Tag Archives: American literature

Thoughts on “The Peaceful Shepherd” by Robert Frost

Painting by Gerard van Honthorst

If heaven were to do again,
And on the pasture bars,
I leaned to line the figures in
Between the dotted stars,

I should be tempted to forget,
I fear, the Crown of Rule,
The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith,
As hardly worth renewal.

For these have governed in our lives,
And see how men have warred.
The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all
As well have been the Sword.

Season’s Greetings, fellow readers.

2020 has been a challenging year, for sure, and I think this poem reminds us of something important.

We have experienced a lot of tension resulting from differences in religious beliefs, social ideology, political leadership, and feelings of fear and inequity. At this time of the year, Frost’s poem reminds us that the spiritual values which are supposed to guide us all too often become twisted and distorted into something destructive.

I have one sincere wish for 2021, and that is that we collectively lay down the Sword and begin to treat our fellow humans with… well… humanity. It really is high time we abandoned our habits of vilifying those who do not agree with us, of harboring fear and distrust of others simply because the news media tells us that they might do something that could possibly cause us some imagined inconvenience.

May you and your loved ones have a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you for sharing my reading journey this past year. Keep reading interesting stuff, and help spread some much-needed kindness.

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Thoughts on “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

This is a great short story to read for Halloween. In fact, some of the events in the story take place on Halloween.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down.

Essentially, this is a tale about the crossbreeding of a human with a creature from another dimension of existence, the result of which was the birth of something that could no longer be classified as human.

“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing—what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth—was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk of queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham—What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?”

When attempting to describe beings or forms of consciousness that exist beyond our realm of reality, one must rely on symbols because the ineffable nature of these manifestations cannot be captured using the limited means of communication with which humans rely. Communication with divine beings are therefore non-verbal by nature. What Lovecraft does in this tale is express the ineffable sounds produced by a being from another dimension, which cannot be comprehended or duplicated by beings in our plane of existence.

Without warning came those deep, cracked, raucous vocal sounds which will never leave the memory of the stricken group who heard them. Not from any human throat were they born, for the organs of man can yield no such acoustic perversions. Rather would one have said they came from the pit itself, had not their source been so unmistakably the altar-stone on the peak. It is almost erroneous to call them sounds at all, since so much of their ghastly, infra-bass timbre spoke to dim seats of consciousness and terror far subtler than the ear; yet one must do so, since their form was indisputably though vaguely that of half-articulated words. They were loud—loud as the rumblings of the thunder above which they echoed—yet did they come from no visible being. And because imagination might suggest a conjectural source in the world of non-visible beings, the huddled crowd at the mountain’s base huddled still closer, and winced as if in expectation of a blow.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so I will end the post here. I’ll conclude by saying this is a very creepy story which also has some interesting social criticism woven in, as well as occult references to texts and mythologies. But most importantly, it is extremely well-written and can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to curl up with an eerie tale at this time of the year.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading.

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Thoughts on “In a Disused Graveyard” by Robert Frost

Source:Wikipedia

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.

The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’

So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?

It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

I find this poem fascinating on several levels. First, the imagery speaks to me. I have always found graveyards strangely provocative yet comforting. There is a sense of quiet and stillness that somehow soothes my spirit. It also reminds me that Death is the great equalizer, that we all must succumb to the Reaper regardless of status, wealth, power, etc. And it also reminds me that it is important to live each moment of life to the fullest.

The rest of what I find fascinating about this poem are the levels of meaning and the social criticism which Frost weaves in.

We see from the first stanza that the graveyard Frost is describing is no longer used. It is by itself in a rural area and does not appear to be associated with any church or town, and has become but a curiosity for tourists, day hikers looking for a destination. One gets the impression that no one has been buried there for many years.

To me, this speaks of how modern society approaches death as compared with our ancestors. We now inter the dead in manicured memorial gardens, or in hallowed grounds, as opposed to a location close to a homestead. Or even worse, we send or deceased relatives off to some facility where they are industrially incinerated, and the remains are returned in an aesthetically pleasing urn for display on the mantle.

