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Nathaniel Hawthorne Writing Style Essays

Ornate, Formal, Thorny, Biblical, Shadowy, Comma-Loving

Get out your passports: Hawthorne's style is so strange to our modern ear that it's almost like visiting a foreign country. (It was rough going for the time, too; check out a book like Charles Dickens' Bleak House, written around the same time, and you'll see that not everyone wrote like this.)

Thanks to words like "ignominy" and "cogitating" continually tripping us up, and Hawthorne's passionate love affair with the comma, these sentences can be truly epic:

Doomed by his own choice, therefore, as Mr. Dimmesdale so evidently was, to eat his unsavory morsel always at another's board and endure the lifelong chill which must be his lot who seeks to warm himself only at another's fireplace, it truly seemed that this sagacious, experienced, benevolent old physician, with his concord of paternal and reverential love for the young pastor, was the very man, of all mankind, to be constantly within reach of his voice. (9.16)

If you feel like you've just run a marathon with your brain, it's cool. The trick with Hawthorne is to try to understand the backbone of the sentence. In this case the sentence is basically just saying, "because Dimmesdale has chosen a life of solitude, the fatherly doctor is the perfect companion for him." Get out the sculptor's tools, and don't be afraid to chip away at the sentences you encounter in this novel. You just might strike solid gold.


Nathaniel Hawthorne was a prominent early American Author who contributed greatly to the evolution of modern American literature. A New England native, Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804 and died on May 19, 1864 in New Hampshire. An avid seaman, Hawthorne^s father died in 1808 when Nathaniel Hawthorne was only a young child. After his father^s death, Hawthorne showed a keen interest in his father^s worldwide nautical adventures and often read the logbooks his father had compiled from sailing abroad. Hawthorne was a descendant of a long line of New England Puritans, which sparked his interest in the Puritan way of life. After he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, Hawthorne returned to his home in Salem were he began to write in semi-seclusion. Hawthorne published his first novel, Fanshawe in 1828. In 1839, Hawthorne was appointed weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House. He later married Sophia Amelia Peabody in 1842. In the following years, Hawthorne wrote his more famous novels which shaped his own literary style, as well as the genres of the romance novel and short story. Eventually, Hawthorne developed a style of romance fiction representative of his own beliefs. Although Nathaniel Hawthorne^s writing style was often viewed as outdated when compared to modern literature, Hawthorne conveyed modern themes of psychology and human nature through his crafty use of allegory and symbolism. To begin with, Hawthorne^s style was commonplace for a writer of the nineteenth century. During the time period in which Hawthorne wrote, printing technology was not yet advanced enough to easily reproduce photographs in books. Therefore, Hawthorne frequently wrote lengthy visual descriptions since his audience had no other means to see the setting of the novel. (Magill:1 840). One example of such descriptions was in The Scarlet Letter when Hawthorne intricately describes the prison door and its surroundings. Another aspect of Hawthorne^s writing which was exclusive to his time period was the use of formal dialogue which remained fairly consistent from character to character (Magill:2 140). Such overblown dialogue was evident in The Scarlet Letter when the dialogue of Pearl, a young child, exhibited no difference from the dialogue of the other characters in the novel. Hawthorne adopted the use of overly formal dialogue partly from a British writer, Sir Walter Scott, whose works were popular in the United States and Great Britain (Magill:1 841). Although Hawthorne^s dialogue was overly formal, it was an accurate tool in describing human emotion (Gale). Absence of character confrontation was another component of Hawthorne^s literary style. Hawthorne frequently focused more on a character^s inner struggle or a central theme than on heated encounters between characters (Gale). One example of this style can be found in The Scarlet Letter since the novel was almost solely based on the commandment ^Thou shall not commit adultery^ (Magill:1 846). Despite dated dialogue and dated writing style, Hawthorne implied various modern themes in his works. One of Hawthorne^s recurring themes throughout his works was his own view on human nature. Hawthorne explored an interesting human psychology through his exploration of the dark side of human consciousness (Magill:1 841). In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne introduced ^a profound comment on the breakdown of human relationships in the society of the seventeenth century^ (Harris 304). Hawthorne^s theme that human nature is full of wickedness was also evident in ^Young Goodman Brown^ when the title character encountered great difficulty in resisting temptation (Magill:3 1143). One outstanding aspect found in Hawthorne^s writing was the concept of neutral territory. Hawthorne described this concept as ^a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land where the actual and imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other^ (Litz 145). The concept of neutral ground was most evident in the Custom House section of The Scarlet Letter and served as the area in which romance took place (Magill:1 1569). Hawthorne^s modern themes were also modeled by Hawthorne^s own religious beliefs. Although it was not the only reason Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, his Puritan background contributed greatly to his portrayal of a sinner in a strict Puritan community (Litz 157). Hawthorne also raised questions concerning the morality and necessity of Hester Prynne^s exile in The Scarlet Letter. One reason for these inquires was Hawthorne^s disbelief in heaven, hell, angels, or devils since modern science was undermining the Bible (Magill:2 847). Unlike the frankness commonly found in modern twentieth century literature, the nature of literature in the nineteenth century was more conservative. Therefore, Hawthorne implied more modern themes through the use of symbolism. One of Hawthorne^s most obvious symbols in The Scarlet Letter was Pearl, the living product of the adulterous affair between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. Even though some of Hawthorne^s symbols were fantastical, they represented an anachronistic moral standpoint of Hawthorne himself. (Gale) An example of this symbolism was Hester^s moral sin of adultery symbolized by an overly ornate scarlet ^A^ on Hester^s breast. In fact, few authors who worked outside realism have been as concerned with morals as Hawthorne was. (Magill:2 1572). Hawthorne also employed allegory as a way of presenting themes. Hawthorne often achieved allegory by placing characters in a situation outside of the ordinary (Magill:2 1572). In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne presented a highly complex variation on his usual theme of human isolation and the human community (Harris 304). Hester Prynne was a superb example of both these themes since she was isolated from a strict Puritan community. Possibly, Hawthorne^s recurring theme of isolation stemmed from his own experience of seclusion (Gale). Hawthorne explored the themes of penance for sins and cowardliness when Arthur Dimmesdale struggled with himself to make his sin public. In conclusion, Hawthorne^s literary style did indeed contain elements such as description and dialogue, which seemed out of place when compared to modern twentieth century literature. However, Hawthorne^s style was typical of the literary style of the time. Nevertheless, Hawthorne addressed modern themes and expressed his own view on human nature and religion. In addition, Hawthorne^s symbolism was an essential tool in addressing topics, which were too radical to be publicly addressed in the nineteenth century. Therefore, Hawthorne^s symbolism an astute way to express his own beliefs. Hawthorne also achieved a unique form of allegory by placing characters in unusual situations. Hawthorne used various symbols to imply themes of adultery, sins, and human morality. All in all, Hawthorne deeply examined every facet of human nature and drew conclusions from the experiences of the characters in his work.


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter.

Fitzgerald, Sheila ed. Short Story Criticism. vol.4. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1989.

Gale ed. DISCovering Authors. Detroit: Gale Research Company , 1996.

Harris, Laurie Lanzen. Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism. vol. 54. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985.

Litz, Waltona ed. American Writers. New York: Charles Scriner^Òs Sons, 1998.

Magill, Frank N. ed. Magill^Òs Survey of American Literature. vol. 13. New York: Salem Press, 1991.

Magill, Frank N. ed. Critical Survey of Long Fiction. vol. 4 Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 1991.  

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