Many of Hawthorne's stories can be read as allegories. An allegory is a story
or work of art that represents another meaning. It is different than a work
that draws upon symbolism to suggest other meanings. In an allegory, concrete
elements, such as characters, objects, actions, and settings, stand for abstractions
(such as greed, virtue, love, hope). As seen in a parable, the elements in a
literary or artistic allegory work together to communicate an idea or moral.
You may be familiar with Jesus of Nazareth's parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke
15:11-32) or the seventeenth-century English classic The
Pilgrim's Progress by John
Bunyan. (In Bunyan's allegory, the main character, Christian, along with
his companion Hopeful, is imprisoned in the castle of Giant Despair. It is a
key named Promise, however, that unlocks the prison door, freeing the two and
allowing them to travel together on the narrow way and beyond to the Celestial
The English settlers of seventeenth and eighteenth-century New England were quite familiar with these allegories and often saw their own lives in stark allegorical terms. They lived in a world of symbols. Gravestone carvers, for example, drew upon the many symbolic images surrounding death and funerals and even the verbal metaphors of ministers of the time. They incorporated these in their own style into the gravestones they produced and created one of New England's first folk art forms.
Skulls, crossed bones, winged hourglasses, picks and shovels were just a few of the common symbols carved on gravestones in Puritan times. These carvings were a symbolic language understood by all the people. Some stonecutters, however, went beyond the use of individual symbols on their stones and carved vivid allegorical dramas. The images worked together as a kind of story in stone, communicating a moral lesson or spiritual truth to the observer. In this way, seventeenth and eighteenth century gravestones were more than memorials to the dead: they were sermons to the living.
The following learning activities will give you practice with understanding and interpreting symbolism and allegory. They will also introduce you to the art of the New England gravestone-a haunting expression of the New England mind, which was one of the chief subjects of Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing.
a.) View the following gravestones. In writing, describe the images you see (list the
characters, objects, actions, and settings, as best you can, on each one). Notice the
details, especially on the Susanna Jayne and Joseph Tapping stones. After you list each
element, offer your interpretation of the symbolic and/or allegorical meaning of each. In
a few sentences, explain the story carved on each stone.
b.) Read Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" as an allegory. Try the same approach
you used while interpreting the gravestones. List the main characters, objects, settings,
and actions and then beside each element, give your interpretation. (Be aware of the
fact, however, that Hawthorne is often times deliberately ambiguous and relies more on
symbolism than a strict one-to-one allegorical meaning.)
c.) Explain how the following gravestone images and the story "Young Goodman Brown"
reveal an aspect of the Puritan imagination.
Along with symbolic images, gravestone makers carved inscriptions on early New England gravestones. Often quaint and curious (if not outright strange), these epitaphs usually give essential biographical information: name, age, death date, names of parents and, for women, name of husband. Many epitaphs even include a vivid description of the cause of death or a eulogistic sentiment praising the virtues or accomplishments of the deceased. Most stones offer a few lines of hopeful-or not-so-hopeful-verse to the passerby. A common sentiment is "Death is a Debt to Nature due, / Which I have paid and so must You." Latin phrases, such as "Tempus Fugit" (Time Flies) and "Memento Mori" (Remember Death) are other common expressions inscribed on early New England gravestones.
Like the symbolic and allegorical carvings, gravestone epitaphs provide glimpses
into the lives, beliefs, and imaginations of the first English settlers. They
have many truths to tell. Puritan minister and writer, Cotton
Mather, made this well-known comment on Boston's colonial gravestones: "And
know, reader, that though the stones in this wilderness are already grown so
witty as to speak, they never yet that I could hear of, grew so wicked as to
a.) Read over the following questions and with these in mind view the gravestones and read
the epitaphs below. When you are done, answer the questions fully.
1. What do you notice about the use of language and punctuation on early New
2. What social and/or religious values and beliefs are stated or implied in
3. What insights do you gain into daily life in early New England?
b.) At the end of "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne writes: "And when he had lived
long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman,
and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few,
they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom."
Using any of the above as models, write an epitaph for Goodman Brown. Be sure it is
faithful to the story and reflects your understanding of Brown's conflict and Hawthorne's
theme. Begin with these words: "Here lyes ye body of Young Goodman Brown, . . . ."
c.) Using the same approach as above, write an epitaph for Young Goodman Brown's wife,