Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Symbolism and Anti-Symbolism in Hawthorne – and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!

What to do with these allegories? Some of Hawthorne’s most famous stories seem extremely simple-minded, with banal morals. “Young Goodman Brown” shows us how a person destroys his own life by demanding perfection from others. “The Celestial Railroad” lets us know that there are no shortcuts to Heaven. “The Birthmark” warns us about the dangers of cosmetic surgery.

All of these stories are well-written, complete in themselves, crafted works of art. I’m willing to believe that there’s another layer of meaning, that, perhaps, the surface meaning subverts itself somehow. In other words, that they’re interesting. Maybe I’ll see that next time I read them. I read that “Rappacini’s Daughter” used to be interpreted as an allegory about religion and Transcendentalism, but now it's more often interpreted as about Hawthorne's own family. I thought it was about poisonous flowers, but it’s possible that I’m the simple one.

A curious subset of Hawthorne’s tales are his stories about meaning, about interpretation. In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a pastor begins wearing a black veil everywhere he goes. He won’t tell anyone why. Presumably it penance for some terrible sin. On his death bed, not only does he refuse to remove the veil, but he sees a black veil on everyone.

Some of Hawthorne’s stories seem designed for a facile X=Y Symbolism. What I like about “The Minister’s Black Veil” is that the black veil is a symbol that demands interpretation not just by the reader but by the characters. It’s the minister who actually creates a symbolic item for others to interpret. So the story is less about symbols in literature than symbols in life, and what we do with them. Hawthorne returns to this idea again and again.

I find the latter a more interesting subject. But I also enjoy the way Hawthorne at the same time undermines the notion of a single interpretaion of any given symbol. I wish that he did that in more of his stories. Or maybe he does. Then I wish that I recognized it.


  1. "perhaps, the surface meaning subverts itself somehow."

    When I reread Hawthorne, I see subtle sentences and word choices that tend to challenge the easy narrative. For example, in "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," we're obviously meant to sympathize with the joyful worldview of the Merry Mounters and despise the grim religion of the Puritans. But then I come across a line like this:

    "Once, it is said, they were seen following a flower-decked corpse, with merriment and festive music, to his grave. But did the dead man laugh?"

    And that sentence makes me think: Is every occasion an occasion for joy? Is there not sadness and suffering in life, and must that not be engaged, too? Can everything be partied and celebrated away? And then I take that thought further: can the Merry Mounters sustain their party? What do they do when winter comes?

    It doesn't make me side with the Puritans, of course. But that sentence does enough to challenge the choice between the binary opposites.

    And I tend to see that in a lot of Hawthorne's short stories. The "moral" is obvious, but there's just a touch of ambiguity about how we should feel about that moral. Like at the end of "Rappaccini's Daughter," doesn't the rival professor's gloating sort of undercut his own sense of superiority to Rappaccini?

    I may be a modern reader sensing ambiguity where it isn't, but I really do respect Hawthorne the artist, and I think he subtly questions his own narratives.

  2. These are very helpful suggestions. The specific examples you give seem right to me; just the sort of signposts that a reader like me can use.

    "Rappacini's Daughter" is an interesting example because the symbolic structure is so rich that it becomes incoherent. If Hawthorne was aiming at a single meaning, he defeats himself. Modern readers - me, at least - are likely happier with the messy results.