Tag Archives: parable

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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Thoughts on “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorn

My friend Sonia recommended this short story to me as something I might want to consider as part of my Halloween reading list. I love Hawthorn and it has been a while since I read any of his works, so I took her suggestion.

The story is a somewhat eerie tale about a young man who falls in love with a young woman who has a strange attachment to her father’s garden, and in particular one plant that is highly poisonous. It is discovered that the father, a scientist, had been giving her doses of the plant’s poison to make her immune and also instill her with a kind of built in defense against unwanted male advances.

Having read this right after finishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was very aware of Hawthorn’s criticism of the tendency of scientific men to want to usurp the power that was traditionally assigned to the divine. And it almost seems like Hawthorn predicted the age of genetically modified organisms that have become the norm in our world of factory farming.

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several, also, would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. They were probably the result of experiment, which, in one or two cases, had succeeded in mingling plants individually lovely into a compound possessing the questionable and ominous character that distinguished the whole growth of the garden.

What I respect about Hawthorn is that he is critical in all areas. Often, people who are critical of science embrace religion, but Hawthorn is just as critical in this tale about religion as he is science. When Baglioni points out that Rappaccini offered his daughter as a sacrifice to science, it also symbolically parallels Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God. Hawthorn is equally appalled at the sacrifice of humanity for any of our gods, whether they be religion or science.

“Her father,” continued Baglioni, “was not restrained by natural affection from offering up his child, in this horrible manner, as the victim of his insane zeal for science. For — let us do him justice — he is as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic. What, then, will be your fate? Beyond a doubt, you are selected as the material of some new experiment. Perhaps the result is to be death — perhaps a fate more awful still! Rappaccini, with what he calls the interest of science before his eyes, will hesitate at nothing.”

There is a lot of other cool symbolism woven into this tale, and I encourage you to read it if you have not yet done so. It’s a great tale with a nice twist at the end. Creepy enough for an evening Halloween season read, but also a thought-provoking parable that forces us to examine our human tendencies toward fanaticism and the desire to manipulate and control Nature.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading!

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Creating Our Own Gods and Demons

This was my third reading of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. What struck me on this reading was just how rich this text is and how many layers of symbolism and metaphor is woven in to the story. As pages of my journal filled with notes, I realized that I faced the daunting task of narrowing down all my thoughts to a short blog post. After some deliberation, I decided to focus on the concept of humanity creating gods and demons.

The first thing to point out is how Shelley uses the term “creature.” It is specifically the product of the creative process, particularly from the mind. A creature, therefore can be anything which we as creative beings consciously create.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally at the panes, and the candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

(p. 34)

Throughout the text, I noticed that the creature is depicted as both godlike and demonic. That is because the things that our minds create can be both positive and negative, and often a combination of both. The issue becomes whether we allow the creatures of our minds to elevate us spiritually or drag us down to our lesser natures.

I will first provide an example of the creature as godlike, as a being described as both omnipotent, invincible, and in control of the future.

But to me the remembrance of the threat returned: not can you wonder, that, omnipotent as the fiend had yet been in his deeds of blood, I should almost regard him as invincible; and that when he pronounced the words, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night,” I should regard the threatened fate as unavoidable.

((p. 132)

The other thing I would like to point out regarding this passage is the tone of the creature’s proclamation. It almost sounds like how God speaks in biblical text. God speaks, and what he says comes into being.

Next we will look at a passage where the creature is depicted as demonic, particularly associated with Satan. Here the creature embodies Lucifer’s characteristics of persuasion and eloquence.

He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend-like malice.

(p. 145)

Near the end of the tale, Victor Frankenstein warns Walton about the dangers of creation, about how when we use the power of our minds to create our gods, we inevitably also end up creating our own personal demons.

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable.

“Are you mad, my friend?” said he, “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Or to what do your questions tend? Peace, peace! learn from my miseries, and seek not to increase your own.”

(p. 146)

This parable in Frankenstein is an important one and pertinent to our times. Many of us allow the news, social media, and the plethora of mental distractions to create imagined threats, monsters, and demons that plague our minds. What we imagine ultimately becomes our reality. We should learn from Frankenstein’s mistake and not let ourselves create our own demons which will inevitably destroy ourselves and our world.

