Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"The Glory Roundabout Her": Hawthorne, Feminism, and the "Serious Business" of the Aged Crone

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"The Glory Roundabout Her": Hawthorne, Feminism, and the "Serious Business" of the Aged Crone

Article excerpt

Perhaps the least studied character type in all of Hawthorne is the "aged crone" (9:200); "withered, shrunken and decrepit" (9:199), she appears frequently in the fiction but to little critical notice. "Disabled, ugly, or old, woman repels," Simone de Beauvoir has written (Second Sex 178), and characters such as Goody Cloyse, Mistress Hibbins, Mother Rigby, and Hepzibah, with their cackling voices and rusty joints, might appear to bear out the assertion. When mentioned by scholars at all, Hawthorne's various hags, reputed witch-ladies, and scowling old maids have often been regarded as contemptible figures whose decaying, infertile bodies signal their dispensability at best, their evil natures at worst. (1) Indeed, most critics have treated Hawthorne's elderly female characters much as Hepzibah is treated by Salem villagers in The House of the Seven Gables: "A glance; a passing word or two; a coarse laugh;--and she was doubtless forgotten, before they turned the corner! They cared nothing for her dignity, and just as little for her degradation" (2:48). Even readers who contend that Hawthorne's work critiques the misogyny endemic to nineteenth-century U.S. culture have paid little attention to the crones, although a feminist Hawthorne would seem difficult to reconcile with an author promoting stereotypes of elderly females as wicked and worthless hags. (2) Given the derogatory descriptors that Hawthorne so often applies to his crones, are we to conclude that Hawthorne also cared little for the dignity or degradation of the elderly female, a verdict that would greatly undermine any case for a feminist Hawthorne?

Some critics continue to maintain that Hawthorne's work largely reinforces antebellum "true womanhood" ideals that glorify the ornamental, domestic, and procreative roles available to women only in youth. It might seem to go without saying that Hawthorne's hags and crones reflect the antifeminist belief that aged women, having lost their beauty and fertility, serve as monstrous inversions of angelic femininity and no longer have a place or a purpose in society. But I will argue that Hawthorne perceives the "dignity and degradation" of the elderly female quite differently from his surrounding culture, and that he employs crone and old-maid stereotypes with an irony that has been little understood. From his earliest published stories, to his children's writing and his most canonical novels, the aged crone appears in a variety of guises: servant, grandmother, witch, suspected witch, goddess, and faded gentlewoman. In each of these roles, Hawthorne's crones possess strength, creativity, a capacity for discernment, and a mastery of language that place them in a privileged position within his fiction. In the crone's associations with storytelling, vision-conjuring and irony, she at times even serves as an avatar for Hawthorne himself. Her "business," as Hawthorne terms it, is that of the seer and the sayer, the Emersonian poet-prophet, whose wisdom and moral insight often challenge the ideologies of mainstream culture. (3) Here I will explore why Hawthorne's elderly female characters have eluded better critical understanding, and, after discussing the particularly instructive example of the goddess Hera in his 1852 Tanglewood Tales, I will analyze a series of Hawthorne's "aged crones," drawn both from his earliest published works and from his most canonical fiction, including "Young Goodman Brown," The Scarlet Letter, and The House of the Seven Gables. Far from giving proof of the misogyny that some critics have ascribed to Hawthorne, the aged crones manifest his keen perception of the worth and position of the older woman, a figure apart in a male-dominated and appearance-oriented culture.

Following Nina Baym's groundbreaking studies in the 1970s, readers have perceived Hawthorne's youthful female characters to be external manifestations of inward, supposedly "feminine" characteristics, especially sexual passion and creative energy. …

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