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Practicing Romance: Narrative Form and Cultural Engagement in Hawthorne's Fiction

Practicing Romance: Narrative Form and Cultural Engagement in Hawthorne's Fiction

by Richard H. Millington

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Practicing Romance sets out to re-tell the story of Hawthorne's career, arguing that he is best understood as a cultural analyst of extraordinary acuity, ambitious to reshape--in a sense to cure--the community he addresses. Through readings attentive to narrative strategy and alert to the emerging middle-class culture that was his audience, the book defines and


Practicing Romance sets out to re-tell the story of Hawthorne's career, arguing that he is best understood as a cultural analyst of extraordinary acuity, ambitious to reshape--in a sense to cure--the community he addresses. Through readings attentive to narrative strategy and alert to the emerging middle-class culture that was his audience, the book defines and describes Hawthornian Romance in a new way: not, in customary fashion, as the definitive instance of a peculiarly American genre, but as a narrative practice designed to expose and restage the covert drama that affiliates us to our community. Hawthorne's fiction thus recovers for its readers, through the interpretive independence it teaches, a freer, more lucid, more critical relation to the community we inhabit, and the cultural engagement romance enacts in turn rescues Hawthorne from the confining marginality that the writer's career had threatened to confer. From the book's distinctive account of his narrative tactics, especially his deployment of the voices and attitudes--authoritarian or democratic, entrapping or freeing--that give shape to his ideological terrain, Hawthorne emerges as a daring reinventor of the novel's cultural role.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Practicing Romance

Narrative Form and Cultural Engagement in Hawthorne's Fiction

By Richard H. Millington


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06876-3



When I contemplate the accumulation of guilt and remorse which, like a garbage-can, I carry through life, and which is fed not only by the lightest actions but by the most harmless pleasures, I feel Man to be of all living things the most biologically incompetent and ill-organized. Why has he acquired a seventy-years' life span only to poison it incurably by the mere being of himself? Why has he thrown Conscience, like a dead rat, to putrefy in the well? —W. B. Yeats

Because the relationship most important to understanding Hawthorne's fiction is that between him and his reader, I will begin my account of his invention of romance by examining the experience that reading his tales induces. For several reasons, I have chosen "Roger Malvin's Burial" as my exemplar. It is one of his earliest tales, and thus confirms the generativeness of the question of authority within Hawthorne's career. It focuses on the psychology of guilt, and the tale's encounter with the authority of conscience offers a particularly rich example both of Hawthorne's understanding of the dynamics of mind and of the cultural reach of his thematic concerns. Most importantly, the tale offers a striking instance of the act of formal invention that makes possible Hawthorne's invention of an antiauthoritarian narrative practice: his discovery of a fruitful analogy between the operation of the authoritarian, whether psychological or cultural, and the narrative structures of fiction. In "Roger Malvin's Burial," Hawthorne sets out to transform the reader's relation to cultural and psychological authority by inviting us to transform our relation to authority within his text.

Many of Hawthorne's explorations of psychology are governed by what might be called the logic of the case history. From the meaning-laden extreme case we infer the conflicts and psychic strategies inarticulately at work beneath the surfaces of everyday life; the neurotic unveils the normal. Thus in "Roger Malvin's Burial" Hawthorne explores the origin and operation of guilt by depicting a conscience gone murderously awry. The tale begins the reexamination of the moral authority of conscience—carried out with particular intensity in the work of Dickinson, Twain, Howells, and James—that is one of the crucial cultural tasks of nineteenth-century American fiction.

