Hawthorne was a native of New England, and his homeland often played an important role in his stories. Accordingly, Profile Mountain in New Hampshire served as inspiration for The Great Stone Face. When viewed from a distance, this peak seemed to possess a human face. Unfortunately, a recent landslide has ruined the illusion.
The residents of the valley loved the noble countenance of the Great Stone Face, which seemed to look down upon them with benignity, and no one loved it more than an impressionable boy named Ernest. He often raised his eyes to contemplate its grandeur and to receive its blessing.
From his mother, Ernest learned about an old prophecy. At some future date, a wise man would appear in the valley. His countenance would resemble the Great Stone Face that Ernest loved so well. Ernest hoped that he would live to see the fulfillment of this prophecy.
As he grew, he had no teacher except the Great Stone Face. After finishing work each day, he would meditate on its benign visage. Under its influence, Ernest grew in wisdom.
While Earnest was still a boy, Gathergold, who had left the valley in his youth and had become a rich merchant, returned home. Although he was a miserly man with yellow skin, the people sincerely thought that he was the fulfillment of the old prophecy.
Ernest had high hopes that the general public opinion might prove to be correct. However, when Ernest examined the face of Gathergold, he was disappointed. Eventually the people also realized that there was no resemblance between Gathergold and the Great Stone Face.
When Ernest became a young man, another native of the valley returned home. He had achieved fame as a soldier and had earned the nickname Old Blood-and-Thunder. Though the people temporarily believed that the famous soldier was the man for whom they were waiting, Ernest was disappointed once more. The truculent physiognomy of the fierce soldier did not resemble the benign countenance that Ernest loved.
Later another native of the valley gained fame as a statesman. He was an impressive orator, and gained worldwide fame. His friends wanted to make him president. As his fame grew, people began to believe that he resembled the Great Stone Face; so Old Stony Phiz became his nickname.
When the statesman returned to the valley, Ernest noticed a slight resemblance between Old Stony Phiz and the Great Stone Face. However, he soon became aware of a crucial difference. Although Old Stony Phiz spoke with power, his words were not sincere. He was not motivated by any lofty purpose. As a result, his face lacked the sublime grandeur that characterized the visage that looked down from the mountain with an expression of divine sympathy.
As the years passed, Ernest grew in wisdom, and people began to respect him for it. He became famous, not only in the valley, but also beyond. Prominent people heard about his wonderful endowments and came to speak with him, even college professors, sages, and philanthropists.
As Ernest talked with his guests, enriching them with his homely wisdom, his face often seemed to radiate gentle effulgence, like a mild evening light. As his guests left, they occasionally had a feeling of déjà vu when they gazed at the Great Stone Face.
Another native of the valley had genuine poetic genius. Whether the subject was a mountain, a lake, or human society, his sublime verses were endowed with beauty and truth.
Ernest was thrilled when he read the poet’s verses. He had high hopes that the old prophecy was finally fulfilled.
The poet had been living far from the valley, but the fame of Ernest had reached his ears. He decided to return to the valley and pay him a visit.
The poet did not immediately identify himself when he visited Ernest. As they spoke, the poet admired the wisdom of Ernest, and Ernest was thrilled by the divine thoughts uttered by his guest.
When the poet told Ernest who he was, Ernest carefully compared the features of his guest with those of the Great Stone Face. The poet noticed that Ernest was disappointed and honestly admitted his unworthiness. Although his poems had the strain of divinity, his life had not corresponded with his thought.
At sunset, Ernest went outside to deliver a discourse to an assembly of people in the open air. The poet accompanied him. During the discourse, as Ernest was about to utter an especially inspiring thought, his face assumed a grandeur of expression imbued with benevolence. The poet immediately noticed that Ernest truly resembled the Great Stone Face and expressed his conviction with a loud voice. The people realized that the poet had spoken the truth.
Nevertheless, Ernest still hoped that he would meet a better and wiser man that resembled the Great Stone Face.
It is, of course, impossible for a person to become virtuous by contemplating even the most wonderful natural phenomena. A person without good guidance is likely to acquire many evil characteristics. This problem would disappear if we assume that the Great Stone Face is symbolic of Christianity, but I do not think that this is what Hawthorne had in mind.
Instead of allegory, we are dealing with another literary figure: personification. The Great Stone Face is regarded as a noble, wise teacher, who seems to speak to Ernest and console him on occasion. In view of Hawthorne’s background, the author may have viewed the Great Stone Face as a Christian teacher, but there is no hint of this in the text.
In spite of the aforementioned difficulty, it is a wonderful tale. I have read it several times and never get tired of it. The plot is excellent, and Hawthorne’s descriptive language is superb.
In preparing these notes, I consulted a version of Hawthorne’s tale presented online by Classical Authors.