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.