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.