Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Literary Timeline Six Novel Ideas My Favorite Novel Elements of the Novel Top Novel Lists About the Program
Navigate through 200 years of the American Novel using scrollable tools and pulldown menus.
Use these pulldown menus to read more about novels, authors & movements.
Nathaniel Hawthorne Return to the Timeline
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne's work often deals with themes of morality, sin, and redemption.

Library of Congress
Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1804-1864), ranks among America's major authors. Between about 1825 and 1850, he developed his talent by writing short fiction and the novel FANSHAWE (1828). Then he gained international fame for his novel THE SCARLET LETTER, a masterpiece of American literature.

Hawthorne's works probe into human nature, especially its darker side. He set many stories against the somber background of Puritan New England, the world of his ancestors. Unlike most fiction writers of his time, he was not primarily interested in stirring the reader by sensational or sentimental effects. Hawthorne called his writing "romance," which he defined as a method of showing "the depths of our common nature." To Hawthorne, romance meant confronting reality, rather than evading it. Hawthorne often dealt with the themes of morality, sin, and redemption. Among his early influences were the parables and allegories of John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser.

Life. Nathaniel Hathorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. He added the "w" to his name when he began publishing. Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825. While attending Bowdoin, he became a friend of future U.S. President Franklin Pierce. After college, he settled in Salem and continued writing. Hawthorne worked in the Boston Custom House in 1839 and 1840 and was a member of the idealistic Brook Farm community near Boston briefly in 1841

Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody in 1842. They moved to the now-famous "Old Manse" in Concord, Massachusetts, where he continued writing.

Hawthorne was surveyor of customs in the port of Salem from 1846 to 1849. In 1853, President Pierce appointed Hawthorne to a four-year term as United States consul in Liverpool, England. After 1857, Hawthorne lived in Italy and again in England before returning to Concord in 1860. He died on May 18 or 19, 1864, while visiting New Hampshire with Pierce.

His novels. THE SCARLET LETTER (1850) is introduced by "The Custom House," an essay in which Hawthorne sketched the novel's background and his experiences as a customs official while writing the book.

The novel itself is controlled by a single idea -- the suffering that results from sin. Hawthorne believed that sin -- adultery in THE SCARLET LETTER -- results in the isolation of the sinners. Isolation leads to suffering, and suffering leads to further sinning and further suffering. The spiral continues until the sinners either destroy themselves or seek forgiveness and rejoin the community.

THE SCARLET LETTER is set in Puritan Boston. The plot is formed by the interactions of the adulteress Hester Prynne, the adulterer Arthur Dimmesdale, and Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth. Hester symbolizes the force of love. Dimmesdale, a minister, represents the spirit, and Chillingworth symbolizes the mind.

Hawthorne shaped his tale in four parts, each dominated by a single force. The force in the first section (Chapters 1-8) is the Puritan community; in the second (Chapters 9-12) it is Chillingworth; in the third (Chapters 13-20) it is Hester; and in the closing part, Dimmesdale. Each section centers on one great dramatic scene in a symbolic setting. The symbolic setting in the first, second, and fourth sections is the scaffold in the Boston marketplace, on which sinners were exhibited and shamed. The forest with its darkness is the symbol in the third section. Hawthorne expanded and intensified the meaning of the action by pictures of light and dark colors he created verbally and by his quiet, ironic tone.

THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES (1851) tells the story of a curse placed on the House of Pyncheon by Matthew Maule, a victim of the Salem witchcraft trials. Hawthorne traces the curse's effect on the Pyncheon descendants and describes their final reconciliation to their past.

THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE (1852), a tragic love story, is Hawthorne's closest approach to a novel of observed life. Hawthorne drew his characters in part from the men and women he had known in the Brook Farm community.

THE MARBLE FAUN (1860) is a psychological study of two young American artists in Italy and their relationship with a mysterious woman painter and a young nobleman.

John Clendenning, Ph.D., Former Professor of English, California State University, Northridge.

Excerpted from THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA © 2007 World Book, Inc. By permission of the publisher. Visit World Book Encyclopedia for more information on Nathaniel Hawthorne and related subjects.

Previous | Next

The American Novel