The settings and subjects of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804–1864) fiction situate the Bible at the very core of his creative enterprise. Native of Salem, Massachusetts, born at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Hawthorne’s early tales and mature novels grapple with America’s Puritan past, dramatizing and debating national sins and personal salvation. Celebrated especially for The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne’s most recognized novel offers a nuanced critique of New England Calvinism, its characters constrained by dogmatic authority and doctrinal concerns. However, it is not merely the thematic focus of Hawthorne’s fiction, but rather its narrative style and rhetorical strategies that recall biblical precedents.
Reluctant heir of American Puritanism, Hawthorne is also a pioneer of the American Romance, a genre that foregrounds acts of interpretation and flights of fancy, privileging ambiguity and irony. Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, for instance, centers on an elusive and enigmatic “A,” the red icon emblazoned on Hester Prynne’s breast standing as an inscrutable “symbol,” demanding yet defying our definitive reading (see Bercovitch, 1991).
It is this hermeneutic imperative of Hawthorne’s fiction that best reflects his biblical literacy, as well as his literary use of the Bible. Recalling and resisting exegetical practices that form the cultural foreground to his own life and art, Hawthorne’s career advances an ambivalent program of biblical interpretation, stretching from his short stories in the 1830s and 1840s, to his landmark romances in the 1850s.
Twice-Told and Typological: Hawthorne’s Tales.
In 1837, Hawthorne published his initial collection of short fiction, titled Twice-Told Tales—a title suggesting his collection’s inclusion of short stories previously published in New England periodicals. Yet, in designating his “tales” as “twice-told,” Hawthorne not only confesses their external history but also hints at their internal form and function.
Strategies of repetition and replication are especially evident in these Tales, Hawthorne punctuating his short stories with doubles and dualities (Thompson, 1993, p. 15). Recalling the pivotal role played by repetition in biblical narrative—as highlighted by Robert Alter (1981), for instance—Hawthorne’s tales engage in acts of “twice-telling,” featuring parallel plots, and twinned protagonists. However, Hawthorne’s tales are also biblically “twice-told” in their tendency to retell specific scriptural episodes. Importing biblical figures into the environs of American fiction, Hawthorne’s stories are even labeled by his critical readers as “typological”—a mode of “figural interpretation,” associated with the Bible, which “establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first,” as Erich Auerbach explains (1959, p. 53). Biblical typology seeks to synthesize meaning across time and testaments, paralleling discrete figures in a “type–antitype” relationship; for example, Adam and Christ, the latter recalling, inverting and fulfilling the former (see Rom 5:12–21). The typology exemplified by Hawthorne’s tales, however, seems interested not in determining fresh meaning, but rather in deferring established meaning, invoking scriptural events and identities to subvert traditional biblical significance.
This ironic typology in Hawthorne’s early fiction is perhaps best represented by his “The Minister’s Black Veil”—a story first published in the 1836 The Token and Atlantic Souvenir and republished in the 1837 Twice-Told Tales. Subtitled “A Parable,” “The Minister’s Black Veil” immediately associates itself with biblical allegory, an association amplified by the scriptural echoes that Hawthorne scatters through this short narrative. As implied by its title, the story’s primary concern is the “black veil” that Reverend Hooper—a New England “minister”—inexplicably dons one day; hiding his face from his perplexed congregation, Hooper’s visage is entirely invisible except for his enigmatic smile, which Hawthorne describes as “always appear[ing] like a faint glimmering of light” which “proceed[ed] from the obscurity beneath the veil” (Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Vol. 9, p. 46).
Defined by Hooper himself as a “symbol,” a “sign,” and even a “type,” the “veil” at the center of Hawthorne’s tale is inescapably allusive, recalling Moses’s “put[ting] a vail on his face,” shielding his own congregation—“the children of Israel”—from his radiant countenance after he encounters God on Mt. Sinai (Exod 34). However, as noted by a host of critics, Reverend Hooper fails to provide a Christian antitype for this Mosaic type (à la the Pauline reading of Exodus provided in 2 Corinthians 3:13–17), but rather stands as an obscure inversion, his veil and luminous smile remaining unexplained at the tale’s conclusion (see Stein, 1955). Instead of clarifying and fulfilling, Hawthorne’s tale conceals and empties scriptural significance, concluding with Hooper’s death while still masked, carried to his grave as “a veiled corpse.”
