‘The Prophetic Pictures’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne, Nathaniel 1837

The Prophetic Pictures by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1837

The magic trick:

Perfect setup for a morality tale

This is one of those stories whose setup is so good, so perfect, that it seems unfair. How can we continue to find new stories to tell when all the writers long ago took all the best premises? Sometimes that’s how it feels anyway.

With “The Prophetic Pictures,” the plot is established and set in motion with a brilliant introduction. A young couple is thrilled to sit for portraits with a renowned painter. Is he good with colors and light? Sure. But his real gift is the way his paintings reveal the “secret sentiments and passions” of the subject. The paintings unmask the subject’s true character.

It’s not far off from the dream mechanism as reveler of truth in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” And what a platform for moralizing. It’s the perfect story setup. And that’s quite a trick on Hawthorne’s part.

The selection:

“In truth,” answered he, “that question might be asked much more seriously than you suppose. They say that he paints not merely a man’s features, but his mind and heart. He catches the secret sentiments and passions and throws them upon the canvas like sunshine, or perhaps, in the portraits of dark-souled men, like a gleam of infernal fire. It is an awful gift,” added Walter, lowering his voice from its tone of enthusiasm. “I shall be almost afraid to sit to him.”

“Walter, are you in earnest?” exclaimed Elinor.

“For Heaven’s sake, dearest Elinor, do not let him paint the look which you now wear,” said her lover, smiling, though rather perplexed. “There! it is passing away now; but when you spoke, you seemed frightened to death, and very sad besides. What were you thinking of?”

“Nothing, nothing!” answered Elinor, hastily. “You paint my face with your own fantasies. Well, come for me tomorrow, and we will visit this wonderful artist.”

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