Throughout his life Nathaniel Hawthorne
was influenced by the various women who surrounded him. As his biographers have
demonstrated, women often played crucial roles in his development. His mother,
Elizabeth Manning Hawthorne, and his sisters Elizabeth and Louisa encouraged him
in his aspirations to be a writer. His grandmother and aunts in Salem supported
his early education. His wife Sophia
(Peabody) devoted herself to him and inspired some of the female characters who
appear in his fiction. Hawthorne also had important relationships with women who
affected his professional life, including Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller.
Some critics see Fuller as another inspiration for some of Hawthornes female
characters, particularly his strong, rebellious figures.
In his short stories and romances, Hawthorne creates a wide range of female
characters. Some are strong, independent-minded, and self-confident, like
Hester Prynne or Zenobia.
Others embody the gender expectations
for women in Hawthornes day, such as Phoebe Pyncheon. Many of his female characters
serve as redemptive figures for men who have isolated themselves or severed
their ties to a sustaining community. Hawthorne also presents a number of female
characters who are victimized at the hands of men, destroyed by exercises of
male power. Through these various characters and their experiences, Hawthorne
explores the nature of gender relations in his day. He also raises questions
about the role of domesticity in shaping female characters and the role of emotion
as well as reason in human experience. In some works, Hawthorne presents older
women as central figures and through them explores the legacy of the past and
the ways in which women are shaped by their individual and community history.
Sympathetic to most of the female characters who appear in his works, Hawthorne
presents the complexity of womens lives at times of profound social change,
whether in his own day or in the historic past.