Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804 (incidentally enough for a writer who would go on to explore some of the darker aspects of American history—the Salem Witch trials) on the fourth of July. His ancestors were some of the first colonists and one of them was actually involved with the infamous witch trials. Certainly, this fact had something to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s keen interest in the Puritan period and many of his novels and short stories (The Scarlet Letter is the first to come to mind) deal with many of the themes central to this period in American history. An analysis of the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne will not only reveal his interest in exploring the themes and ideas behind the Puritan period, but also, in the true spirit of the tradition of Romanticism that he was writing, they also examine more ethereal notions such as nature, beauty, romantic love, and of course, the supernatural.
Interestingly, most of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels and short stories employ the supernatural and his name is often associated with romanticism along with other romantic writers such as Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein, a novel which has some of the same themes Nathaniel Hawthorne explores in stories such as “The Birthmark" for instance). While classifying the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the movement of Romanticism is not difficult, it is almost impossible to find one solid way of describing his works because so many of them, although they tend to explore many of the same themes (his favorites include the topic of sin) they are all rather different in terms of complexity and plot. This fact makes him one of the more interesting and widely-read authors inAmerican literature in modern times
To best understand the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne in one sitting, if that is even possible, it is best to examine a few works as symbolic of many of the themes. The novel The Scarlet Letter is perhaps one of the most widely-read and most representative of many of the themes in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Aside from the fact that it is set during the Puritan period in American history, it deals with many subjects other works, most notably his famous short story The Minister’s Black Veil, approach—the theme of sin, especially secret sin. Hawthorne was fascinated with the idea of sin and punishment and this theme is expressed overtly in The Scarlet Letter by the wearing of the embroidered letter itself and covertly through many of the minor characters such as Roger Chillingworth are literally eaten away by sin. Like Esther’s lover the preacher in The Scarlet Letter who is troubled by secret sin, so too is the minister in the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Minister’s Black Veil.
In this tale, which like others by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an allegory or moral tale, the preacher who is troubled by his involvement in sinful activity gives a sermon that is almost allegorical in nature itself as the narrator says in one of the important quotes from “The Minister’s Black Veil" the sermon “had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consiousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them." Being interested in exploring themes pertinent during the Puritan period, this is an especially wrenching thematic topic because of the way Hawthorne seeks to tell a moral tale by offering so many characters in different stories who are eaten alive by their sin, particularly if the sin has not been openly expressed. While many critics banter about the biographical reasons for this, it is the safest to assume that Hawthorne wishes to communicate moral messages to his readers through the use of these allegories.
Aside from using the allegory form to tell moral tales, it is important to note that the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne are not at all simple mortality tales with a religious purpose. Hawthorne was writing during the Romanticism movement and he also seeks to explore themes of nature and humankind as well as to push the limits of human imagination and creativity. One mark of this style is the use of the supernatural, which certainly occurs in nearly every tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne, although to different extents. Novels such asThe House of the Seven Gables (which, it is important to note that Hawthorne explicitly asks readers to consider as a “romance” as opposed to a traditional novel, which is noteworthy and vital to know in terms of the presence of an allegory) and a few of the short stories by Hawthorne including another widely-read work, Young Goodman Brown, all employ the supernatural as a way of exploring the human psyche. In both, there are extensive questions about the nature of reality in a world where nothing seems as it should be. Furthermore, in short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne such as The Birthmark, for instance, supernatural laughter echoes in the mind of a mad scientist as he attempts to meddle with the great force of nature. Again, all of the uses of the supernatural in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne aid in the telling of a moral tale and while one should not assume that Hawthorne is necessarily just trying to instruct, it is important to consider the ways he does and what the importance of this purpose might be.
While reading the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, it is vital to look at the ways in which theRomanticism movement is reflected in his works, and especially how the romantic tradition functions in moral tales set in a time that eschewed all things romantic—early colonial America. Another theme to consider while reading and writing about the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne is the presence of allegory and morals. While some of his tales may seem incredibly strange or, to some, even a bit silly (as The Birthmark is often thought to be by many) look beyond the plot and think instead in thematic terms.