This typological indeterminacy is a feature of Hawthorne’s fiction that reaches back to his earliest short stories. Published in 1832, Hawthorne’s “The Wives of the Dead” has not received the critical attention lavished on “The Minister’s Black Veil”; however, this tale seems no less biblically informed, adapting its very title from the book of Ruth (Ruth 4:5). A story of two bereaved sisters—Mary and Margaret—who, in a single night, separately receive news from distinct messengers that their husbands are still alive, Hawthorne’s “The Wives of the Dead” is scripturally resonant, its protagonists’ names, angelic encounters, and parallel experiences of miraculous restoration, recalling an array of biblical antecedents. Yet, rather than a simple tale of good news, “The Wives of the Dead” concludes with ineffable suspension, the two sisters unable to communicate their own personal revelation to each other, fearing to aggravate their sibling’s grief. Hawthorne closes his tale with a sentence that also casts doubt on the reality of the wives’ revelations, suggesting that their nocturnal experiences might possibly have been a dream—a conclusion that leaves the entire tale in crisis, compelling the reader to arbitrate, deciding whether the story offers real hope of restoration or merely a morbid illusion.
Hawthorne’s technique of punctuating his biblical fiction with an ironic conclusion, and thus subverting its meaning, is on display in another short story from 1832, his “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” The most daring, and most devilish, of Hawthorne’s typological tales, “Roger Malvin’s Burial” anticipates “The Minister’s Black Veil” by adapting a specific episode from the Hebrew Bible, namely the Akedah (“Binding [of Isaac]”) narrative of Genesis 22. Haunted by his failure to bury his father-in-law—the eponymous Roger Malvin—the story’s anti-hero, Reuben Bourne, journeys into the wilderness and slays his only son, Cyrus—an act which Hawthorne ambiguously poises between sacrifice and murder, intentional and accidental.
As with “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the protagonist of “Roger Malvin’s Burial” offers an inverse parallel to a prominent figure from the Pentateuch. Recalling and reversing Abraham in Genesis 22, Reuben’s trial is motivated by human guilt, not divine sanction, and concludes with filicide, not sacrificial substitution. However, like his “The Wives of the Dead,” Hawthorne also enriches “Roger Malvin’s Burial” with an ambiguous ending, discouraging readers from facilely condemning Reuben as a deluded murderer; concluding in the moments after Cyrus’s killing, the story features the following final lines:
"Then Reuben’s heart was stricken, and the tears gushed out like water from a rock. The vow that the wounded youth had made, the blighted man had come to redeem. His sin was expiated, the curse was gone from him; and, in the hour, when he had shed blood dearer to him than his own, a prayer, the first for years, went up to Heaven from the lips of Reuben Bourne." (Hawthorne, “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” Vol. 10, p. 360)
Endowing the senseless murder of Reuben’s son with sacramental import, this climax finds a “redemption” implied in the “shed[ing]” of “dear” and innocent “blood.” This passage’s sacrificial overtones are amplified too by the biblical simile of Reuben’s “tears,” which “gushed out like water from a rock”—an echo of passages such as Exodus 17:6 and Isaiah 48:21 (Thompson, 1962, p. 94). Most compelling, however, is the narrator’s categorical assertion that “His sin was expiated,” situating Cyrus’s slaughter as an effective atonement for Reuben’s guilt. Of course, Hawthorne’s readers have resisted this redemptive conclusion to a tale of filicide, preferring to read the “expiation” of Reuben’s “sin” either as ironic or as reflective of Reuben’s own twisted theology and psychology. And yet, the atonement asserted at the end of “Roger Malvin’s Burial” is proclaimed not by Reuben but by Hawthorne’s own narrator—a paradox that tasks readers with their own interpretive trial, confronted by a demonic parody of Genesis 22, which nevertheless ends in sanctioned sacrifice.