We have denied that death is part of the natural process. In the past, when we accepted death as the natural culmination to life, we would return the dead to the earth close to the home to which there was connection. And this loss, this shift away from our acceptance of death is what Frost sees reflected in the weathered stones of an abandoned graveyard that no longer sees the return of the dead to the earth.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. May you have a blessed day.

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“Alone” by Edgar Allan Poe

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring,
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov’d. I lov’d alone.
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still;
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

This poem was written by Poe in his youth and expresses feelings of isolation and of not belonging, which are common among young people. I can speak from my own experience that growing up I never really felt like I fit in anywhere, even though I tried to fit in everywhere. And like Poe, I found my greatest happiness in times of solitude, when I could finally take off my mask and be myself. And this is the sentiment that Poe conveys when he says “And all I lov’d. I lov’d alone.”

While this poem conveys an almost universal feeling, Poe makes it his own at the end:

From the thunder, and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

Here we are provided with a glimpse into the creative mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s feelings of isolation are the source of his literary expression. He does not see the world as “normal” people do. When he looks into the sky, instead of seeing the blue, he sees the clouds, which reflect the demons lurking within his psyche. And just as a child when he projects those inner demons onto the clouds, as a mature writer, he projects those demons onto his pages.

Like so many tortured youth, Poe looked to artistic expression as a way to deal with his loneliness and face his inner demons. Pain, sadness, and loneliness are prime inspiration for painters, writers, and musicians burdened with the need to have the cathartic release which art provides.

I hope this poem inspired you. Have a great day and thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a great story to read for Halloween. It’s dark, creepy, and the topic is one that gives the chills. For as Poe states early in the tale: “To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”

He goes on to describe the feeling of being buried alive, of awakening to find oneself trapped within a tomb. He even makes a nice allusion to his poem, “The Conqueror Worm.”

Fearful indeed the suspicion — but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs — the stifling fumes of the damp earth — the clinging to the death garments — the rigid embrace of the narrow house — the blackness of the absolute Night — the silence like a sea that overwhelms — the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm — these things, with thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed — that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead — these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth — we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell. And thus all narratives upon this topic have an interest profound; an interest, nevertheless, which, through the sacred awe of the topic itself, very properly and very peculiarly depends upon our conviction of the truth of the matter narrated. What I have now to tell, is of my own actual knowledge — of my own positive and personal experience.

As with so many of Poe’s tales, there are often parables or symbolism woven into the macabre stories, and this one is no different. The following passage describes the protagonist’s vision of the sheer number of people who were buried prematurely.

I looked; and the unseen figure, which still grasped me by the wrist, had caused to be thrown open the graves of all mankind; and from each issued the faint phosphoric radiance of decay; so that I could see into the innermost recesses, and there view the shrouded bodies in their sad and solemn slumbers with the worm. But, alas! the real sleepers were fewer, by many millions, than those who slumbered not at all; and there was a feeble struggling; and there was a general sad unrest; and from out the depths of the countless pits there came a melancholy rustling from the garments of the buried. And, of those who seemed tranquilly to repose, I saw that a vast number had changed, in a greater or less degree, the rigid and uneasy position in which they had originally been entombed.

I see this passage as an allegory for the general state of humanity. Many of us die having never fulfilled our life’s purpose, or never doing the things we long to do, or without expressing to another how we truly feel. In essence, we are buried prematurely, with unrealized life still within us. I see this as Poe’s way of telling us to live now, don’t put things off, because soon, you will be food for the Conqueror Worm.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed Samhain.

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Symbolism in “The Imp of the Perverse” by Edgar Allan Poe

I always like to read some Poe around Halloween. This is one that I had never read before, but on my first pass, I noticed some really interesting symbolism.

The protagonist of the story explains why he committed a murder, claiming to be “one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse.” He describes the perverse as the desire within all humans to do what they know is wrong. We all have those random thoughts come into our heads, envisioning some heinous act which we would never actually act out. But the protagonist claims that the longer you dwell upon these thoughts of the perverse, the stronger they become and the higher the likelihood that you will act upon them.

