Tag Archives: American literature

Symbolism in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is a very short tale, but rich in symbolism. In the opening paragraph, which is a little long, Hawthorne manages to lay the foundation for all the symbols that manifest in the story.

In those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen’s reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life, two persons met together at an appointed hour and place. One was a lady, graceful in form and fair of feature, though pale and troubled, and smitten with an untimely blight in what should have been the fullest bloom of her years; the other was an ancient and meanly-dressed woman, of ill-favored aspect, and so withered, shrunken, and decrepit, that even the space since she began to decay must have exceeded the ordinary term of human existence. In the spot where they encountered, no mortal could observe them. Three little hills stood near each other, and down in the midst of them sunk a hollow basin, almost mathematically circular, two or three hundred feet in breadth, and of such depth that a stately cedar might but just be visible above the sides. Dwarf pines were numerous upon the hills, and partly fringed the outer verge of the intermediate hollow, within which there was nothing but the brown grass of October, and here and there a tree trunk that had fallen long ago, and lay mouldering with no green successor from its roots. One of these masses of decaying wood, formerly a majestic oak, rested close beside a pool of green and sluggish water at the bottom of the basin. Such scenes as this (so gray tradition tells) were once the resort of the Power of Evil and his plighted subjects; and here, at midnight or on the dim verge of evening, they were said to stand round the mantling pool, disturbing its putrid waters in the performance of an impious baptismal rite. The chill beauty of an autumnal sunset was now gilding the three hill-tops, whence a paler tint stole down their sides into the hollow.

So let’s go through the paragraph and look at the various symbols that will come into play during this story.

First are the two women, one young and one old. They represent the maid and crone aspects of the triple goddess. But also, they represent the past and present for the older woman. The younger woman symbolizes the memories of the older. The choices that were made when the woman was young led her to her place now. So when the crone conjures dark memories of the young woman’s past, she is essentially reliving her own memories, which will lead to her liberation from the bonds of guilt and shame.

The next symbol we encounter is the three hills. The three hills represent the three memories which the crone conjures for the young woman. Each of the hills is a painful memory and represents separation, symbolic death (think grave mound). The young woman severed connections with parents, then with husband, and finally with child. In Hawthorne’s time, the only way a woman could be free was to shake off all bonds to family.

Next, we see that the setting of the story is in October. This represents the time of reaping. We all must reap what we sow, and the young woman must face up to the decisions that she made.

Finally, we have the symbol of the fallen tree. This represents the woman’s lineage, or family tree. When Hawthorne writes that there is “no green successor from its roots,” it is a metaphor for the fact that the woman no longer has any family or children to carry on her bloodline. Like the tree, she will just get old and decay.

While this is not a horror story, per se, it is certainly dark and eerie, and a great short read for an October evening.

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“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft: An Exploration of Art and Horror

Art has the ability to express that which standard forms of communication are unable to convey. This is particularly true when it come to the expression of the deeper regions of the subconscious. Often, these recesses contain our darkest thoughts, the fodder from which our nightmares take shape. It is this realm that the artist in this tale by Lovecraft delves into for inspiration.

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.

Artists who explore these darker regions of the psyche are skirting the fringes of insanity. But often, an artist must temporarily let go of sanity in order to glimpse the internal landscapes which provide inspiration for truly powerful creations.

He shewed me all the paintings and drawings he had about; including some pen-and-ink sketches that would, I verily believe, have got him kicked out of the club if many of the members had seen them. Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum.

Lovecraft uses tunnels and wells as symbols for the entry and exploration of the buried realms of the subconscious. When the characters enter the cellar and uncover the well, leading down into the tunnels below Boston, they are symbolically letting go of their fragile sanity and opening themselves to the darker mysteries of the psyche.

My host was now leading the way down cellar to his actual studio, and I braced myself for some hellish effects among the unfinished canvases. As we reached the bottom of the damp stairs he turned his flashlight to a corner of the large open space at hand, revealing the circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor. We walked nearer, and I saw that it must be five feet across, with walls a good foot thick and some six inches above the ground level—solid work of the seventeenth century, or I was much mistaken. That, Pickman said, was the kind of thing he had been talking about—an aperture of the network of tunnels that used to undermine the hill. I noticed idly that it did not seem to be bricked up, and that a heavy disc of wood formed the apparent cover. Thinking of the things this well must have been connected with if Pickman’s wild hints had not been mere rhetoric, I shivered slightly; then turned to follow him up a step and through a narrow door into a room of fair size, provided with a wooden floor and furnished as a studio. An acetylene gas outfit gave the light necessary for work.

The danger that artists face when exploring the subconscious is that they may ultimately plummet into insanity, losing all touch with the world of light and getting lost forever in the realm of shadows.

Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known—and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot—old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt.

Creative people should never shy away from looking into the depths of the soul for inspiration. But they should do so with care. It’s important to stay grounded when unlocking the forbidden gates of the mind.

Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “The Valley of Unrest” by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley’s restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless—
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
External dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

As I read this poem, I felt like I was in a graveyard, where restless spirits were moving amid the leafless trees, gliding between gravestones. This is classic American gothic romanticism. It’s impossible to read this and not sense the “rustle through the unquiet Heaven.”

One of the first things that struck me about this poem is its connection to Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Considering this, the speaker of the poem may be experiencing fear and dread at the thought of his mortality. He feels that, like the people buried in the cemetery, that he may die any day, unexpectedly, and become nothing more than a nameless stone, completely forgotten by later generations.

In addition to a fear of death, I also get a sense that the speaker is mourning a personal loss. There is some memory that is tormenting the person. The restless spirits represent memories that refuse to sleep quietly in his psyche. While the speaker does not provide any tangible clues as to who it is that is troubling his mind, I suspect that it is the loss of a loved one, probably a lover.

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Thoughts on “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

This book has been in the pile beside my bed for a while. My wife had read it and thought I would enjoy it, and I did (she knows me well). I read most of it while traveling, and then stalled upon return (work and responsibilities took precedence), but I finally finished it.

Essentially, this is a work of historical fiction, telling the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, from the wife’s perspective. The writing is great and the story moves along nicely. And some of the dialog from the book reminded me of Hemingway’s style, which I thought was a nice touch.

During the part of the story where Hadley tells Ernest she is pregnant, the dialog is very similar to Hills Like White Elephants, which is especially poignant since that short story also deals with a discussion about pregnancy.

“You’re a strange one today.”

“You’re not in love with any actress in Paris, are you?”

“God, no.” He laughed.

“Violinist?”

“No one.”

“And you’ll stay with me always?”

“What is it, Kitty? Tell me.”

I met his eyes then. “I’m going to have a baby.”

“Now?” The alarm registered immediately.

“In the fall.”

“Please tell me it’s not true.”

“But it is. Be happy, Tiny. I want this.”

He sighed. “How long have you known?”

“Not long. A week maybe.”

“I’m not ready for this, not nearly.”

“You might be then. You might even be glad for it.”

“It’s been a hell of a few months.”

“You’ll work again. I know it’s coming.”

“Something’s coming,” he said darkly.

(pp. 146 – 7)

McLain does a great job of using metaphors in her tale. One that particularly resonated with me was the description of a false spring, symbolizing the false hope of renewed love.

Outside, the gray rain fell and fell. Where had spring gone? When I’d left for the Loire Valley, the leaves had been out on the trees, and the flowers were beginning to bloom, but now everything was drenched and drowned. It had been a false spring, a lie like all the other lies, and I found myself wondering if it would ever really come.

(p. 259)

Overall, Hemingway comes across as a fairly despicable character, which does not surprise me. He’s misogynistic and driven by ego, and just kind of a jerk. He did write some great books, though. I’m thinking that it might be time to go back and re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of my favorite Hemingway books that I read in my teens.

What about you? Do you have a favorite Hemingway novel?

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Symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

Over the years, I’ve read Hemingway’s classic short story several times, each time in awe of how he masterfully uses conversation to drive the narrative. The subtlety of the text allows the man and woman to dance around the topic of abortion, without ever mentioning the proverbial elephant in the room.

For years, I have seen the hills like white elephants as a symbol for a pregnant woman’s body, while also representing that elephant in the room which the couple does not want to mention out loud. But recently, I realized there is a third level of symbolism that I had not been aware of.

During the past holiday season, I went to a holiday gathering that has a white elephant gift exchange. This prompted me to wonder why these gift exchange events were named after white elephants. A quick online search provided the answer.

The term white elephant refers to an extravagant but ineffectual gift that cannot be easily disposed of, based on the legend of the King of Siam giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs. While the first use of this term remains a matter of contention among historians, one theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into the popular lexicon through his frequent social gatherings as early as 1828.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of Hemingway’s story. The pregnancy is a gift, albeit one that was not actually wanted and one that “cannot be easily disposed of.” Despite the talk of it just being a simple operation, it really was not that simple. In addition to the emotional and psychological considerations, the procedure was risky in 1927 when the story was written.

I love uncovering new layers of symbolism in literature. It is why I reread certain pieces, because each time I do, I bring more knowledge and life experience to the story. And who knows, maybe next time I read this masterpiece in short fiction, I will discover yet another layer of meaning.

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“Hayduke Lives!” by Edward Abbey

This book was difficult to find. I had been keeping an eye out for it for a while, since I am a fan of Edward Abbey and particularly enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang, of which Hayduke Lives! is the sequel (published posthumously in 1990). I eventually found a copy at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC, a cool used and antiquarian bookstore. Anyway, I bought the book and finally got around to reading it.

