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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Symbolism in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the most outstanding writers whose works are the guarantee of ultimate pleasure that the reading will provide. The secret of his talent is in the beauty of the figurative language he makes use of. In fact, language is the only means a writer can use, it is his weapon and his implement. This accounts for the beauty of Hawthorne’s short stories. Park suggested a marvelous idea concerning Nathaniel Hawthorne: “A rose bathed and baptized in dew – a star in its first gentle emergence above the horizon – are the types of the soul of Nathaniel Hawthorne; every vein … is filled … with beauty” (27). Such a talented person put his whole inspiration into words, and this inspiration found its embodiment in symbolic images, such a well-known element of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s prose. These symbols form a treasury of the author’s literary legacy and it is very difficult to single out only one symbol in his work since all of them work in complexity. However, an attempt will be made to analyze one of the most important symbols in several short stories by means of synthesis of the information taken from these short stories. Thus, the present work will focus on the symbolic image of the Devil as the incarnation of evil in three short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Young Goodman Brown”, “Rappaccini’s daughter”, and “The Minister’s Black Veil”.

In the first place, it is necessary to analyze the symbolic image of the “fellow-traveler” of Young Goodman Brown as he is the main means of expression of the main theme of the short story. The fellow traveler meets the protagonist in the woods late at night when Brown is on his way. As soon as he utters, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow” (Hawthorne 9), his idea comes true. In fact, the author does not state that the fellow traveler is the Devil, but we get to know this from the statement of Young Brown and the idea is proven as the action unfolds. The fact that the dark figure is devil is proved by the words of the old lady: “‘The devil!’ screamed the pious old lady. “Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend?” observed the traveler” (Hawthorne 15). However, this proof is not needed any more, the reader is sure of the nature of the figure already.

The symbol of the Devil in “Young Goodman Brown” is created with the help of other symbols, thus, it is a complex symbolic image. For instance, the staff of the fellow traveler contributes to the creation of the symbolism of his image. Since symbols are frequently interrelated with allusions, the following example may be set: the episode where the man throws his twisted staff to the feet of Goody Cloyse, is the allusion the biblical story of Aaron who had thrown his rod before Pharaoh (McCabe unpaged). Thus, the twisted staff symbolized evil, the serpent that had once seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden. Since that serpent from the Bible is the Devil disguised, the parallel may be drawn between the serpents and those who send them. On the whole, the serpent is the archetype of evil in many cultures, and the use of this symbol in the text seems very reasonable and expressive.

One more symbolic detail concerning the fellow traveler’s character is the use of black color to describe him. Colors are very symbolic in all the works by Hawthorne, they carry additional meaning that is accessible only if one reads the text insightfully. For instance, symbolic is the pink color of Faith’s ribbons (McCabe unpaged). As for the character of the old man (Devil), the color of his staff is black, the first time Brown sees him, he observes that the man is dressed in “grave and decent attire”, probably black (Hawthorne 10). What is more, the action takes place in the forest, among “the black pines” (Hawthorne 24) at night, and when the protagonist sees the people who gather for the witches’ sabbath, he says that they are “a grave and dark-clad company” (Hawthorne 26). Thus, it can be observed that the Devil is spreading his darkness on everything around him, making all details of the scenery and all the participants of the action black as he is himself.

Passing on the story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, it is necessary to state that the symbol of the Devil as the incarnation of evil is present here as well, though it is not so evident as in the previous story. One of the main characters, the scientist, Rappaccini is a very complex character, and it can be stated that his image can be interpreted as the image of the Devil. However, the character is more complex than the previous one analyzed as it is very controversial. Rappaccini is the Devil but his God as well. He gives birth to his daughter, Beatrice, but he also makes her the victim of science, thus spoiling her life and making her a monster, a creature that kills everything she touches, moreover, the touch is not needed, one breath is enough to kill. It is not possible that a good person can create such a creature; this means that Rappaccini thinks that he is powerful enough and he has a right to rule the lives of other people. His vicious plan to find a husband for his daughter, pouring poison in his veins, is nothing but the presentation of seduction, the same biblical plot that was mentioned in the previous story. Giovanni yields to Beatrice’s charm and beauty but, in fact, it is her father who rules the seduction, just as Satan in the Bible. Finally, the old man is also dressed in black, he is a “sickly-looking man, dressed in a scholar’s garb of black” (Hawthorne 3). The color of his attire proves his similarity with the fellow traveler of Brown.

The third story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”, also offers the image that may be interpreted as the image of the Devil; it is Reverend Hooper, the Minister. In his image, the symbolic black color leaps to the eye at once, it may be observed in the title and throughout the story. Black is the color of his veil, which he refuses to take off. Black color is dominating in the story and the veil is the central element of his garment. Besides, the statement “the minister and the maiden’s spirit were walking hand in hand” (Hawthorne 236) suggests the idea that the Devil took her soul to his kingdom. On the whole, the Minister’s ability to rule the life, the mood, and the behavior of the people resembles Devil’s ability to influence people. Besides, his veil is the symbol of his sin; the Devil seldom pretends to be good and pure.

Drawing a conclusion, it is necessary to state that the symbolic image of the Devil as the incarnation of eternal evil can be observed in all the stories. The author makes use of this symbol in different situations applying it to different characters but this symbol is the inseparable part of the Puritan morality that was criticized by Hawthorne. The presence of the symbol of the Devil in different characters suggests the idea of the sinful nature of a human being and the power of evil in the world.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Rappacini’s Daughter. Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Minister’s Black Veil. Best Known Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Kessinger Publishing, 2003, 323-332.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown. Rockville: Wildside Press LLC, 2005.

McCabe, Michael, Shoemaker, Jacqueline, Gregory, Leslie, and Angie Soler. Nathaniel Hawthorne “Young Goodman Brown”. 1998. Web.

Park, Benjamin. “Twice-told Tales.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: Contemporary Reviews. John L. Idol and Buford Jones. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


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