Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Marble Mother: Hawthorne's Iconographies of the Feminine

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Marble Mother: Hawthorne's Iconographies of the Feminine

Article excerpt

To participate in the critical discourse on Hawthorne is to step into a fast-rushing stream, crowded with fishermen of varying orientations, all in hot pursuit of a specimen that, no matter how many times it is caught, always ends up back in the water. Thus the sport of Hawthorne criticism has its pleasures and short-lived rewards, but perhaps the most characteristic aspect of the catch has not been its flesh, but its slipperiness, the accompanying sense that the canonical "big one" always gets away. Textually well-supported arguments, often diametrically opposed--we might want to call them studied and elaborate fish stories--are advanced with great regularity, but only seem to incite further discourse. The famously ambiguous Hawthorne has maintained his claim on critical attention by just this capacity of his work to sustain widely disparate readings. As preamble to my own--perhaps similarly foredoomed--reading, I would like to suggest that the undecidability we are faced with in Hawthorne's work was deliberately cultivated by the author himself, and that equivocal qualities of Hawthorne's writing are better understood as the manipulations of a highly subtle and self-conscious artist who knows only too well what he is trying to say, yet feels he must not say it.

But why would Hawthorne dissimulate his views in his romances? We should consider the nature of the romance itself, the genre that the author claimed for his work, in explicit opposition to the novel. As Hawthorne's prefaces assert, indirection is the soul of the romance, both representationally and in its "moral." It is impossible not to note this prefatory Hawthorne's rather extreme aversion to being pinned down by his "Gentle Reader." The keynotes everywhere are unease, circumspection and an insistent, even combative, modesty. This passive-aggressive mode is reflected even in his syntax. Observe Hawthorne as he simultaneously avers and defers in the preface to The Marble Faun: "Therefore, I have little heart or confidence (especially writing as I do in a foreign land, and after a long, long absence from my own) to presume upon the existence of that friend of friends, that unseen brother of the soul, whose apprehensive sympathy has so often encouraged me to be egotistical in my prefaces, careless though unkindly eyes should skim over what was never meant for them." (1) A major author more sensitive to the influence of these "unkindly eyes" may never have written, and it is in this habitually defensive mode, I contend, that Hawthorne gravitated toward the romance over the more nakedly moralizing and topical domestic and sensationalist novels then ruling the marketplace. These novels Hawthorne tended to lump together as "trash," and associated--rightly or wrongly--with the famous "damned mob" of female authors whose sales dwarfed even The Scarlet Letter, his most commercially successful work. (2) This is not to say, of course, that Hawthorne rejected self-expression in his fiction. Nina Baym has suggested that Hawthorne's career-long tendency to "put himself forward as an author who declined engagement with issues of public moment," was a strategy that differentiated this writer of romances from the participants of a public sphere he saw as dominated by women. (3) Not many issues were more clearly of "public moment" in Hawthorne's time than the proper role and place of woman herself, and the problem unquestionably glared at Hawthorne as a writer of imaginative fictions.

Michael T. Gilmore has recently suggested that Hawthorne wrote against "the tyranny of knowing," championing "distanced and guarded forms of disclosure" in a time when "a continuum of [antebellum] social, political, and cultural practices" insisted on legibility and transparency. (4) The novel, for Hawthorne, exemplified this "tyranny" in literature, and in a powerfully gendered way. The prefaces depict the novel as participating in a kind of gross literary materiality, whether in too-solid or literal representations of everyday realities, or in unyielding and artless moralizing. …

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