Translation and Transfiguration: Hawthorne’s Biblical Romances.
“In the Blithedale of this volume, many readers will probably suspect a faint and not very faithful shadowing of BROOK FARM, in Roxbury, which (now a little more than ten years ago) was occupied and cultivated by a company of socialists” (Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, Vol. 3, p. 1). So begins the preface to The Blithedale Romance—Hawthorne’s 1852 novel, which represents the third of his four mature fictions, preceded by The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and followed by The Marble Faun (1860).
Reflecting Hawthorne’s novelistic turn in the 1850s, The Blithedale Romance is, however, unique among his major fictions. His only novel to be voiced entirely in the first person, The Blithedale Romance is “faintly” autobiographical, adapting Hawthorne’s own sojourn at the Brook Farm commune, fictionalizing his factual experiences living among “a company of socialists” in 1841.
If the subject matter of Hawthorne’s 1852 Romance is distinctive, its approach seems familiar, framed through ambiguous and exegetical language reminiscent of his earlier Tales. In his extended circumlocution above, Hawthorne asserts that “many readers will probably suspect a faint and not very faithful shadowing” in his Blithedale Romance—a statement that again highlights the reader’s typological task, challenged with critiquing the “faithful” character of Hawthorne’s own symbolic “shadowing.” It is, moreover, fitting that The Blithedale Romance opens hermeneutically. Translating his own life into fictive art, Hawthorne mirrors himself in the first-person narrator of The Blithedale Romance, a surrogate identity whom Hawthorne names “Miles Coverdale”—the very same name shared by the pioneering British translator of the Bible, i.e., Myles Coverdale (ca. 1488–1569). Fashioning his own “Coverdale Bible,” Hawthorne finds no better pseudonym for himself in The Blithedale Romance than a scriptural translator, filtering his own “reminiscences” through a name defined by biblical rendition.
While The Blithedale Romance is the most autobiographical of Hawthorne’s novels, the personal implications of his fiction are evident from his initial Romance, The Scarlet Letter (1850). Centered on a lone woman’s punishment in Puritan New England, the novel obliquely harks back to the Salem witch trials, an infamous episode of American history that has deep and disturbing ties to Hawthorne himself, his great-great-grandfather having served as a judge in the trials. Replete with religious concerns and theological contexts, The Scarlet Letter also forms a bridge between Hawthorne’s typological Tales and his biblical Blithedale Romance, emphasizing not only exegetical ambiguity but also the translation of individual identity.
The dénouement of Hawthorne’s Romance occurs in its penultimate chapter, which is aptly and ironically titled “The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter”—a title that seems to promise a conclusive unveiling, clarifying Hawthorne’s central symbol (“the scarlet letter”) as well as his novel itself (The Scarlet Letter). This chapter culminates with the dramatic final moments of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who seeks to publicize his paternity of Hester Prynne’s daughter, Pearl, just before his own death. Speaking to the assembled community, Dimmesdale characterizes himself in the third person, crying out in confession:
"Now, at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!”"
