Intimations of immortality : Nathaniel Hawthorne's poetics of fire
Hughes, Sandra Sue
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In my dissertation, I adopt an interdisciplinary approach influenced by psychology, religion, history, and philosophy. Employing the framework of Gaston Bachelard's phenomenological studies of the four elements to examine Hawthorne's canon, I argue that Hawthorne's recurrent use of fire imagery not only reveals an affinity for an ambiguous symbol admirably suited to his literary aesthetic, but also anticipates a theme prevalent in the manuscripts he left unfinished at his death: the search for the Elixir Vitae and the attainment of immortality. In works such as "Main-Street" and The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne employs fire imagery on a conscious level, celebrating its multivalent symbolism. Furthermore, in several of his complex fictions, most notably "Ethan Brand," he draws upon the legends of Prometheus, Empedocles, and the Phoenix-the three myths that Bachelard has identified as central to a "poetics of fire." I contend that Hawthorne’s oneiric affinity with the element of fire indicates an abiding interest in the themes of regeneration, resurrection, and immortality chronicled in the Bachelardian fire myths, as well as in three disparate spiritual traditions linked to fire: the scriptural narrative of the Garden of Eden, the religious rituals of the Zoroastrians, and the mystical tradition of alchemy. After examining social contexts as well as biographical information that might explain why Hawthorne was particularly concerned with the idea of immortality, I conclude that although protagonists such as Septimius Felton-the title character of a late, unfinished romance-hope to extend their lives through alchemical experiments, Hawthorne himself sought immortality through his art. Hawthorne acted to preserve his literary legacy not only by attempting to write in "characters of fire," but also by burning (or threatening to burn) inferior work he produced. Hence, fire, in both its creative and destructive aspects, contributed to the survival of his literary reputation-a writer’s version of the Elixir Vitae.