Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the city made famous – or infamous, depending upon your perspective – by the witch trials that occurred there during 1692 and 1693.
In fact, Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, Judge John Hathorne, had played a significant role in those trials. You may have noticed there is no “w” in John’s surname. It’s said that Nathaniel added that letter to his own name in order to sever ties with an ancestor whose guilt he felt was both personal and communal.
One of Hawthorne’s most famous works, the Gothic novel The House of the Seven Gables, derives its force primarily from that same notion of communal guilt. That story also has its origins in the Witch Trials. And though Hawthorn asserted that he had sought to avoid overt moralizing, he nevertheless wrote the following in his preface to the work: “the author has provided himself with a moral,—the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief; and he would feel it a singular gratification if this romance might effectually convince mankind—or, indeed, any one man—of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms.”
The origins of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s feelings about guilt are well-known. He had absorbed the earnest moral convictions of the Puritan tradition that surrounded him as a young man. And he had devoted himself to exploring the interplay of freewill, sin, consequence, and identity through his fiction. Alfred Kazin, the Atlantic’s literary critic, wrote, “As the background and unifying theme of Hawthorne’s stories is the human obsession with guilt, so the central character in all these stories is the inward man, the human soul trying to represent itself.” Indeed, the author rose to prominence (perhaps preeminence) among early American authors due to his allegorical tales in which supernatural episodes facilitated the development of such psychological themes.
The inevitability of the inwardly hidden being manifesting itself is the subject of Hawthorne’s short story The Prophetic Pictures. His tale is centered on an extraordinary painter who has an uncanny knack for revealing tantalizing hints about his subjects’ souls and their destinies. But who is this painter? Is he merely an exceptionally talented artist? Is he a prophet of some sort? Is he fate itself? Or is he something else entirely? And what exactly precipitates the sudden and shocking emergence of one character’s true self? Hawthorne leaves his readers wrestling with these mysteries.