is affirmed that, from the hour when two mortals had shown themselves so simply wise as to reject a jewel which would have dimmed all earthly things, its splendor waned.

In “The Lily’s Quest,” a young couple explores their estate to find the perfect site for a Temple of Happiness. After disqualifying various sites due to the tragic events that had taken place there, they eventually build their Temple atop a tomb only to be mocked by their creepy cousin. The couple have the last laugh, however, understanding the real import of the temple and the tomb:

But, as the Shadow of Affliction spoke, a vision of Hope and Joy had its birth in Adam’s mind, even from the old man’s taunting words; for then he knew what was betokened by the parable in which the Lily and himself had acted; and the mystery of Life and Death was opened to him. “Joy! Joy!” he cried, throwing his arms towards Heaven. “On a Grave be the site of our Temple; and now our happiness is for Eternity!”

With those words, a ray of sunshine broke through the dismal sky, and glimmered down into the sepulchre; while, at the same moment, the shape of odd Walter Gascoigne stalked drearily away, because his gloom, symbolic of all earthly sorrow, might no longer abide there now that the darkest riddle of humanity was read.

“The Shaker Bridal,” carrying a far less hopeful message to the reader, promotes the same romantic sensibility. The story narrates a wedding among the Shakers, performed not for the traditional reasons of love and procreation but in order to provide celibate leadership to the community. At the story’s close, the bride, Martha, collapses, perhaps dead, as she contemplates a love-deprived “marriage” to the man with whom she had been enamored as a youth.

Perhaps Hawthorne only wrote these borderline maudlin tales in order to please audiences, yet his continued attitudes toward marriage, both in his fiction and in his life, would suggest that these tales, and others in Twice-Told Tales reflect the author’s attitude to some degree.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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