Building an ethical life: Nathaniel Hawthorne's "sense of brotherhood" and the need for social engagement

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, American




Since the publication of his first short stories and sketches in the early nineteenth century, literary critics and the general reading public have focused on the presence of moral themes in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. While such a focus is warranted, its prevalence has precluded a corresponding focus on the ways by which moral themes inform a larger pattern of social ethics. This study seeks to redress this longstanding oversight, and to work toward a fuller understanding of the ways in which the individual actions, thoughts, and deeds of characters inform a model of social ethics based upon the need for sustained engagement in the full range of worldly activities—even when such involvement might risk moral harm. While, given the author's commonly observed fascination with the ambiguities of life and the world around him, the pattern of ethical progress and development traced in the canon is not linear in its progression, there are tendencies and patterns which, when traced, emerge as a coherent model. The works analyzed—a selection of early tales and sketches, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun—span the author's entire canon, and thus help establish a chronological assessment of the role of ethics as a thematic focus from the earliest days through the end of his career. Through close readings, historical background, and contemporary sources, the project establishes a recurrent pattern of active involvement on the part of characters throughout the texts—even when, and sometimes especially when, such involvement may prove morally perilous to those who must seek action with the world in order to grow into more fully ethical beings. ^ While the study omits direct treatment of The Scarlet Letter , a work long associated with the issue of personal morality within a social context, the future treatment of this work too as an ethical treatise might prove easier when viewed according to model established by the other works dealt with in this project. By shifting the critical emphasis away from moral issues in the texts, and toward the presence of an emerging ethical paradigm, the study provides a new means by which to study the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. ^