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The Black Monday Murders: Issue 05

In our current environment, a tale about dark occult influences on the mega-wealthy and powerful individuals that manipulate and control global economics is bound to be interesting. But this graphic series is much more than just an entertaining look at some conspiracy theory; it’s a deep probing into mystical thought and the symbols associated with money and power. The writers of this series took an extended break since issue 4, which was released back in November of 2016, but they are back now with another engaging installment in the arc.

There is an abundance of rich text, artwork, and ideas crafted into this issue. Much of it is connected to the various threads which woven together create this complex story and would be difficult to convey without spending a lot of time and page space explaining the back story. But there is a great section that I want to share that I think adequately conveys the complexity and thoughtfulness of this series. It’s a discussion about the difference between the disciples Judas and Peter.

Doctor: Then you know of Peter — on whose back Christ’s church was built – and Judas – who with a kiss – betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. It’s fascinating to me how many people misinterpret the point of their story. Haven’t you ever wondered why Judas – who only betrayed Christ once – is the fallen sinner of the story, and Peter is the redeemed? After all, Peter denied the Son of God three times – each denial a separate betrayal. Can you guess, detective… why the greater offender became a saint, while the other hung from a tree?

Detective: I have no idea.

Doctor: Judas, you see… he took the money.

Detective: I don’t see how that –

Doctor: If you’re going to understand how all this works, detective, then you’re going to have to remember one key thing: money is the physical manifestation of power. And when I say power, yes, I mean powers beyond our mortal ken.

This conversation really struck me and caused me to think. There are many reasons why a person might deny the spiritual and the divine, such as fear, doubt, suffering, obsession with physical pleasure. The list goes on. So what makes the rejection of the divine for the sake of wealth so much worse? Christ famously stated: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” And remember how angry Christ got about the moneychangers? If I recall, that was the only time that he lost his cool. I think that all this is pointing the fact that money and wealth symbolizes power of an individual over a large group of people. If humans are beings made in the image of God and filled with the spark of the divine, then it must be the epitome of evil to exercise dominion over people who are in essence divine spiritual beings.

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“The Devil in the Belfry” by Edgar Allan Poe – Time, Chaos, and the Disruption of Order

devilbelfry

I was not sure what to expect from this tale, having neither read it before nor heard of it until I happened across it in my anthology. It is a very short parable about deviation and disruption of order, and the chaos that ensues as a result.

The story is set in a town called Vondervotteimittiss. Very early in the tale, the narrator explains that he does not know the history of the town’s name, which implies there is some significance to the name.

Touching the derivation of the name Vondervotteimittiss, I confess myself, with sorrow, equally at fault. Among a multitude of opinions upon this delicate point—some acute, some learned, some sufficiently the reverse—I am able to select nothing which ought to be considered satisfactory.

The name of the town is a sort of Germanic transliteration and play on words, so the town should be pronounced “wonder what time it is.” The key then to understanding this story is the importance of time as a constant.

The town of Vondervotteimittiss is built in a circle, symbolizing a clock and the eternal cycle of time, which is a constant. The town is comprised of “sixty little houses” which represent the sixty minutes and sixty seconds which are the foundations of time. In addition, the steeple in the center of town, which houses the great clock, has seven sides with seven clock faces, symbolizing the seven days of the week, another important symbol of time and structure.

The great clock has seven faces—one on each of the seven sides of the steeple—so that it can be readily seen from all quarters.

The final number to keep in mind is twelve, which are the numbers on the clock face and the number of months in a year.

So one day, a stranger comes into town, and the way he is described conjures the image of the devil, or possibly the trickster archetype. He commandeers the clock tower, and as the clock strikes twelve noon, he causes the clock to chime once more, making it 13 o’clock.

“Twelve!” said the bell.

“Dvelf!” they replied, perfectly satisfied and dropping their voices.

“Und dvelf it iss!” said all the little old gentlemen, putting up their watches. But the big bell had not done with them yet.

Thirteen!” said he.

Thirteen is considered an unlucky number and portends evil and disruption. What Poe is expressing here is that deviation from the norm, disruption of the perfect order of things which is symbolized by the steadiness of time, results in chaos, which is exactly what happens in the town of Vondervotteimittiss.