The extremity of "Roger Malvin's Burial" is suggested by a brief summary of its plot. Reuben Bourne and Roger Malvin, the father of the woman Reuben loves, barely escape from a disastrous Indian battle. Both men are wounded, but Malvin, sure that he will die before they reach settled territory, and fearful that his infirmity would cause the death of the younger man as well, prevails upon Reuben to leave him to die in the forest, invoking what is almost "a father's authority" (MOM 339) and his hopes for his daughter's future. Reuben, reluctant to leave, but activated as well by the "hidden strength of many another motive" (343), promises to return to the desolate spot to bury his defunct father-in-law. Bourne finds his way back home, and is nursed back to health by Malvin's daughter Dorcas, whom he eventually marries. But Bourne cannot bring himself to tell his wife that he left her father alive, and thus the fulfillment of his promise is impossible. Bourne lives out his years in remorseful self-absorption until he sets out with Dorcas and his beloved son Cyrus to find a new home in the wilderness. Compelled by what is clearly an unconscious impulse, Bourne leads his family to the spot where Malvin died. He and Cyrus go out to shoot their dinner; Reuben fires at a movement in a thicket, killing his son. Yet instead of the redoubled remorse one would expect, Bourne feels a sense of release and redemption, his sin apparently expiated by the shedding of "blood dearer to him than his own" (360).

The reader's task is to discover what bizarre logic determines this turn of events. The most persuasive interpretation of the psychological action of the story remains that offered by Frederick Crews in The Sins of the Fathers—a happy moment in the history of Hawthorne criticism, for in Crews's account Hawthorne fully emerged as psychologist of great acuity and originality, rather than as a predictable moralist or an illustrator of nineteenth-century faculty psychology. Crews observes both that Bourne comes to identify Cyrus completely with his younger, better self, and that Reuben feels his breaking of the vow to bury Malvin not as betrayal but as murder. He argues that Bourne's killing of Cyrus must be seen as an act of symbolic self-sacrifice, the expiation extracted by Bourne's conscience not for his desertion of Malvin or failure to disclose his act to Dorcas, but for his unconscious desire for Malvin's death; hence Bourne's feeling of release from guilt when Cyrus dies. "In killing Cyrus," Crews writes, Bourne "is destroying the 'guilty' side of himself, and hence avenging Roger Malvin's death in an appallingly primitive way. The blood of a 'father' rests on the 'son,' who disburdens himself of it by becoming a father and slaying his son. This is the terrible logic of Hawthorne's tale."

By exposing the "logic of compulsion" that controls Bourne's behavior, this reading suggests the nearly absolute power available to conscience in Hawthorne's psychology. What we need to add to Crews's reading is a fuller account of the way Hawthorne's depiction of conscience unfolds as an anatomy of the potential tyranny of our own conditions of mind and a lesson in how that culturally inflected tyranny might be resisted. When Crews explains the virulence of Bourne's conscience by inferring the existence of an unconscious wish for Malvin's death ("By a certain association of ideas, he at times imagined himself a murderer," Hawthorne's narrator remarks [349]), we notice that for Hawthorne, as for Freud, the conscience communicates directly with the repository of repressed wishes. Conscience thus punishes not merely deeds or even thoughts, but impulses necessarily unavailable to the conscious self, and thus outside the bounds of the ethical. From the curious point of view of the conscience, then, the sacrifice of Cyrus is a punishment commensurate with Bourne's hidden wish. Implicit in Hawthorne's depiction of the tyranny of conscience is a vision of the mind divided against itself; the conscious self is—however scrupulous—not only troubled by impulses it can only partially recognize, but at the mercy of a punishing agency that has a more comprehensive view of the mind than the ego possesses.

To accompany this depiction of conscience at work, the story provides an account of the origin of its power. Hawthorne links the existence of an independent, authoritative inner voice to the demands of civilized life. The extremity of the situation that Malvin and Bourne confront—the threat posed to the life of the younger man by the lingering death of the elder—makes readable the ambivalence inscribed upon the relation between fathers, or father figures, and their offspring in everyday life. Both men obey a principle for defusing the conflict between generations: each must sacrifice desire, even the desire to live—even, the story suggests, unconscious desire—for the preservation of the other. From the absolutism of this demand, which expresses itself as guilt, we infer the extreme danger posed to settled life by untrammeled desire. But in its impossibility lurks the capacity of guilt to entrap as well as to preserve. For it becomes clear that the most constructive desires of youth—to love and marry, to found a family—are felt, despite the conscious approval of the elders, to occur at their expense, and are thus experienced as guilty. Conscience possesses a dangerous doubleness: in enforcing the principle of self-sacrifice, it seems to put aggression at the service of love; but Bourne's expiatory murder of his son reveals how readily aggression—the power-seeker within—infiltrates the ethical.

