Nathaniel Hawthorne And Dark Romanticist

August 5, 2021 by Essay Writer

Today’s presentation will focus on Nathaniel Hawthorne, specifically as a Dark Romanticist writer. I’ll begin by giving relevant details to his background which I think were pertinent in shaping his style and subject of writing. Usually, we’d gloss over biographical information which you can easily look up in the Anthology, but born in Salem, Massachusetts, 1804, the context of his birthplace is very interesting. He hails from the same place as the Salem witch trials of 1692, which his ancestors were chief proponents of. His great, great, great grandfather John Hawthorne was only one of three judges who never repented for his actions. John’s father, a magistrate, punished a Quaker for not falling in line with Puritan orthodoxy. This sets up the background to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who grew up as a reclusive child fed on Puritan titles such as Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s progress. Throughout his senior years, he will write on the constant shadow of New England’s religious past.

He even modifies his surname to dissociate himself from his ancestral past. How his ancestors haunt him I think is quite a Gothic theme in itself, similar to how Manfred is persecuted by his ancestors and their vices in Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto. I’ll soon bring up the idea of the Gothic again, for the meantime we note how certain darkness pervades his writing. The Puritan strains in his blood run clear; some of his writings could only be imagined by a progeny of Salem’s past. From this Puritan tradition, he would inherit a concept of original sin and guilt and the claims of law and conscience. This is also what leads him to develop a pessimism that rejects the Transcendentalists’ optimism about the potentialities of human nature. Instead, Hawthorne will write on the suffering and conflict he sees in life, with resolute scrutiny of the psychological and moral sides of the human condition.

Thus, Hawthorne’s writings come under a subgenre of Transcendentalism which is coined under the term Dark Romanticism. Unlike its parent ideology, we find something that is far less optimistic, focusing on the darkness of the human condition, suggesting that sin and evil are inherent natural qualities of humanity. Thompson gives us a summary of the major elements of Dark Romanticism:

Fallen man’s inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, a supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind. Such was the effect of this simple piece of crepe, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meetinghouse. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them…A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought.

Inspired by Puritan New England, his depictions of the past are a version of historical fiction used only as a vehicle to express common themes of ancestral sin and retribution. Alike the Transcendentalists, Dark Romantics believe there exists a spiritual truth, but they differ in that they believe this can be found in the dark side of the human psyche. These authors were drawn to humanity’s imperfections and self-destruction. They also rebelled against the Puritans who judged those who did not conform or meet the social criteria. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is an exemplary piece of Dark Romanticism, examining the human soul, and its themes of imposed judgment and punishment for those who commit sin, resulting in alienation and self-destruction. In Earth’s Holocaust, I found some extracts on the nature of man and the condition of his heart.

“What but the human heart itself?” said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. “And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery – the same old shapes or worse ones – which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!”.

This brief conversation supplied me with a theme for lengthened thought. How sad truth, if true it was, that man’s age-long endeavor for perfection had served only to render him the mockery of the evil principle, from the fatal circumstance of an error at the very root of the matter! The heart, the heart, there was the little yet boundless sphere wherein existed the original wrong of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that inward sphere, and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms and vanish of their own accord; but if we go no deeper than the intellect, and strive, with merely that feeble instrument, to discern and rectify what is wrong, our whole accomplishment will be a dream, so unsubstantial that it matters little whether the bonfire, which I have so faithfully described, where what we choose to call a real event and a flame that would scorch the finger, or only a phosphoric radiance and a parable of my own brain.

Although we may burn and discard everything outward, the darkness in the human heart remains. In Hawthorne’s Dark Romanticism I found many parallel themes to Gothic Romanticism. Hawthorne’s pessimism regarding scientific advancement which ends in tragedy, like in Rapicinni’s daughter and The Birth Mark, is not too dissimilar from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I also think that the romance of Puritan New England mirrors English Gothic fiction’s obsessions with old romances, the medieval and the archaic. Earlier British authors writing within the movement of Romanticism such as Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, Mary Shelley, and John Polidori who are frequently linked to gothic fiction are also sometimes referred to as Dark Romantics. Their tales and poems commonly feature outcasts from society, personal torment, and uncertainty as to whether the nature of man will bring him salvation or destruction. This is pretty much the plot of the Scarlett Letter.

I did read from somewhere that ‘Gothic fiction is more about sheer terror than Dark Romanticism’s themes of dark mystery and skepticism regarding man’. If you’ve come to study Gothic literature you really do find that it is inconsistent. Terms such as Romanticism, Gothicism, Dark Romanticism, and Transcendentalism take on quite a fluid form, and their nature changes depending on the period and the writer. You learn that the roots of Dark Romanticism, alike Romanticism is not a unified movement and has different strains from different countries. Its influence from earlier Romantic literary movements is within the actual name. Although Emerson may try to dissociate American fiction from their transatlantic siblings and create a new literary form, we can pretty much trace a lineage of influence that cannot be shaken off.

So I haven’t tried too hard to make contrived links with Gothic literature, only that I note that there are parallels. I think for me this presents itself as a possible essay topic in tracing a transcontinental influence and how it shapes American lit. I probs going to read Scarlett’s letter and a bit of Poe and Melville. I’ll be honest, I struggled to pinpoint the origins of dark Romanticism and how it connects to Transcendentalism. I could not figure out whether it came from across the Atlantic or formed by itself. I also could not decide whether he is Anti-Puritan, or he believes that darkness comes solely from within the human heart, as we have read from Earth’s Holocaust. The chief criticism is about society and its structures.


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