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The Chronicle and the Reckoning: A Temporal Paradox in Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 2, May 2013
pp. 221-242 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0010

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One can argue that there is a dual temporality implicit in reading most, if not all, fictional narratives. First, the reader comprehends the text in the temporal sequence of its unfolding, adding to her understanding as that sequence gives more information about a character’s personality and his choices. Second, the reader (re-)understands the entirety of the text as well as its constituent parts in light of the story’s ending. For example, if a protagonist goes on to become president of the United States, his election as preschool line-leader can take on new, even typological, significance: we can understand the character as predestined to be president. Sometimes this second mode of comprehension precedes the first. With a text like Hamlet, for example, the vast majority of people have an idea of the ending, of Hamlet’s tragic flaw, and of the play’s cultural significance before ever experiencing the play; they thus have some sort of reckoning of the character and the play before they see or read it. Moreover, since the narrative sjuzhet often deviates from the chronological sequence of its fabula, the disclosure that requires, encourages, or allows a reader to (re)conceptualize a chronologically prior happening does not have to be in the final paragraphs of a text. In reading, as in life, our opinions and understandings of previous occurrences are constantly revised in the light of new information and happenings, whether they occur towards the beginning, middle, or end of a codex.

This article will explore these opposing tendencies in the early Puritan tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, while relating this paradox to broader cultural transformations. Before turning to Hawthorne, however, I will offer some working definitions of my terminology. The more straightforward of the temporalities described above, that of considering a narrative (and life) chronologically, I will call the “chronicle,” by which I mean the forward movement of time that governs our understanding of human actions. The term is meant to reference quotidian records as well as the biblical book Chronicles, that linear account of Jewish happenings from Adam to the Babylonian captivity. In particular, with its record of who begat whom, the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles serve as a potent illustration of human chronology plodding onward with each successive generation. This biblical book also illustrates the causality inherent within human chronology: events lead to other events just like Noah’s sons father other sons. In contrast to this forward-moving temporality is the “reckoning,” the manner by which we (re)conceive that which has come chronologically (though not necessarily narratively) before. With the use of this term, I refer to the act of giving an evaluation of what has previously occurred (“to give a reckoning of ”), the act of accounting for and settling differences and inconsistencies (“he reckoned with her”), and, of course, the idea of final judgment (“the day of reckoning”). All these senses have embedded within them a way of viewing time backwards, of (re)constructing events from the ending to the origin. While humans naturally think and live by the “chronicle,” we inevitably employ the retrospective logic of the “reckoning.” In short, these two forms of temporality are as irreconcilable as they are simultaneous and inevitable: together, I argue, they create a narrative paradox.

As I have just implied, this tension could be explored in a number of texts, but in the following pages, I focus on an author and a religious milieu in which this paradox is remarkably prominent. Indeed, given the classic, if debatable, invocation of Hawthorne as the nation’s “first” great novelist, he could be seen as the writer who Americanizes this longstanding temporal dilemma. Still, the paradox stretches back to the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A form of Calvinism, Puritanism relies on double predestination, the idea that holds that, due to God’s prior decree, some are elected to heaven and others are damned to hell before birth.2 A Puritan’s final “reckoning” thus (re)tells the narrative of a Puritan’s life, for after death, the life’s “theme” (Paul Ricoeur’s term) or moral becomes salvation or damnation and effectively (re)casts all the happenings of...

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