One of the most important and influential American writers of the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) was a descendant of John Hathorne, one of the judges at the Salem witch trials of 1692. And New England Puritanism is very much at the heart of his work. He’s regarded by many critics as the first major writer from the United States, and his novels and short stories demonstrate why he is considered such a monumental figure in American literature.
Below, we introduce ten of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best novels and stories, all of which are well worth reading.
1. ‘Young Goodman Brown’.
This 1835 story is one of Hawthorne’s earliest mature works, and is arguably his best-known and most acclaimed short story, inspired in part by the Salem witch craze of 1692. Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, thought ‘Young Goodman Brown’ was ‘deep as Dante’ in its exploration of the darker side of human nature.
In the village of Salem one evening, a young man named Goodman Brown bids farewell to his wife, Faith. Faith wants him to stay with her, but Goodman Brown says he needs to travel tonight. When he leaves her, he vows to himself that he will be good after his business is done tonight. But what business is afoot? Hawthorne takes us into the dark world of a witches’ sabbath in a story that contains many of his recurring preoccupations: faith, superstition, sin, and shame …
We have analysed this story here.
2. ‘The Birthmark’.
Many of Hawthorne’s best stories concern a physical or visual symbol of an inward blemish or flaw: a sin, a secret, or a sense of guilt or shame. This story is about an obsessive scientist who becomes determined to remove a small hand-shaped birthmark from his beautiful wife’s cheek. Although she is at first upset that her husband wishes to change her appearance, she agrees to the procedure, trusting him completely. But was she right to do so?
We have analysed this story here.
3. The House of the Seven Gables.
This 1851 novel has all the trappings of a Gothic romance – a haunted house, an aristocratic family, and dark secrets – but Hawthorne merges these devices with his distinctive understanding of New England superstitions and beliefs, weaving in mesmerism and New England’s history of ‘witchcraft’ among other things.
4. ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’.
Subtitled ‘A Parable’, this story originally appeared in a gift book titled The Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1836, before being collected in Hawthorne’s short-story collection Twice-Told Tales, the following year.
A minister in an eighteenth-century New England parish shows up to deliver his sermon one Sunday, wearing a black veil that covers much of his face. Is he atoning for some private sin? He refuses to provide a specific reason, even to his betrothed. What does the veil represent? This has been the subject of much debate ever since the story was first published.
We have analysed this story here.
This 1852 novel is set in a Utopian settlement, Blithedale, in New England, where a poet, a strong-headed woman in favour of equal rights, a young woman with extra-sensory powers, a philanthropist, and a middle-aged man with a secret all clash as they seek to determine what Blithedale should be.
The most autobiographical of all Hawthorne’s novels, The Blithedale Romance is based on his experiences living among the Transcendentalist community at Brook Farm, Massachusetts.
6. ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’.
This 1844 story, which might be viewed as science fiction, is about an Italian medical researcher who grows poisonous plants in his garden. His daughter grows up to be immune to all of the poisons – but poisonous to others who come into contact with her. The story is a variation on the ‘poisonous maiden’ trope that originated in Indian literature, and shows Hawthorne once again using a symbol – here, poison – to explore ideas relating to human sins and flaws.
7. The Marble Faun.
Hawthorne’s final complete novel, The Marble Faun takes its title from a sculpture in an Italian art gallery which resembles Donatello, one of the novel’s principal characters. Set in Italy, this novel nevertheless contains a number of trademark Hawthorne features, such as the dark secret from the past which one of the characters, Miriam, is hiding. But the novel is also, like many of Henry James’s novels, about the relationship between America and the Old World of Europe.
8. ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’.
This story from 1844 has a claim to fame: it’s thought to be the first short story to contain a robotic insect. Owen Warland makes watches, but he becomes side-tracked by a secret project which consumes his time and attention. He loves Annie, but she is encouraged to marry Robert, a practical-minded blacksmith. Owen achieves his ambition to create something beautiful: a tiny clockwork butterfly, which he presents to Annie as a belated wedding present.
As so often in Hawthorne’s work, this tiny mechanical butterfly represents something much greater: in this instance, the artist’s pursuit of ‘the beautiful’ …
9. ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’.
Another very early story, written in 1831, this is a tale about a man’s search for his kinsman, the titular Major Molineux, in the early eighteenth century. Molineux, a British army man living in Massachusetts when it was still a British colonial territory, has promised to find his relative some work, but the Major proves elusive when the young protagonist attempts to track him down. When he does eventually find him, he’s in for a surprise.
10. The Scarlet Letter.
This novel is undoubtedly Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best-known work. Published in 1850, it is set in the seventeenth century in a small New England town, where Hester Prynne is convicted of adultery. She refuses to reveal the name of her lover, even to her husband, and becomes an outcast, living on the outskirts of town and supporting herself through her needlework.
Although the novel’s title starts out as a reference to the scarlet letter ‘A’ which Hester is made to wear as a sign of her guilt, as she rebuilds her reputation among the townsfolk the letter comes to stand for other things, including ‘Angel’ and ‘Able’. But who Hester’s paramour was will come as a surprise to everyone …
I love the short stories. The notebooks are worth a look, a careful look. https://writingroma.wordpress.com/
My absolute favourite is Young Goodman Grown
I only read the first two and the last one long time ago. Now I hardly remember how the first two stories end, but I remember the haunting symbolism of his writing. You remind me to revisit him since his writing is beautiful, although a little archaic. LOL.