With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentred [sic] on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold!(Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Vol. 1, p. 255)
. Christological in its characterization, Hawthorne depicts Dimmesdale’s “revelation” as a “miracle” to be “witnessed,” leading to the “victorious” and “painful” death of this lone man “upon the scaffold.” These aspects of biblical scenery are supplemented with biblical symbology, Dimmesdale describing Hester’s “scarlet letter” as but a “shadow” of his own “red stigma,” and this “stigma” itself as merely a “type” of the brand “seared” on “his inmost heart.” This receding chain of typology leads finally to the unveiling of the minister’s own “breast”—a “revelation” that is Hawthornean in its stubborn elusiveness. “It was revealed!” proclaims the novel’s narrator, adding immediately “But it were irreverent to describe that revelation.” At the “heart” of Hawthorne’s “revelatory” chapter, and at the climax of his hermeneutic Letter, is a refusal to disclose, the reader commanded “to behold” the Minister’s “stigma,” which is nevertheless withheld from our “gaze.”This type-scene of deferred revelation is rehearsed repeatedly throughout Hawthorne’s Romances. The Blithedale Romance, for instance, culminates with a chapter simply titled “Miles Coverdale’s Confession”—a chapter that promises to explicate, yet further obscures, the novel’s narrator, his own motives remaining “covered” even in his final “confession.” Coverdale himself also experiences moments of “revelation” that recall Dimmesdale’s scene on the scaffold. The meeting place for Blithedale’s protagonists is “Eliot’s Pulpit”—a “shattered granite bowlder” named for the Puritan missionary John Eliot (1604–1690)—described by Coverdale in his Chapter 14:
"At the summit, the rock was overshadowed by the canopy of a birch-tree, which served as a sounding-board for the pulpit. Beneath this shade, (with my eyes of sense half shut, and those of the imagination widely opened,) I used to see the holy Apostle of the Indians, with the sunlight flickering down upon him through the leaves, and glorifying his figure as with the half-perceptible glow of a transfiguration." (Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, Vol. 3, p. 119)
In this “transfigured” vision of “the holy Apostle of the Indians”—raised on the “summit” of his “pulpit”—Coverdale echoes Reverend Dimmesdale’s own “revelation” on the “scaffold,” with “shadow” and “shade” merging with “sunlight” to create an ethereal and elusive “see[ing].” In an act of compromised perception, Coverdale’s witnessing is doubly partial, balanced between “sense” and “imagination,” his “eyes” described as “half shut,” envisioning a “glow” which is “half-perceptible.” The exegetical and figural emphasis of Hawthorne’s description—“glorifying” a “figure” in this imagined “transfiguration”—is particularly apt considering John Eliot’s status as the pioneering Puritan translator of the Bible into Native American languages, deepening the significance of Coverdale’s own attraction to this fellow biblical interpreter.
Moments of ambiguous transfiguration will echo to the end of Hawthorne’s career, emerging yet again in his last major work—The Marble Faun (1860)—a novel aptly published in Britain instead under the title Transformation. Culminating his biblical interests, Hawthorne’s young American heroine—Hilda—marvels at the eponymous “Faun” near the opening to this final Romance:
"“Ah, the Faun!” cried Hilda, with a little gesture of impatience. “I have been looking at him too long; and now, instead of a beautiful statue, immortally young, I see only a corroded and discolored stone. This change is very apt to occur in statues.”"
“And a similar one in pictures, surely!” retorted the sculptor. “It is the spectator’s mood that transfigures the Transfiguration itself.”(Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, Vol. 4, p. 17)
It is again the reader that emerges in Hawthorne’s fiction as the figural arbiter and artist, with the “Transfiguration” itself “transfigured” by the “spectator,” its fluctuating text poised uneasily between sacred “beauty” and mere “discolored stone.”
[See also ROMANTIC LITERATURE.]
- Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
- Auerbach, Erich. Scenes from the Drama of European Literature. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1959.
- Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Office of “The Scarlet Letter.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
- Colacurcio, Michael J. The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne’s Early Tales. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 23 vols. Edited by William Charvat et al. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962–1994.
- Miller, J. Hillis. Hawthorne and History: Defacing It. Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
- Newberry, Frederick. “The Biblical Veil: Sources and Typology in Hawthorne’s ‘The Minister’s Black Veil.’ ” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31, no. 2 (1989): 169–195.
- Stein, William B. “The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister’s Black Veil.’ ” American Literature 27 (1955): 386–392.
- Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
- Thompson, W. R. “The Biblical Sources of Hawthorne’s ‘Roger Malvin’s Burial.’ ” Publication of the Modern Language Association 77 (1962): 92–96.