Challenging Puritan Thought? Nathaniel Hawthorne´s Nature Descriptions

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

23 Pages, Grade: A+



1. Introduction:

2. Argument



1. Introduction:

The descriptions of nature in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories evoke an ambiguous impression. On the one hand, they occupy considerable space and therefore have to be regarded as essential parts of the story worth a close interpretation. The distinct attention for nature in Hawthorne’s work was instantly noticed by his contemporaries. A very early account is of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem “Hawthorne” cherishes the “tender undertone” in Hawthorne’s nature descriptions.[1]

On the other hand, the descriptions of nature are not really autonomous, but should rather be seen as background settings for the action. Nature, for example, provides the fitting surrounding for the protagonist who is just about to fall from grace (“Young Goodman Brown”), or it serves as a means of additional characterization (“The Gentle Boy” and “The Scarlet Letter”), or it is a realization of a moral message (“The Hollow of the Three Hills”).

Consequently, nature has an emblematic function, and its description can be regarded as a possibility to express a narrator’s emotional states of various kinds, which originate in the author’s own attitude to the action of the story.[2]

Hawthorne seems to resemble Thoreau or even Cooper in this regard, although his descriptions of nature do not primarily serve the purpose to give a realistic picture of the environment. Their purpose is rather to provide pictures of thoughts, whose essence I will show to be Puritan, and thus to exemplify the overall struggle Hawthorne employs as one of the forces that keep his stories going: the opposition between culture and wilderness, between the market place of the Puritan settlement and the yet unconquered nature, the forest surrounding it.[3]

In order to be able to analyze the descriptions of nature as means of providing the reader with the Puritan thought mentioned above, the analysis of the depiction nature in Hawthorne’s short stories has to take closely into account the intellectual and histo­rical background of Hawthorne: his Puritan inheritance as well as his continuous attempt to rid himself of it. Additionally, the analysis has to include autobiographical elements in order to shed light on Hawthorne’s technique of describing nature. In return, the personal accounts of Hawthorne have to be seen against his Puritan background.

Consequently, since the descriptions of nature in Hawthorne’s works to a certain degree fulfill the purpose of providing a controversial picture of Puritan thought, I deem it to be reasonable to ask the following questions:

In how far are Hawthorne’s descriptions of nature to be interpreted in relation to the overall problematic structure that similar descriptions of American landscapes in the ninetieth century also express, for example Washington Irving’s, or Henry David Thoreau’s? How does Hawthorne overcome this problematic structure – if at all?

Furthermore we have to ask if descriptions of nature mirror a discrepancy between the artist Hawthorne, and the moralist in Hawthorne. This question leads us to the consideration of the following: Considering the fact that Hawthorne’s moral views are inseparable from Puritan thought, we have to inquire into the relationship between Hawthorne’s artistic concepts of nature description as opposed to the nature descriptions he conceived to be a backing for an overall moral purpose. The results of this short analysis will be used to show that Hawthorne generally and particularly in his early work used nature descriptions as a means to convey and criticize a Puritan moral message, which in the settings of his stories in the seventeenth century serves as a picture of nineteenth century dealings with nature as slowly arising from the state of the unknown, wild other, to the position of an organic necessity of life.[4]

2. Argument

The larger part of Hawthorne’s stories do not play in nature, be it a natural landscape yet untouched by man or a sheer wilderness, but in the settlements of New England, on the market-place, the nucleus of the Puritan community. Town and wilderness seem to form a bipolar construction. They are almost equivalent in “meaning, attractiveness, wholeness, and power as a fictive presence.”[5] However, the Puritan community in Hawthorne’s stories rigorously rejects the wilderness and concentrates on the market place, which is consequently the point of departure for many of the tales.

The reader is introduced into the local settings through expressions like “There is a certain church in the city of New York […]”[6], “The sexton stood in the porch of the Milford Meeting House […]”[7], or “One afternoon, last summer, while walking along Washington Street […]”[8]. And even in those narratives that set their action outside the settlements, nature seems to have nothing but a complementary, a background function. Nevertheless – taking into account Hawthorne’s original intention we find that a close look on nature was amongst his foremost artistic aims:

Thus my airdrawn pictures will be set in frames perhaps more valuable than the pictures themselves, since they will be embossed with groups of characteristic figures, amid the lake and the mountain scenery, the villages and the fertile fields, of our native land.[9]

The next sentence, however, sheds another light on this: “But I write this book for the sake of its moral, which many a dreaming youth may profit by […]”. Hawthorne seems to be committed to two aims. The author as an artist is devoted to the description and glorification of “our native land” on the one hand, but the moralist teacher, caught in the web of Puritan principles, regards the overall moral doctrine that can be drawn from his stories as their prime content – to which the artistry of description has to subordinate.

