The Romanticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne

I’ve recently read several stories written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I was so surprised that I loved them, that I just had to share my thoughts with you.
A little refresher— Romanticism is described as the movement in literature that focused on the imaginative, the emotional, the irrational, the visionary and the transcendental. 

In stark contrast to classical literature , Romanticism was like a breath of fresh air.  The French poet, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, said, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.”

I’ll start with Hawthorne’s best known novel, and perhaps the reason why it took me so long to read anything of his, The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850. On some levels, this is a love story, filled with good intentions, and lovers kept apart by circumstance, morals or what have you. But buried inside this tale of sin and repentance are little sparkling gems of Romanticism. From the beginning when the narrator introduces the paper evidence of Hester’s sin, Hawthorne give a little bit of irrationality when the papers are described as giving off a “burning heat…as if the letter were not of red rose, but red hot iron.”
The Scarlet Letter emphasizes the individual and how we are solely responsible for our own actions, and thus must make remuneration for our sins. Hester remains loyal to the father of Pearl by not divulging his name, showing that she believes that she responsible for herself and that Pearl’s father must find his own way to make amends.  Also, Hester did not take the easy way out. She could have run away before she had the baby and found a home where she would not be know for her sins, but she did not do this.  Hester stayed and took her public taunting, her years of ostracism; because she knew that it was the only way to regain the faith of others and her own faith in her self.  This emphasis of self is another hallmark of Romanticism.
Another great example of Romanticism from Hawthorne comes in the form of Young Goodman Brown. In this tale, a man leaves his wife one evening though he would really rather stay home. His journey leads him deep within the woods where he witnesses his bride being indoctrinated into the clan of Satan, while upstanding members of the town watch on. Young Goodman Brown wakes in the morning, unsure if all of it really happened, so he lives the rest of his life keeping distance from everybody and living a pretty much miserable life.  Satan in the bushes, half the town devoted to evil, well, this is certainly irrational, and very original.
Over the course of reading Young Goodman Brown, one begins to realize that this quaint town of Salem with it’s god-fearing citizens isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A catechism teacher, a minister, his innocent wife— all at the secret gathering in the woods.
The last story I wish to make an example of is Rappaccini’s Daughter , which I personally found to be one of Hawthorne’s best tales.  Everything about this story exudes Romanticism, from the idea that a scientist could willingly make his very own daughter the subject of a deadly experiment, to the fantastical way that the effects of the experiment have changed Beatrice’s corporeal body. At one, point, she merely breathes on an insect and it drops dead instantly, showcasing that even the poor girl’s breath has become tainted by the science of Rappaccini.
Also in Rappaccini’s Daughter, one can find many examples of the irrational and imaginative writings of Hawthorne.  Such passages as, “it was observable that she handled and inhaled the odor of several plants which her father had most sedulously avoided”  and  “came a beautiful insect over the garden wall… (it) seemed to be attracted to Beatrice, and lingered in the air and fluttered about her head…while Beatrice was gazing at the insect with childish delight, it grew faint and fell at her feet; it’s bright wings shivered; it was dead—from no cause that he could discern unless it were the atmosphere from her breath” tend to highlight the Romanticism of the work.

Does Hawthorne deserve the distinction of Romanticism? You bet! His tales speak of nature and individuality, of irrational and imaginative, and of the emotional and the personal—which are all attributes of Romanticism. And he deals with all of it so very well. Even for someone like me, that avoided anything “prescribed by a teacher” Hawthorne was ahead of his time, somewhat like Edgar Allen Poe.

To Read Hawthorne’s Work, check out these classics!

Young Goodman Brown

Rappaccini’s Daughter

The Scarlett Letter


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