While I do not think the book is as good as The Monkey Wrench Gang, nor as good as Desert Solitaire, it is decent and worth the read. Basically, the old gang from the first book teams up again to save the environment from the evil government-backed corporate interests seeking to destroy the pristine wilderness for the quick extraction of resources.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how little has changed in the 27 years since it was published. People still believe the lies that raping the environment will create jobs, and that jobs are more important than protecting the planet.

…”good folks of southern Utah and the Arizona Strip, listen to me. I’ll only take a minute, just like everybody else I’ll speak my little piece and let you go. [Crowd resumes seats.] Thank you. Now we heard a lot today, especially in the last ten minutes, from those good neighbors of ourn, Mr. and Mrs. Kathy Smith [laughter] about how dangerous this nuclear industry is. Uranium is poison, they say. Well I want to tell you folks something different: that uranium smells like money to me. [Cheers!] It smells like jobs to me. [More cheers!] Hundreds of jobs right here in Hardrock and Landfill County and and just across the line in northern Arizona. Hundreds? I mean thousands of jobs. [Thunderous applause!]

(p. 22)

Abbey appears to be very critical of the news media. At one point, one of the characters asserts that the only intelligent part of a newspaper is the Letters column.

When looking for wit, wisdom, knowledge or intelligence in a newspaper, any newspaper, your only hope is the Letters column.

(p. 99)

Sadly, though, this is no longer true. With the proliferation of social media and online commenting, comments and letters have sunk to a new low. People now use online commenting to spew vitriol based upon pre-established beliefs about biased news articles. It seems that every day it becomes more and more difficult to find thoughtful and unbiased information regarding world events. It’s kind of sad.

As the book progresses, Abbey paints a bleaker, misanthropic view of humanity. It appears that he acknowledges the good of individuals, but sees the whole of humanity as petty, mean-spirited, and just outright dangerous.

“People are no damn good,” agreed Seldom. “Take ‘em one at a time, they’re all right. Even families. But bunch ‘em up, herd ‘em together, get ‘em organized and well fed and branded and ear-notched and moving out, then they’re the meanest ugliest greediest stupidest dangerest breed of beast in the whole goldang solar system far as I know.”

(p. 228)

Without giving away the story or spoiling anything, I will say that the gang is seeking to stop a machine called GOLIATH, which is a giant earth mover used in strip mining. Symbolically, I see the machine as representing America as controlled by massive corporations, a mindless machine whose only purpose is to acquire and consume in an endless cycle until nothing is left. Abbey implies that it is only through radical action and anarchy that our country has any chance of defeating the leviathan of greed that dominates our world.

He waited, frowning into the gloom, looking two miles west at the glinting strobe light of the Super-G.E.M. He heard no roar of motors. GOLIATH had paused. Was down, waiting. Waiting for him, Hayduke, George Washington Hayduke, father of his country. Not the America that was – keep it like it was? – but the America that will be. That will be like it was. Forward to anarchy. Don’t tread on me. Death before dishonor. Live free or fucking die. Etc., etc.

(p. 274)

Edward Abbey’s earlier works inspired the Earth First! movement, so it was interesting to read Abbey’s commentaries on the movement which were woven into this book. In fact, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman makes a cameo character appearance in the text.

Abbey once stated that “If wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws can save wilderness.” Our planet is still in peril and there is a lot of work to be done on the environmental front. I encourage everyone to do their own small part.

If you want to learn a little more about Edward Abbey, here is a good article on Wilderness.net:

Edward Abbey: Freedom Begins Between the Ears

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“A Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe: The Contrast of Light and Dark

Rembrandt

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed—
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream—that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar—
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?

This is a poem of contrasts and opposites, most prominently the contrast of light and dark. But there are also contrasts between sleep and awakening, past and future, and happiness and sorrow. And while there is contrast, there is also balance. Even the fact that the poem is divided into four stanzas of four lines each generates a sense of balance, harmony, and stability. So this balance of opposites is the key to this poem, in my opinion.

In the final line of the poem, Poe mentions Truth—the big Truth with a capital T. This is the proverbial Holy Grail that philosophers, poets, and artists have sought after for millennia. Poe is asserting that the Truth lies somewhere in that nebulous space between the two opposites, between the darkness and the light. And the only way that one can glimpse that space where Truth hides is to embrace both the light and the dark and bring them into balance. Think of the Yin/Yang symbol. It is a balance of light and dark, of positive and negative. Both are needed in equal parts to achieve wholeness.

As we move into the dark period of the yearly cycle, we must be sure we maintain a balance of light.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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