Hawthorne’s literary interest of the early creative years seems to be the cultivated landscape, not untouched nature: “Had Nature, in that deep hour, become a worshipper in the house, that man had builded?”[10] This and the passage cited above demonstrates that the early Hawthorne still largely agrees with a Puritan attitude that attributes a community-related and religious dimension to the cultivation of nature and shows little respect for its original, wild shape. Hawthorne’s endeavors as an artist and as a teacher seem to be united in his acceptance of a Puritan principle; the aims his nature descriptions exhibit few discrepancy whatsoever between the artist and the moralist.

The more Hawthorne gained a relative distance from Puritan values, he abandoned the thought of civilization and cultivation of the wilderness as an end in itself, the result being that the aims of an author and artist, who cannot lay aside his character of a teacher, began to diverge. For the artist, cultivated landscapes began to directly reflect the confinement to a way of life imposed on man by Puritan values Hawthorne was now beginning to view critically, although it is questionable if Hawthorne ever managed to rid himself entirely of the same confinement he attempted to overcome in his late descriptions of nature. Early stages of a critical approach towards the Puritan concept of nature as well as Hawthorne’s inability to consequently pursue his criticism till its very end are expressed in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” where the strict bipolar opposition between town and wilderness is broken up into a merry union of man and nature – only to become reinforced.

I think this conflict of author intentions that originate in Hawthorne’s conflicting ideas about his Puritan heritage and his own feelings towards nature to be a reason for the fact that lively descriptions of unconquered, original nature do only rarely find their way into Hawthorne's stories. Among the very few is “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” where Hawthorne describes the beauty of both worlds, untamed nature as well as the civilized realm of Puritan settlement:


[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Hawthorne.” In: J. D. McClatchy: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poems and Other Writings. New York, 2000. p. 474-5.

[2] In her analysis of nature personification in The Scarlet Letter Janice B. Daniel finds that Hawthorne’s nature descriptions serve to provide “a disembodied voice [as] an effective device which allows the narrator to have differing perspectives.” Janice B. Daniel: “’Apples of the Thoughts and Fancies’: Nature as Narrator in The Scarlet Letter.” In: American Transcendental Quarterly. 7(4). 1993. p. 307-319. p. 309. (abbreviated as Daniel)

[3] Daniel, p. 310: “Whereas Hawthorne’s theme of community characteristically plays itself out in his works with the interactions of humans, in this novel [The Scarlet Letter] and on another level he further emphasizes his message by depicting nature in a community of its own, in an existence parallel to humankind’s emotional and intellectual world. No emotional or intellectual interactions with humans occur; […]”

[4] cf. Lawrence Buell: Writing for an Endangered World. Literature, Culture and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge, MA/London, 2001. (abbreviated as Buell, 2001)

[5] James McIntosh: “Nature and Frontier in ‘Roger Malvin’s Burial.’” In: American Literature. 60(2). 1988. p. 188-204. p. 200. (abbreviated as McIntosh)

[6] “The Wedding Knell.” In: Twice-Told Tales. Boston, 1900. p. 26. (abbreviated as TTT)

[7] “The Minister’s Black Veil.” In: Nina Baym et al. (edd.): The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. I. Fifth edition. New York/London, 1998. p. 1252. (abbreviated as Norton Anthology)

[8] “Legends of the Province House.” In: Norman Holmes Pearson (ed.): The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York, 1937. p. 952. (abbreviated as Complete Novels)

[9] “Passages from a Relinquished Work.” in The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol. II. Boston, New York, 1886. p. 461.

[10] “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” In: Norton Anthology, p. 1230.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Challenging Puritan Thought? Nathaniel Hawthorne´s Nature Descriptions
University of Massachusetts - Amherst  (English Department)
American Romanicism
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ISBN (eBook)
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523 KB
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nature, Puritanism, American Romanticism, environmentalism
Quote paper
Silja Rübsamen (Author), 2001, Challenging Puritan Thought? Nathaniel Hawthorne´s Nature Descriptions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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