Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Literary Humor


The Lesson


Nathaniel Hawthorne, author.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author.

Credit: Image courtesy of American memory

Nathaniel Hawthorne' stories are more often associated with dark examinations of complex systems of morality than any sense of conventional comic humor. And yet Hawthorne's subtle satiric wit oftentimes offered equally piercing insights into the human psyche. In this lesson, students read a humorous story by Nathaniel Hawthorne and, as part of a curriculum unit on American literary humor, compare it to other American literary humorists in order to gain perspective on each writer's brand of humor and its significance within the context of American literary tradition. After debating the merits of "moral" humor like Hawthorne's as compared with the "folk" humor of Harris and Twain, students test the possibilities of blending these traditions by recasting a paragraph of Hawthorne's story in dialect style.

Guiding Questions

  • What place does Nathaniel Hawthorne have in the history of American literary humor?

Learning Objectives

    At the end of this lesson students will be able to:

    • Analyze the use of literary conventions and devices to develop character and point of view in the short story
    • Discuss the purposes and significance of literary humor
    • Examine Hawthorne's style of humor in relation to that of other American humorists


      Born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, and a descendant of a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne had an understandable fascination with the Puritan ancestry and history that surrounded him. His collection of stories, Twice-Told Tales, which includes "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," with its sharp satire and refined narrative style, was published in 1837 to moderate success. His most famous work, The Scarlet Letter, was published in 1850 and, with its strong popular and critical reception, brought Hawthorne considerable and enduring fame. Hawthorne continued to write throughout his life, taking at times employment (usually political appointments, including the American consul at Liverpool, England when his friend Franklin Pierce was elected the 14th president of the United States). Hawthorne lived for a time in England and Italy with his children and wife, Sophie Peabody, whom he married in 1842, before returning to his home in Concord in 1860. By 1864, Hawthorne had fallen ill and died on a trip with his friend Franklin Pierce. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord. For a more complete history of Hawthorne's life and literary achievements, visit the following EDSITEment reviewed websites: Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the interactive Timeline (choose Life & Literary Career). Additional background information is available in the Curriculum Unit Overview. Even if teaching this lesson plan as a single lesson, the material listed in the Overview contains valuable contextual material.

      Preparation Instructions

      • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
      • Additional background and preparatory information is available in the Curriculum Unit Overview. Even if teaching this lesson plan as a single lesson, the material listed in the Overview contains valuable contextual material.
      • Students can access the primary source materials and some of the activity materials via the EDSITEment LaunchPad.
      • The full text of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" by Nathaniel Hawthorne is available via the EDSITEment reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne website.

      Lesson Activities

      Activity 1. Setting the Stage

      Introduce students to Hawthorne's background, using the resources outlined above and in the Curriculum Unit Overview, with specific attention to his biography and the events of his life using the Interactive Timeline (choose Life & Literary Career).

      Ask students what Hawthorne tales they might have already read, and what the general tone of those stories was. Have them read (or assign the night before) "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, available in the electronic text of Twice-Told Tales at the EDSITEment-reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne website.

      Ask students to first consider the story from a broad perspective. What is the tone of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"? Is Hawthorne's story scary or amusing? Have them select at least 2 brief passages from the text to explain their answer (either in groups during class, or individually at home during their at-home reading).

      Answers may range from "moralistic" to "haunting," or from "silly" to "amusing." Whatever their reaction, make sure that students point to specific passages—single lines or several sentences—to back up their claim. Have them read the passage out loud to the class. While Hawthorne, because of his common themes and style, is rarely thought of as a humorist, there are several passages in this story that suggest that Hawthorne's tongue was placed firmly in cheek. Certainly the story carries with it certain clear moral implications, yet he appears to adopt a satiric, rather than strictly gothic, tone for the tale.

      Students might select something like:

      But it was well known to be a book of magic; and once, when a chambermaid had lifted it, merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor, and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror; while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned, and said—"Forbear!"


      Now Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman, whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to my own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader's faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction monger

      Regardless if they choose this latter passage, turn to it after a few passages have been discussed and ask students to consider the narrator of the tale. What do we know of the narrator?

      Activity 2. Narrating the Tale

      Who is the narrator? Refer again to the following passage, and have a student read it out loud.

      Now Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman, whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to my own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader's faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction monger.

