The Great Stone Face
By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
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Plot Summary
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

Type of Work and Style

"The Great Stone Face" is
a fanciful short story centering on the life of a humble New England resident who learns wisdom by gazing upon a mountain rock formation that resembles a human face with a benevolent smile. 


Hawthorne completed the story in 1850. The Boston firm of Houghton Mifflin published it in 1889 in The Great Stone Face and Other Tales of the White Mountains, a collection of four Hawthorne's short stories.


.......The action takes place in a valley that the narrator says was “embosomed amongst a family of lofty mountains.” On one mountain is a huge rock formation shaped like a human face. Hawthorne does not identify the location of the rock formation, but it is well known that he saw such a formation in the Franconia Notch of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This formation was known as the Old Man of the Mountain but was sometimes referred to as the Profile. Unfortunately, in 2003, the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed.  


: The main character. He is upright, hard-working, and a benevolent presence to his neighbors. He spends his leisure hours gazing at a mountain rock formation called the Great Stone Face.
Ernest's Mother: Loving woman who tells her son about an old story predicting that a child born in the valley below the Great Stone Face will become the greatest person of his time. The story says his face will resemble the one on the mountain.
Mr. Gathergold: Wealthy merchant who is a native of the valley.
Old Blood and Thunder: Great general who is a native of the valley.
Statesman: Great orator who is a native of the valley.
Poet: Great writer who is a native of the valley.
Valley Residents

Point of View

.......The narrator presents the story in omniscient third-person point of view.


.......The tone is thoughtful and, in several instances, sentimental—as in the following passage near the end of the story

The poet, as he listened, felt that the being and character of Ernest were a nobler strain of poetry than he had ever written. His eyes glistening with tears, he gazed reverentially at the venerable man, and said within himself that never was there an aspect so worthy of a prophet and a sage as that mild, sweet, thoughtful countenance, with the glory of white hair diffused about it. 
Plot Summary