Meantime the cabbages all turned very red in the face, and it seemed as if old Nick himself had taken possession of every thing in the shape of a timepiece. The clocks carved upon the furniture took to dancing as if bewitched, while those upon the mantel-pieces could scarcely contain themselves for fury, and kept such a continual striking of thirteen, and such a frisking and wriggling of their pendulums as was really horrible to see.

We now accept time as something relative, but for millennia, time was the constant, so the thought of what we view as stable crumbling is a sign of chaos and collapse. I look around us and we have created an illusion of stability, but I cannot help but see the potential for chaos at the slightest deviation.

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Poem #11: “I never told the buried gold” by Emily Dickinson

EmilyDickinson

I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill — that lies —
I saw the sun — his plunder done
Crouch low to guard his prize.

He stood as near
As stood you here —
A pace had been between —
Did but a snake bisect the brake
My life had forfeit been.

That was a wondrous booty —
I hope ’twas honest gained.
Those were the fairest ingots
That ever kissed the spade!

Whether to keep the secret —
Whether to reveal —
Whether as I ponder
Kidd will sudden sail —

Could a shrewd advise me
We might e’en divide —
Should a shrewd betray me —
Atropos decide!

I struggled with this poem. I read it a few times and was still not completely certain what Emily was trying to convey. So I focused on the image of the gold, or the treasure, and tried to figure out what it could symbolize. The only thing I could come up with was that it was a metaphor for religious teaching, particularly the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount. And the more I considered the poem from this perspective, the more it made sense. Christ’s teachings were presented in parables, with the truth hidden below the surface. And when you consider that the gold was buried upon a hill, then the idea of the treasure being the hidden meaning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount makes sense.

Then I thought about the pirate, or Captain Kidd. It seemed likely that the pirate represents priests, who took possession of Christ’s teachings and wanted to be the keepers of the treasure, to be the sole guardians of the truth. But Emily had seen the treasure, and knew the truth herself. So now she is in a quandary—should she keep the secret or spread the truth? It seems that she found a compromise; keep the treasure hidden within her poetry but available to those with the wisdom to understand.

It seems at the end, Emily wonders whether her choice was the right one. She decides to let Atropos decide. Atropos is one of the Fates, so she is leaving it to fate to judge whether she was right or wrong. In my opinion, she was right.

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“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

MinistersBlackVeilYesterday I told my daughter what I was doing as far as blog posts for the month of October. She quickly suggested that I write a post about The Minister’s Black Veil. She said it wasn’t exactly horror, per se, but it was definitely creepy in a psychological sense. The fact that my daughter would suggest Hawthorne made me a proud father indeed, and the fact that the story she suggested was one that I was unfamiliar with solidified this as the choice for my next post.

It was no surprise that this is a very symbolic tale. In fact, the subtitle is “A Parable,” which implies that there is a moral lesson to be learned and that lesson is likely represented symbolically in the story. To briefly summarize the story, it is a tale about one Reverend Hooper, a minister in a puritanical town, who makes the decision to wear a black veil for the rest of his life, without providing a reason to any of the townsfolk. The townsfolk are horrified by the veil, which they view as a “symbol of a fearful secret between him and them.”

The veil separates Hooper from the rest of humanity. It represents a wall behind which he is trapped, a prisoner within himself. He can never truly connect with another person because there is always a part of him that is hidden, some dark aspect of the self which can never be shown.

All through life the piece of crape had hung between him and the world: it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of prisons, his own heart…

Hawthorne is essentially asserting that we all have dark secrets, aspects of ourselves of which we are ashamed, afraid, or disgusted. We harbor thoughts and memories of things that make us sad or fill us with anger and remorse. As a result, no one can really know another person completely. There will always be thoughts or feelings that are not expressed, which remain hidden behind the veil.

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”

Reverend Hooper claims that a time will come “when all of us shall cast aside our veils.” But this will never happen as long as we harbor prejudices against others and hide our thoughts. Humanity as a whole must attain a level of acceptance where we realize that we are all the same, that we all have our dark secrets and our inner fears. Once we can accept that about ourselves and others, we can start to open up and hopefully shed our veils.

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