      If this lesson is taught in conjunction with the other lesson plans in this curriculum unit, ask students how the narration compares to that in the other stories by Mark Twain and George Washington Harris. As students will notice at once, dialect and local color play no clear part in the humor of this story. The story's structure, too, is far removed from the traditions of oral transmission that underlie the structures developed by Twain and Harris. Ask students:

      • What is a "fiction monger?"
      • What does the narrator mean when he says he "must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction monger"?
      • Is the narrator distancing himself from the disreputable characters in his story, as Mark Twain and Harris did with theirs?

      Have students attempt to present Hawthorne's story as a skit, and then consider these questions. Make sure students cite evidence from the story to support their opinions.

      • Is there a role for Hawthorne's narrator in their dramatization of the story?
      • Where does the narrator stand in relation to the action he describes?
      • Is he the storyteller, like Simon Wheeler; an audience, like the narrators created by Twain and Harris; or simply an observer of the action, like Hawthorne's reader?

      The narrator provides some amusing anecdotes about Dr. Heidegger, including the "skeleton in the closet" found in the laboratory. Have students consider Dr. Heidegger's role in the structure of the story. The first two questions can be discussed without reference to the other lessons in this curriculum unit. If the full unit has been used, refer to the other questions as well.

      • To what extent is Dr. Heidegger a satirist who "stages" this experiment to reveal his victims' weaknesses?
      • How does the narrator compare to Dr. Heidegger? How do they differ? Do they reflect similar or different social circumstances? [Note to teachers: both are, in a sense, selling their stories, which are also both arguably experiments with an outcome of moral education.]
      • To what extent can he be compared to a storyteller like Simon Wheeler?
      • To what extent can he be compared to a trickster like Jim Smiley or Sut Lovingood?

      The basic structure wherein the narrator details the events in Dr. Heidegger's study, while presumably faithfully recreating the scene as it occurred, is perhaps belied by his own ironic tone. Given this structure, however, ask students:

      • How does the story's structure influence our perception of Hawthorne's characters? Do they seem like "storybook" characters? realistic? fanciful?

      Annotation exercise: With the above question in mind, break students into groups and give them a copy of the story printed out from the above website. With highlighters, have students mark words, sentences, or longer passages from the text to illustrate how the narrator's choice of words in describing his characters, and his choice of props and costumes for the scene, influence our perception of them. Students with access to computers and a word processing program can use that program's editing tools (like Microsoft Word's "Track Changes" and "Notes" features) to annotate the text. After about ten minutes, bring students back together as a class and ask them to share one or two examples from their deliberations.

      Activity 3. Determining the Target

      Humorists generally have a target; they make jokes at someone's expense. Ask students: Who is the target in Hawthorne's story? Though a more refined humorist than Harris and Twain, Hawthorne is also targeting an element or aspect of American society for ridicule. But who is Hawthorne's target?

      • Is the story told at the expense of old people, like those whom Dr. Heidegger invites to taste the waters of the fountain of youth? To what extent does Hawthorne's use of allegorical elements, like the fountain of youth, bring a broader target into view? What does Dr. Heidegger's experiment reveal about "people in general"?
      • What is the "moral" of Hawthorne's story? Is there a similar kind of "moral" in this sense to the stories of Harris and Twain? Should there be?


      Have the class debate:

      If the class only completed this lesson from the curriculum unit, have one group argue the value of Hawthorne's story as a dark, gothic morality tale, while the other group argues the value of the story as a humorous satire.

      If the class fulfilled all steps of the curriculum unit, have one group argue that moral humor like Hawthorne's is superior to the often amoral humor of the folk tale and gossip tradition. Have the other group argue that Hawthorne's style of humor pales in comparison to that provided by humorists like Harris and Twain.

      Extending The Lesson

      Conclude this lesson by asking students to translate a passage from Hawthorne's story into dialect. Have them look, for example, at the paragraph beginning, "The fair widow knew, of old, that Colonel Killigrew's compliments were not always measured by sober truth..." Ask them to imagine how Simon Wheeler or Sut Lovingood might portray the scene Hawthorne's narrator describes. In the process of recasting Hawthorne's prose, they will likely discover that he is a more artful stylist than they might at first suppose, and discover too, as Mark Twain discovered, that an equal measure of art is required to achieve such effects in the easy-going accents of a storyteller.

      The Basics

      Grade Level


      Time Required

      1-2 class periods

      Subject Areas
      • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
      • Compare and contrast
      • Creative writing
      • Critical analysis
      • Critical thinking
      • Debate
      • Discussion
      • Evaluating arguments
      • Internet skills
      • Interpretation
      • Literary analysis
      • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
      • Writing skills