“The Wedding Knell”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing’s weird fiction group the Deep Ones.

Review: “The Wedding Knell”, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1836.

As you would expect from Hawthorne, this is a moralistic tale. 

Ultimately, it’s not really a weird tale, but it does have a striking weird image. 

The plot involves a wedding between the elderly and never married Mr. Ellenwood and a woman, Mrs. Dabney. 

The story begins rather whimsically (and there is humor throughout) with the account provided to the narrator by his grandmother who saw the events in person. However, as he cheerfully admits, he never bothered to research the New York City church in question to see if it could have happened. 

Sixty-five-year old Ellenwood is described as eccentric, and indolent – mostly because he never has found a purpose to engage him. He leads an ”aimless and abortive life”. 

Hawthorne foreshadows the end of the story when he says the wedding could be said to be the result of an earlier engagement after 40 years. Dabney has already been married twice. 

She cancelled her first engagement and married a man twice her age. He died and left her with a small fortune. Then a man younger than her, from Charleston, married her. It was an unhappy marriage, and he was a cruel man. Her first marriage is described as having been cold, and the second marriage was a “dislocation of her heart’s principles”. 

Hawthorne describes her as

that wisest, but unloveliest, variety of woman, a philosopher, bearing troubles of the heart with equanimity, dispensing with all that should have been her happiness, and making the best of what remained. 

She is a vain woman. Childless, her concern with youth is unchanneled into any children of her own. 

The pending marriage seems to have been her idea and makes her look foolish to many. 

An odd thing happens when Dabney enters the church: a bell tolls like a funeral chime – and it continues to sound as she walks to the altar. Many note the odd and disturbing omen. The bridesmaids are disturbed, but Dabney, who is, after all, speaking from experience, says

“so many weddings have been ushered in with the merriest peal of the bells, and yet turned out unhappily, that I shall hope for better fortune under different auspices.”

The minister, alluding to one Bishop Taylor, says that many countries put a bit of sadness in wedding ceremonies so that death is kept in mind while “contracting that engagement which is life’s chiefest business.” 

The bell still sounds, and Dabney admits she has a “foolish fancy” about her bridegroom showing up with her first two husbands as groomsmen. 

And, in the story’s memorable bit of weirdness, that’s what seems to happen. 

A group of people enter the church dressed as mourners. Dabney recognizes them as friends of her youth whom she passed many a pleasant night with. Now they are wrinkled and infirm. 

And the corpse they seem to be carrying, shrouded, is her future husband. 

He tells her “Come, my bride! . . . The hearse is ready.” 

The clergyman tells Ellenwood he’s obviously not well and to go home. 

‘Home! yes, but not without my bride’, answered he, in the same hollow accents. ‘You deem this mockery; perhaps madness. Had I bedizened my aged and broken frame with scarlet and embroidery–had I forced my withered lips to smile at my dead heart–that might have been mockery, or madness. But now, let young and old declare, which of us has come hither without a wedding garment, the bridegroom or the bride!’ 

And now the couple’s back story comes into focus. They were lovers when young, but Dabney broke Ellenwood’s heart when she broke off their engagement. The 40 years of his life after that were ‘pervading gloom”. 

Then Dabney called him to the altar while other husbands enjoyed her youth, her beauty, her ‘warmth of heart”. The funeral setting is fitting considering she now, when they are near the sepulchre, asks to marry him. 

Dabney has a sincere realization of herself. She admits her life is “gone in vanity and emptiness”. But she truly loves Ellenwood. She wants to wed for Eternity. 

Ellenwood apologize and says,

Yes; it is evening with us now; and we have realized none of our morning dreams of happiness. But let us join our hands before the altar as lovers whom adverse circumstances have separated through life, yet who meet again as they are leaving it, and find their earthly affection changed into something holy as religion. 

The couple leave the church “cold hand in cold hand”.

I rather liked this moralistic tale with some humor and striking and weird imagery.

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