Hawthorne and Symbolism

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Hawthorne and Symbolism
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...
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