Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012Type
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
.......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
Ernest: 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
Poet: Great writer who is a native of the valley.
Point of View
narrator presents the story in omniscient third-person
point of view.
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
.......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
.......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
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
.......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
.......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
.......“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.”
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
Exalting the 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
The Ordinary as Extraordinary
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
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
- 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
- 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.
did Hawthorne name his main character
Ernest? Explain your answer.
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.