Ekphrasis undergoes a decisive shift in Nathaniel Hawthorne and his contemporaries. Whereas Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers (John Dryden, Alexander Pope) distinguished between verbal and visual arts through metaphors of realms and boundaries, Hawthorne twists the genres together again, as do John Keats and Robert Browning. Snakes in The Marble Faun, vines in The Blithedale Romance, and the A in The Scarlet Letter are tangled figures that at once image both the relationship between the genres and the newly powerful nature of relationships between persons. Similarly, the fullness and the insecurity of friendship are conveyed by verbal pictures that borrow a sense of plenitude from the visual arts even as they fail to achieve the direct presence of those media. An analysis of words and images in The Token, the gift book in which so many of Hawthorne's early tales first appeared, suggests that to read ekphrasis attentively in Hawthorne is to read the idiom of the interpersonal realm. Ekphrasis thus emerges not as a timeless figure to be cherished only by formalists but as a powerful tool for the historian, a moment that compresses into a single figure a culture's fictions of affiliation and estrangement.
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Thomas J. Otten; Hawthorne's Twisted Letters. Modern Language Quarterly 1 September 2009; 70 (3): 363–386. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-2009-004
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