.......At sunset, a mother and her son sit in front of their cottage discussing the Great Stone Face. This wonder of nature looks down from one of the mountains bordering a valley with farms, villages, and cotton factories. The rock formation is massive, with a forehead more than a hundred feet high. Viewed up close, it is a chaos of gigantic rocks. Viewed from a distance, it becomes the face of a great god ready to speak thunder. Yet it is a noble, kindly face, suggesting it holds the valley in its affections. In fact, some people attribute the prosperity of the valley to the presence of the Great Stone Face.
.......“Mother,” says the boy, Ernest, “I wish that it could speak, for it looks so very kindly that its voice must needs be pleasant. If I were to see a man with such a face, I should love him dearly."
.......His mother says that if an old prophecy comes true, they will see a man with such a face. Ernest asks her to tell him more about the prophecy. So his mother tells him what her mother told her about it when she was a child. It is an old story, one with which the Indians who once inhabited the valley heard from their ancestors. This prophecy says that a child born in the valley will one day become “the greatest and noblest personage of his time” and that his face will be the exact likeness of the Great Stone Face. Some people of the valley no longer believe in the prophecy, for they have never seen a person bearing any resemblance to the natural wonder. Nor have they heard of anyone from the valley with surpassing greatness and nobility. Others, however, continue to await the fulfillment of the prophecy.
.......Ernest says he hopes that he will live to see the great person.
.......“Perhaps you may,” says the mother.
.......Ernest grew up as a quiet, thoughtful, intelligent child devoted to his mother. He performed many chores for her and worked hard in the fields under the hot sun. Although he had no teacher to nurture his intelligence, he spent many hours observing the Great Stone Face. With its benevolent countenance, it seemed to impart to him the importance of love.
.......Meanwhile, a rumor circulates saying that the prophecy has been fulfilled in a man who left the valley years before and became a shopkeeper in distant seaport. Having a good mind for business and blessed with good luck, he worked his way into ownership of a fleet of ships that brought him ivory, furs, precious gems, tea, spices, whale oil, and other commodities that earned him vast sums of money. His name is Gathergold, but the narrator is not sure whether that is his surname or a nickname.
.......After accumulating more money than he could count in a century, he decides to move back to his native valley. He sends ahead an architect to construct for him on the site of his father's old farmhouse an opulent marble dwelling with a portico and columns in the front. When the building is under construction, its magnificence leaves the people with the impression that the rumor must be true. After completion of the mansion, servants arrive to begin preparing for their famous master, who is expected in the evening. Some time later, while Ernest is outside gazing upon the valley, a carriage comes into view with an old man looking out the window. A woman beggar and two of her children stand near with their hands out. The old man drops copper coins down to them. When people awaiting his arrival see him, they shout that he is indeed the likeness of the Great Stone Face. But Ernest notices that Gathergold does not look at all like the mountain wonder. He looks up at it and it seems to say, “"He will come! Fear not, Ernest; the man will come!"
.......Years pass. Ernest is now a young adult. He works hard and is a good neighbor but is otherwise quite ordinary except for his habit of meditating on the Great Stone Face. The people of the valley are unaware that it “had become a teacher to him, and that the sentiment which was expressed in it would enlarge the young man's heart, and fill it with wider and deeper sympathies than other hearts,” the narrator says.
.......Meanwhile, Gathergold dies after losing all his wealth, and the people realize that his face did not resemble the one on the mountain after all. His marble mansion becomes a hotel for tourists visiting the valley to see the Great Stone Face. The attention of the people then shifts to another native of the valley—an aging war hero known as Old Blood and Thunder—who decides to return to the place of his birth. Childhood acquaintances of the general testify that in his youth his face was the very likeness of the Great Stone Face. On the day he arrives, the people welcome him at a public banquet in a field surrounded by trees except for an open space that allows a view of the Great Stone Face. After the general arrives, the Rev. Dr. Battleblast pronounces a blessing. Ernest is there to get a look at the general, but the crowd that gather around him block his view. He can hear comments, however.
......." 'Tis the same face, to a hair!" says one man.
    Others make similar statements, and celebratory shouts resound. All of this fanfare makes the general think he must be the long-awaited one. When he stands to give a speech, his epaulets glittering, Ernest is able to see him. But Old Blood and Thunder's face does not resemble the great stone countenance in the distance. When Ernest looks at the Great Stone Face, it seems to say to him, "Fear not, Ernest; he will come."
.......Many more years pass. Ernest is still the hard-working good neighbor he has always been—but more so. The narrator says,
Not a day passed by, that the world was not the better because this man, humble as he was, had lived. He never stepped aside from his own path, yet would always reach a blessing to his neighbor. Almost involuntarily too, he had become a preacher. The pure and high simplicity of his thought, which, as one of its manifestations, took shape in the good deeds that dropped silently from his hand, flowed also forth in speech. He uttered truths that wrought upon and moulded the lives of those who heard him.
.......However, neither he nor his neighbors realize that he is no longer just an ordinary man.
.......Meanwhile, his neighbors—having acknowledged that Old Blood and Thunder is not that man they work looking for—fix their attention on a prominent statesmen famous for his eloquent and convincing speeches. Whenever he speaks, people listen—and believe what he says.
.......“His tongue, indeed, was a magic instrument: sometimes it rumbled like the thunder; sometimes it warbled like the sweetest music,” the narrator says.
.......This native of the valley speaks on weighty subjects before politicians, princes, potentates; all the world hails him as the greatest of orators. His backers call upon him to be a candidate for the presidency of his country. And, of course, the people of the valley say he is said to be the exact likeness of the Great Stone Face. When he decides to visit the place of his birth, horsemen carrying banners and all the other people of the valley go out to greet him, including Ernest.
    When he approaches in a carriage, Ernest notices that he does bear a resemblance to the Great Stone Face. “But,” says the narrator,” the sublimity and stateliness, the grand expression of a divine sympathy, that illuminated the mountain visage” was missing. As Ernest turns his glance to the Great Stone Face, it seems to say, “"Lo, here I am, Ernest! I have waited longer than thou, and am not yet weary. Fear not; the man will come."
.......Time moves on and fashions Ernest into an old man with white hair and a wrinkled forehead. However, it is Ernest who now becomes famous; for the wisdom he learns from gazing at the Great Stone Face attracts people from distant places.
.......“College professors, and even the active men of cities, came from far to see and converse with Ernest," the narrator says. ; for the report had gone abroad that this simple husbandman had ideas unlike those of other men, not gained from books, but of a higher tone. . . ."
.......When these visitors leave the valley, they look up at the Great Stone Face and realize they have seen its likeness in a human but cannot remember where or who it was.
.......By and by, a great poet from the valley gains admiration far and wide for his magnificent verses. When Ernest comes into possession of a copy of his works, he begins reading them one day at the end of his workday. Taken with their beauty, he says to the Great Stone Face, "O majestic friend, "is not this man worthy to resemble thee?"
.......The face appears to smile.
.......It so happens that the poet has heard of Ernest as a man of great wisdom and desires to meet him. One day, he travels by train to the valley and, with carpetbag in hand, and asks Ernest whether he may lodge with him for the evening. Ernest welcomes him, although he is not aware of his identity. As they converse, it is not long before the poet realizes he has never met a man quite like Ernest. He has the sublime wisdom of angels. Their conversation rides into lofty planes that enthrall both of them.
.......When Ernest asks him who he is, the poet points to the book of poems and identifies himself as the author. Ernest looks carefully at the poet, then at the Great Stone Face, but detects no resemblance. He is disappointed. When the poet asks why Ernest appears sad, Ernest tells him about the prophecy and says he thought the poet would fulfill it. The poet says he is not worthy of fulfilling it because he has not lived so exemplary a life as his poems seem to suggest.
.......At sunset, Ernest and the poet walk to an open place where Ernest regularly addresses valley people. When his listeners are all assembled, he begins to speak.
.......“It was not mere breath that this preacher uttered; they were the words of life, because a life of good deeds and holy love was melted into them," says the narrator.
.......The poet, as he listened, felt that the being and character of Ernest were a nobler strain of poetry than he had ever written.”
.......Ernest's talk deeply moves the poet. Then the poet notices that the mists around the Great Stone Face resemble the white hairs around Ernest's head. Moreover, he notices that the benevolent look on Ernest's face resembles the benevolence of the expression on the Great Stone Face. At that moment, he rises and says, “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!"
    The other listeners say that the prophecy has at long last been fulfilled. While walking home with the poet, Ernest hopes that “some wiser and better man than himself would by and by appear, bearing a resemblance to the GREAT STONE FACE.”