The dialogue between Bourne and the fatherly Malvin that begins the story poignantly reveals the dilemma at the center of moral obligation. For in fulfilling his patriarchal duty to sacrifice his private wish to the younger man's safety, Malvin must find a way to free Bourne from the very claims of conscience under which he himself labors. Malvin beguiles Bourne's conscience by creating a fiction accordant with the demands of duty: he tells the story of his abandonment of a wounded comrade, which led not to a death but to a rescue. He thus suggests to the younger man what he knows to be untrue: that the purpose of his flight is not self-preservation but the salvation of another. On his own behalf, Malvin eases the pain of his solitary death with visions of familial continuity. He tells Bourne that his daughter "will marry you after she has mourned a little while for her father; and Heaven grant you long and happy days, and may your children's children stand round your death bed" (344). In Malvin's sacrifice of the personal to the familial, we see conscience in its benign aspect, allied not with punishment but with love. Yet Malvin's attempt to free Bourne from the excessive filial obligation that his conscience seeks to enforce finally fails; Malvin's story telling allows Bourne to follow his urge to love and marry, but—as the murderous conclusion of the story reveals—Bourne's conscience remains essentially unconvinced by the very deception it has demanded. So insistent is conscience's prohibition against self-interest that Bourne's leaving cannot fail to be felt as guilty, no matter how justifiable it is on rational grounds. This is the brutal irony encoded in the absolutism of conscience: for all his fidelity to the dictates of self-sacrifice, Malvin only succeeds in bequeathing the fierce principle of sacrifice itself. In the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, the patriarchal voice that demands the act of sacrifice possesses the inclination to forgive its own demand; in Hawthorne's revision of that tale, the inner voice of conscience has replaced the voice of God, but with this crucial difference: the capacity for forgiveness has disappeared, and been replaced by an appetite for punishment.

How is it that Bourne's abandonment of Malvin comes to define itself as guilty? When Bourne returns to his village he fails to acknowledge his flight, allowing Dorcas to think that he awaited the death of her father and dug his grave. It is this act of "concealment," the narrator states, that "imparted to a justifiable act much of the secret effect of guilt" (349). It is as though by behaving guiltily, by disguising his action, Bourne invites his conscience to intensify its punishment of him. One of the story's most curious moments suggests that, for Hawthorne, conscience is made virulent by the fact of concealment itself. After hurrying ashamedly away from Malvin, Bourne abruptly returns: "he crept back, impelled by a wild and painful curiosity, and, sheltered by the earthy roots of an uptorn tree, gazed earnestly at the desolate man" (345). Bourne's voyeurism—his act of self-concealment—constitutes a kind of primal scene governed not by erotic but by aggressive emotion. He sees portrayed the submerged aspect of his desire to live: the death of the older man. By his morbid return, Bourne himself converts a morally complicated act—his leaving—into an apparently guilty one. But to conclude from this incident that Bourne gets the guilt he deserves would be to underestimate the insidiousness that Hawthorne attributes to conscience, for Bourne's action is not freely chosen but "impelled." We might see conscience here as getting Reuben's story into one of the conventional punitive shapes it favors; his return to the scene of the (absent) crime marks him as guilty only in a formal sense, but a formality is all it takes. Conscience seems empowered to induce, given a sufficient degree of moral ambiguity, the very behavior it intends to punish.

