Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hawthorne and the Forces of Nature

Last week I wrote a post about the uneven pacing in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Today, I want to talk about another cool component of Hawthorne's style: his use of nature to emphasize and mirror his characters' emotions.

Note: There will be spoilers from King Lear and The Scarlet Letter throughout this post.

Now, I'll admit that I had learned about this concept years before. What's even more surprising is that I remember learning about this concept years before. (Thank you Mrs. Abood from Arcadia High School!) The example she used was the storm that struck during King Lear's descent into madness. At the time, I thought it was a really odd technique, actually. I mean, I don't get any storms when I'm feeling emotional. Nature really doesn't seem to care at all about my emotional state. Why would I try and depict such a thing in my stories?

But in rereading The Scarlet Letter, I really felt like this technique had some merit. As The English Teacher said in the comments section of last week's post, this book is mostly internal. There's some fun action stuff that happens, but really the vast majority of that is offstage and takes place before the book starts. In fact, in a way, The Scarlett Letter reminded me a lot of some Virginia Woolf stories because so much of the power of the story relied on psychological explorations of the characters.

Hawthorne, however, was able to add a little more oomph to his story, and he did this by using nature. Sunlight and plant life and even the protagonist's offspring was imbued with a sort of psychic power that gave them access to each character's deepest secrets and past experiences. For me, this technique accomplished two things. First, it helped to emphasize the internal discussions in a way that made them feel more concrete. (Virginia Woolf's writing often feels as if I'm drifting in a river of thoughts that doesn't have as much of a landscape.) Second, this technique put more "action" into the story in a physical sense. Even if the characters weren't doing as much, nature was dancing around and kicking and screaming and putting on quite a show.

In the end, the technique of using nature to mirror the internal dialog has this sort of old-time feel to it that might keep me from trying the technique much myself. But I feel like I have a better understanding of why it was used in the first place now.


  1. This fits in nicely with my Unified Theory of Writing. I believe that all of the story elements should work together (or pull against each other) and that a finished, well-formed story can't really be separated into its constituent elements. Like a cake. You can't point to a cake and say, "See, here's the baking powder, here's the salt, this is egg and this is cocoa, etc." It's all a single delicious treat.

    Which means that Hawthorne (maybe, but certainly Shakespeare) was using the narrative elements at hand to put across emotions. Sometimes you don't want the characters to declaim how they feel, or to foreshadow their own futures, so you find something else in the story to do it. Either way, the narrative is about character (or theme or mood or whatever is needed at the moment). I used weather a lot for this in two of my books. Not so much in the philosophical detective story. Which should lead me to some conclusion but it doesn't.

    Good point about Woolf sometimes feeling free-floating. In Mrs Dalloway, at least, sometimes the physical world recedes into the background so much that you can't tell it's there. I don't know if that's a flaw or just a stylistic trait or if there's a difference.

  2. And because Michelle is on vacation, I'll point (because I know she would) to how Charlotte Bronte used weather to such good effect in Jane Eyre. Emily Bronte was a bit more clumsy and heavy-handed with weather in Wuthering Heights. I think weather plays an important role in Moby-Dick though I wasn't that conscious of it while reading.

  3. Scott, I'm slowly coming to better understand your UTW. I get what you're saying here, and I think it's absolutely true. The difference between writers is to what end they are using all of their cake ingredients for. For some, it may be emotions, while for others it may be something else.

  4. I think Proust was baking those fancy knotted loaves of bread. Or maybe he was making a tray of elaborate fruit tarts with fragiapane and delicate flaky pastry crust. Hemingway claimed to be making beef wellington but really in secret he baked wedding cake after wedding cake.

  5. Ha ha! I try to make lasagna and end up with spaghetti. So far.

  6. The thought that struck me most about this post is your original response to your English teacher: "I don't get any storms when I'm feeling emotional. Nature really doesn't seem to care at all about my emotional state. Why would I try and depict such a thing in my stories? "

    I wouldn't have been able to come up with a response like that, so I find that very interesting. I would just be gobbling up a new technique and wonder if I would use it sometime.

    And all that talk about pastry is not good for my resolve to stay away from butter and sugar.

    I'm making pearled couscous. Wonder if they'll end up being brown rice.

  7. Yat-Yee, do you think this is Friday Filler or something? :P I've been avoiding dessert for the last week or so. Trying to stabilize myself. Having lunch with my nephew and learning his technique for eating cream puffs has made it easier to avoid those sweets for a little longer, at least. He also brought us Jell-o with his bare hands. Yum!

    I was a very literal kid, which is funny considering how creative I assumed I was. I never understood why the cookie monster would break up all those cookies and then just spit them out either.

  8. No, far from it. I think this is a Meaty Post. Why did you think I thought it was Friday Filler? Because I veered off on desserts, I suppose. When the words "flaky" and "delicate" and "pastry" are put together, I lose sight of everything.

    What were we talking about again?

  9. I see now that it was actually all Scott's fault for starting us down the food pathway of doom.

  10. This is not the kind of post to read on too little sleep/too much caffeine. It is meaty, which reminds me that Beef Wellington was, in fact, my favorite meal in my carnivorous days. We are going to a wedding soon where the vegetarian option is "vegetable wellington." For God's sake, good people, what vegetables? I am picturing a frozen pot pie-ish experience.

  11. Portobello mushroom in puff pastry, very likely. Pray it's not just tofu in a bun. Though when I lived in Denver, there was a place on Colfax that served great barbequed tofu sandwiches. It was just west of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the sandwiches cost $3.50, I think.

  12. I love it when an author uses nature to mirror characters'emotions. I admit to doing the same. Nature and the elements drive our emotions. Who isn't driven to despondency or elevated to elation on the basis of sunshine or lack of? Nothing like a good thunderstorm putting on a show to set the stage, imho. It's primordial, captures us like puppets. Kind Lear's descent had to be accompanied by a storm.

    What an interesting post. I put a link on my blog for your next contest and will post about it soon. Pretty busy ya know....reading an arc of MONARCH and ordered yours and all this summer heat is draining! It's enough to make one long for winter and a raging storm to snow you in.

  13. j a zobair, good luck with the wedding meal. I hope it's good, whatever it is. There are some excellent vegetarian and vegan restaurants around where I live. There are also some raw restaurants, but those haven't been as good so far. Some raw restaurants have great dessert though.

    Yvonne, My mood is affected by nature all the time. I just wish I could affect nature by my mood! That would be great fun. Thanks for posting about our next context, and thanks for getting my book! I really appreciate it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.