Becoming Godly

.......The Great Stone Face appears to symbolize divine benevolence overlooking creation. Those who recognize God's impress in nature and live a godly life will themselves take on an aspect of the divine. Ernest recognizes evidence of the divine around him and lives an exemplary life that allows God's light and love to shine through him.

Exalting the Humble

.......“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up,” the Bible says (James 4: 9-11). Ernest does precisely that, living a humble life and never being so bold as to think that he will become worthy enough to bear the likeness of the Great Stone Face. Yet in the end he learns that it is he who fulfills the prophecy. But even then, the narrator says, he still hopes that “some wiser and better man than himself would by and by appear, bearing a resemblance to the GREAT STONE FACE.

The Ordinary as Extraordinary

.......Society extolls famous actors and athletes, rock stars, notable scientists and philosophers, wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs, and so on. Seldom, however, does the ordinary citizen of a country receive public acclaim. But these ordinary citizens often do extraordinary things, such as adopting handicapped children, rescuing trapped earthquake victims, operating soup kitchens for the needy, serving on the front lines in a war, spearheading fund drives for medical research, risking their lives as policemen and firemen, and—like Ernest—living an upstanding life while imparting wisdom to others.



.......The climax occurs when Ernest addresses his fellow valley residents and the poet recognizes that his face resembles the Great Stone Face.


Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write an essay centering on the mountain formation that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write "The Great Stone Face." The formation was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and was known to some as The Old Man of the Mountain and to others as The Profile. It collapsed in 2003. When Hawthorne visited the White Mountains in 1840 and saw the formation, he wrote the following outline for a story in his notes: "The semblance of a human face to be formed on the side
    of a mountain, or in the fracture of a small stone, by a lusus naturae [freak of nature]. The face is an object of curiosity for years or centuries, and by and by a boy is born whose features gradually assume the aspect of that portrait. At some critical juncture the resemblance is found to be perfect. A prophecy may be connected."
  • At what point in the story did you begin suspect that Ernest would fulfill the prophecy? Explain your answer.
  • Does Hawthorne's story resemble in any way a morality play? Explain your answer.
  • Why did Hawthorne name his main character Ernest? Explain your answer.
  • English writer Thomas Gray wrote a famous poem about the lives of humble people. It is entitled "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The poem focuses on people buried in a cemetery who could have risen to greatness but never got the chance. Read this poem and reread "The Great Stone Face." Then write an essay that uses these literary works to point out that ordinary, unheralded people can sometimes be extraordinary.