In the years that follow Bourne's return, conscience—encouraged by and encouraging his self-absorption—comes progressively to take control of Reuben's life. When Bourne recovers from his wound he finds his memory of the way back to the scene of Malvin's abandonment elided, as though some part of the self sought protection from the duty to return and from the emotions associated with that forest scene. Yet this attempt to suppress his sense of guilt is ineffectual: "There was ... a continual impulse, a voice audible only to himself, commanding him to go forth and redeem his vow; and he had a strange impression that, were he to make the trial, he would be led straight to Malvin's bones" (350). Conscience comes quite literally to usurp the direction of Bourne's life when he sets out with his family for their new home; it leads him away from his anticipated course and straight to the scene of Malvin's death. Hawthorne depicts Bourne "musing on the strange influence" that leads him astray: "Unable to penetrate to the secret place of his soul where his motives lay hidden, he believed that a supernatural voice had called him onward, and that a supernatural power had obstructed his retreat. He trusted that it was Heaven's intent to afford him an opportunity of expiating his sin" (356). What I find interesting here is Bourne's interpretation of the compulsion he senses within him. Bourne locates the agency behind the "voice" not, with Hawthorne, in the imperatives of his own unconscious—"the secret place of his soul where his motives lay hidden"—but in a benevolent heavenly authority. Bourne thinks, and persists in thinking even after the death of his son, that he is engaged in an appropriate, divinely sanctioned act of expiation and redemption. Despite Bourne's mystification of the voice within him, we realize that he is simply obeying the dictates of his own conscience, and the validity of his act of expiation is grounded not in any rationally explicable moral system but in the enclosed logic of his own psychology.

"Roger Malvin's Burial" allows us to see that conscience can become an autonomous principle of aggression within the self, which measures the ego according to its own irrational imperative. It overturns conscious desires and generates cruel patterns of expiation. Conscience within the tale is a kind of inner storyteller, inventing and impelling the narratives that alone will satisfy its desire to punish. In this diseased form, conscience is no longer the inner site of moral choice, nor is its voice—guilt—an advocate in an interior ethical debate. Its object, rather, is the extinction of choice, the pure pleasure of authority. Thus Reuben Bourne's killing of his son is not a moral or immoral act but a "premoral" one, and the analysis of mind implicit in the tale invites us to complicate our understanding of conscience, seeing it as a psychological as well as an ethical institution of mind.

But what, given this understanding of Hawthorne's representation of conscience, are we to make of the forcefully redemptive language that brings the tale to its close?

She heard him not. With one wild shriek, that seemed to force its way from the sufferer's inmost soul, she sank insensible by the side of her dead boy. At that moment, the withered topmost bough of the oak loosened itself, in the stilly air, and fell in soft, light fragments upon the rock, upon the leaves, upon Reuben, upon his wife and child, and upon Roger Malvin's bones. Then Reuben's heart was stricken, and the tears gushed out like water from a rock. The vow that the wounded youth had made the blighted man had come to redeem. His sin was expiated, the curse was gone from him; and in the hour when he had shed blood dearer to him than his own, a prayer, the first for years, went up to Heaven from the lips of Reuben Bourne. (360)

Who speaks this passage? To whom does this patently authoritative language belong? When measured against the death of Cyrus and the magnitude of Bourne's ostensible "sin," the passage seems overwrought and repugnant, the organ of literary closure going all out in celebration of the murder of a child. Its powerful, Bible-tinged rhetoric does, however, match the psychological force that drives Bourne's compulsive quest for redemption. I suggest that the passage speaks in the voice of conscience itself; it expresses not the author's last word on the moral significance of Bourne's experience, but rather enacts the usurpation by the superego not only of Bourne's behavior but of the narrative itself. Conscience has seized the narration from the detached, analytic voice of the rest of the tale; it has appropriated the placement, the cadences, the imagery of narrative authority, and the power that our hunger for interpretive closure cedes to the endings of stories. Conscience cannily claims those elements of fiction that potentially replicate its own strategies of coercion, and uses them to enforce upon us its expiatory reading of Cyrus's murder—the very reading that the tale's analysis of mind has been engaged in overturning.


Excerpted from Practicing Romance by Richard H. Millington. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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