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The Great Stone Face: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:03 The Prophecy
  • 0:41 The Candidates
  • 2:43 Divinity in Nature
  • 3:33 Earnest Ernest
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

'The Great Stone Face' is Nathaniel Hawthorne's story about one man's quiet journey to greatness and wisdom. This lesson explains the basic plot of the story before analyzing the text's underlying messages about divinity and human nature.

The Prophecy

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 short story ''The Great Stone Face'' is a story about nature, divinity, and a prophecy. It begins with a mother and her young son, Ernest, who live in a prosperous valley. What sets this place apart is a local mountainside with rocks that strongly resemble a wise and benevolent face. The mother tells her fascinated son of the local legend, that a man whose appearance matches the Great Stone Face will return to the valley. That man is destined to be, ''the greatest and noblest personage of his time.'' Young Ernest is drawn to the tale and hopes fervently that such a man will appear in his lifetime.

The Candidates

Ernest grows up working the fields and playing in the woods of the valley. He becomes a quiet, strong, smart kid, although he has no formal schooling. Ernest spends a good portion of his day in respectful, almost prayerful, contemplation of the Great Stone Face. A famous merchant, Mr. Gathergold, returns to the valley, his childhood home, and raises a magnificent marble mansion. The locals believe he fulfills the prophecy, but when Ernest sees the man, he realizes that Gathergold does not truly resemble the Great Stone Face. To Ernest, Gathergold's face is too sordid and cunning to match the visage in the mountainside.

As an adult, Ernest witnesses another possible candidate return to the valley. This one, a decorated military commander, also lifts the hopes of the valley's inhabitants. While Ernest sees that he has some admirable qualities, Old Blood-and-Thunder fails to capture the benevolence in the gaze of the Great Stone Face. Ernest expects that the prophesied man will be a man of peace, not war. Again, Ernest is disappointed.

Ernest is middle-aged and has become a well-respected preacher. A famous statesman and candidate for the presidency visits the valley, where he was born. While this man's physical resemblance to the Great Stone Face is strong enough that he earns the nickname Old Stony Phiz, Ernest sees the truth and knows that he's not the one from the prophesy. Old Stony Phiz is ''vague and empty'' and lacks ''high purpose.''

Elderly Ernest has a reputation for wisdom and kindness, and he's known far and wide. A respected poet comes to see him, and together they walk out to a place outdoors where Ernest delivers sermons. As Ernest stands there before his congregation, the poet is struck by the resemblance between Ernest and the Great Stone Face. The poet reveals to the citizens of the valley that Ernest is the prophesied man of wisdom and nobility. The people cheer, but Ernest humbly shrugs it off, still waiting for a wiser man who resembles the Great Stone Face.

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