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness, and horror become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

So this passage also holds the key to the primary symbol in this story—the imp. The definition of an imp is “a small, mischievous devil or sprite.”  (Oxford) So where is the imp? If we look again at the passage, right near the beginning, we come across the word “impulse,” the first three letters being “imp.” So the imp is that subtle impulse that grows into an uncontrollable urge. But keep looking at the paragraph, and you will find the imp appearing throughout: impulse, imperceptible, impetuously, impatient. These are all aspects of one’s psyche that could lead one into the abyss, all manifestations of the mischievous imp.

And the imp continues to show itself throughout the rest of the story, popping up like that dark thought that you just can’t make disappear. When providing details of the murder, the protagonist states:

But I need not vex you with “imp”ertinent details.

As he describes how his small thoughts of guilt begin to grow into gnawing mental anguish, he says:

I could scarcely get rid of it for an instant. It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some un”imp”ressive snatches from an opera.

And finally:

For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-“imp”risoned secret burst forth from my soul.

(Note: the quotation marks in the above quotations were put in by me for emphasis.)

Now that you have been made aware of the imp, it will be “imp”ossible for you to remain “imp”ervious to its antics. Hope you enjoyed the post, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on “There There” by Tommy Orange

This was the latest selection for the book club to which I belong. It’s a novel written by a Native American author that explores what it is like to be a Native American living in an urban environment. The book is set in Oakland, and follows the paths of multiple characters leading up to a big pow wow.

For me, the strength of this book is in the way Orange uses different voices and narrative styles for each of the characters’ stories. He does manage to give each one a unique voice, which is tough to pull off well, especially with the number of threads and stories that are woven together into the larger tale.

The structure of this book reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino film. There are all these story lines that wind together, bringing the characters together in unexpected ways. Maybe a better analogy would be that the story resembles a Native American dream catcher, with all the stories knotted together; and yet somehow the nightmare is not caught, but slips through, a symbol of how the American Dream just doesn’t exist for so many people of indigenous cultures.

While the title of the book seems conciliatory, it is actually a reference to a Gertrude Stein quote, about how the lives and places we knew from our pasts are no longer there.

“Do you know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says.

Dene shakes his head no but actually he knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.

“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of a whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.

(pp. 38 – 39)

I think of the various times and places of my past, and those are just snapshots in time. They no longer exist. On a recent trip back to a city where I had lived for over 20 years, it was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered. There were shadows of what once was, almost like a distant echo that sparks a nostalgic memory, but the place itself is gone, changed beyond recognition. I can only imagine that this feeling must be magnified 100 fold for Native Americans, who were displaced and stripped of their homes.

The book is unsettling, and might be disturbing for some readers. But it is worth reading. We should not avoid reading about topics because they make us uncomfortable.

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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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Thoughts on “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

This is a book that was selected to read for the book club to which I belong. Because it’s a book that deals with slavery, the subject matter is disturbing, as well it should be. It is a disturbing topic and demands a brutality in language in order to capture the horrors of slavery.

She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing.

(p. 34)

At one point in the book, Cora, a runaway slave, is hidden by a couple in their attic. The scene reminded me of Anne Frank. But the internment in the attic space is used to  explore the question of what constitutes freedom.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

(p. 183)

Shortly afterwards, Cora considers the Declaration of Independence, and how it relates to her concept of freedom. She comes to the conclusion that freedom in America is an illusion, based upon the shadow of an idea that existed in the past.

… the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.

(p. 184)

The last thing I want to mention regarding this book is the symbolism of the underground railroad. On the surface, it represents the possibility of freedom from bondage; but it also symbolizes something deeper. The underground railroad is a metaphor for the private self, the deeply personal aspects of your story that remains hidden from view. Additionally, it symbolizes the black collective consciousness, a collective story of a people forged from the individual stories of those who struggled from their freedom.

“We’re not supposed to talk about what we do down here,” Royal said. “And our passengers aren’t supposed to talk about how the railroad operates—it’d put a lot of good people in danger. They could talk if they wanted to, but they don’t”

It was true. When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.

(p. 272)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. While I sadly considered how much has remained the same, I also had to acknowledge that much has changed too, which provided me with hope. We still have a lot of healing to do as a society, and that healing has to start by honestly looking at the problems we face and not forgetting the darker aspects of our collective past.

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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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