Monday, October 24, 2011

Gothic Literature Classics Circuit: A Few Short Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne


I knew that this month would be busy for me at work, and yet I still couldn't resist participating in the Classics Circuit this month--the focus is Gothic Literature! So I chose a few short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1837 in Twice-Told Tales.

"The Wedding Knell" is the story of a most unusual marriage ceremony. When a twice-widowed woman, vain and now elderly, enters the church to wed a man she had once been engaged to in her youth, the church bell begins to toll. It makes everyone think of a funeral. And when her bridegroom arrives, he brings with him mourners and is dressed in a burial shroud! I struggled a little bit with the language, but I liked the dialog between the bride and bridegroom. Here was the bridegroom's reasoning:
At your summons I am here. But other husbands have enjoyed your youth, your beauty, your warmth of heart, and all that could be termed your life. What is there for me but your decay and death? And therefore I have bidden these funeral friends, and bespoken the sexton's deepest knell, and am come, in my shroud, to wed you, as with a burial service, that we may join our hands at the door of the sepulchre, and enter it together.
Church bells aren't used that often in modern-times (so the bell's toll during a wedding didn't strike me as meaningful at first), and I had to look up what exactly a death shroud is so I could picture the scene in the church in my mind.

"The Minister's Black Veil" by JELarson | RedBubble
"The Minister's Black Veil" was my favorite of the three stories I read. Set in a Puritan New England town, the story is about a minister who, to the astonishment of his parishioners, begins wearing a black veil over his face:
That mysterious emblem was never once withdrawn. It shook with his measured breath, as he gave out the psalm; it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures; and while he prayed, the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance. Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?
Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them.
Everyone is puzzled and a bit terrified by the minister's veil, and yet no one can work up the courage to ask him not to wear it. His sermon on the day he began wearing the veil is on secret sin, and there is much conjecture in the community about why he wears the veil. Is he hiding some horrible sin behind that veil, or is he separating himself from the sin he sees in everyone else around him? He wears the veil for the rest of his life, and though it only physically darkens his view, everyone around him seems to feel like the world is darker when he is around. The psychological impact of the veil is interesting, but even more interesting is the fact that Hawthorne is rather ambiguous about it. The minister never really explains exactly why he wears the veil, so the reader is left to his own interpretations.

"The Haunted Mind" was remarkable to me because it is written as a second-person narrative. This short story dwells on the moments between waking and dreaming, in which both horrors and delights are imagined. The ghost scene really turned up the creepy factor (and reminded me of some of my more memorable nightmares). Here is a small taste:
In an hour like this, when the mind has a passive sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror, imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the brotherhood of remorse not break their chain. It is too late! A funeral train comes gliding by your bed, in which Passion and Feeling assume bodily shape, and things of the mind become dim specters to the eye.
I've read Nathaniel Hawthorne before--I read The Scarlet Letter and "Young Goodman Brown" as assignments in high school and college. These were an interesting set of short stories that I enjoyed, but perhaps I should leave you with an excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe's review of Twice-Told Tales:
We know of few compositions which the critic can more honestly commend than these "Twice-Told Tales." As Americans, we feel proud of the book. Mr. Hawthornes distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originality- a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest. But the nature of originality, so far as regards its manifestation in letters, is but imperfectly understood. The inventive or original mind as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter. Mr. Hawthorne is original at all points. It would be a matter of some difficulty to designate the best of these tales; we repeat that, without exception, they are beautiful.
Judging from this, I think Poe liked the stories a lot more than I did, and two of his favorites in the entire volume were "The Wedding Knell" and "The Minister's Black Veil." That's not to say I didn't like the stories because I did, I just struggled a bit trying to understand the meaning of some of the language and imagery. Overall, these were interesting Gothic reads that were not too scary for my wimpy sensibilities.

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