This is the End: Ambiguity in Hawthorne's Short Stories
With her dying breath, Georgianna tells Aylmer “do not repent” and the final paragraph does not suggest that he does so (237-238). Rather, there is again heard a “chuckling laugh” (238). Who is laughing? Is it Amidab, whose own delighted laughter caused Aylmer to likewise laugh (237)? That there is any laughter at this moment of death overshadows the moral implication of the story’s denouement.
Om “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” when Beatrice falls dead at the feet of her father and lover, Professor Pietro shouts out to the older man “is this the upshot of your experiment,” a rhetorical question, an accusation that is never answered. The reader is left to ponder what, if any, remorse either of the responsible parties experienced after her death.
Even in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” where the story’s conclusion is the least ambiguous, there is left the question of whether or not the Dr.’s four friends make the pilgrimage to the Fountain of Youth, for resolving to do so does not necessitate action on anyone’s part.
Perhaps the most profound, however, is the conclusion of “The Artist of the Beautiful” for in Owen Warland Hawthorne offers the reader an artist who is committed to using resources that typically result in something that has a specific function to create an object that’s sole purpose is to delight. When his beautiful creation is crushed, his response is ambiguous, for he has achieved his goal in spite of his anxiety that he might die (432); a lifetime of work shattered before him, he values it little (437). After dedicating a lifetime of effort into this singular creation, he seems satisfied to know he can again create something beautiful. But will he? The reader, having followed along with the distractions and forestalling, knows that time is relentless leaving room for doubt as to whether he will be able to do so, let alone if he will be willing.
Each story leaves the reader with an ending that is ambiguous, doubting whether there is any remorse or lesson learned or even a hope that something beautiful, once destroyed, can be recreated.
“Hawthorne’s ambiguity of meaning in his fiction continues to nag the reader long after he has finished the story and set it aside” (Graham, 21)
Graham, Wendy C. Gothic Elements and Religion in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fiction. Germany, Tectum Verlag, 1999.