A room full of people holding copies of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books, with faded covers and folded pages and also crisp, pigmented covers, sat in the chapel of the Gordon B. Hinckley Building. The church pews filled up as Hawthorne’s fans and critics gathered to discuss his writing style this past Thursday at The Big Read’s last meeting of the semester.
Dan Pearce, language and letters faculty member, led the discussion “Fanaticism vs. ‘Rational Piety’ in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fiction.”
“I have to say that when I think about Hawthorne, in my life, my attitude towards him has changed a lot,” Pearce said.
Hawthorne wrote a story where Satan is the main character, cult members meet in the woods and where characters injure themselves to repent of their sins.
“If you’re going to dabble with the occult, you could do worse than Nathaniel Hawthorne,” Pearce said. “His stories mostly take place in Puritanical societies and focus on themes on sin, guilt, criminal thinking and societal norms.”
His messages focus on the pull between religion and what an American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, calls “Natural Affection.” “It refers to the natural and rational bond of love that should exist between wife and husband, parent and child, and close friends and the community members,” Pearce said. “It is a concept Hawthorne celebrates in most of his short stories.”
Morgan Hansen, a sophomore studying business management, won the essay competition. She wrote “Solitude and Solace” to show that the isolation Hawthorne often subjects his characters to — like The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne — is where they develop most.
“Luckily, I was already reading some of Hawthorne’s stories for my humanities class, so I had a lot of material for my essay,” Hansen said. “I’m glad I went for it!”
One student asked Pearce if the symbolism of Hawthorne’s short stories applied to the Rexburg community.
“I’m so glad you asked!” Pearce said. “Sometimes in our religion, we have people who will sacrifice family affection for religion. There are less dramatic examples where people’s desire to live their religion often makes them miss the love that exists.”
Many students shared in the Q and A portion of the meeting that their opinions had changed about Hawthorne’s perspective.
“There is a dark side, certainly,” Pearce said. “But if you are focusing on the darkness, you’re missing some of Hawthorne’s strengths.”