The Hall of
Fantasy by Nathaniel Hawthorne
It has happened to me, on various occasions, to find myself in a
certain edifice, which would appear to have some of the characteristics
of a public Exchange. Its interior is a spacious hall, with a pavement
of white marble. Overhead is a lofty dome, supported by long rows of
pillars, of fantastic architecture, the idea of which was probably
taken from the Moorish ruins of the Alhambra, or perhaps from some
enchanted edifice in the Arabian Tales. The windows of this hall have a
breadth and grandeur of design, and an elaborateness of workmanship,
that have nowhere been equalled, except in the Gothic cathedrals of the
old world. Like their prototypes, too, they admit the light of heaven
only through stained and pictured glass, thus filling the hall with
many-colored radiance, and painting its marble floor with beautiful or
grotesque designs; so that its inmates breathe, as it were, a visionary
atmosphere, and tread upon the fantasies of poetic minds. These
peculiarities, combining a wilder mixture of styles than even an
American architect usually recognizes as allowable— Grecian, Gothic,
Oriental, and nondescript—cause the whole edifice to give the
impression of a dream, which might be dissipated and shattered to
fragments, by merely stamping the foot upon the pavement. Yet, with
such modifications and repairs as successive ages demand, the Hall of
Fantasy is likely to endure longer than the most substantial structure
that ever cumbered the earth.
It is not at all times that one can gain admittance into this
edifice; although most persons enter it at some period or other of
their lives—if not in their waking moments, then by the universal
passport of a dream. At my last visit, I wandered thither unawares,
while my mind was busy with an idle tale, and was startled by the
throng of people who seemed suddenly to rise up around me.
"Bless me! Where am I?" cried I, with but a dim recognition of the
"You are in a spot," said a friend, who chanced to be near at hand,
"which occupies, in the world of fancy, the same position which the
Bourse, the Rialto, and the Exchange, do in the commercial world. All
who have affairs in that mystic region, which lies above, below, or
beyond the Actual, may here meet, and talk over the business of their
"It is a noble hall," observed I.
"Yes," he replied. "Yet we see but a small portion of the edifice.
In its upper stories are said to be apartments, where the inhabitants
of earth may hold converse with those of the moon. And beneath our feet
are gloomy cells, which communicate with the infernal regions, and
where monsters and chimeras are kept in confinement, and fed with all
In niches and on pedestals, around about the hall, stood the statues
or busts of men, who, in every age, have been rulers and demi-gods in
the realms of imagination, and its kindred regions. The grand old
countenance of Homer; the shrunken and decrepit form, but vivid face of
Æsop; the dark presence of Dante; the wild Ariosto; Rabelais's smile of
deep-wrought mirth; the profound, pathetic humor of Cervantes; the
all-glorious Shakspeare; Spenser, meet guest for an allegoric
structure; the severe divinity of Milton; and Bunyan, moulded of
homeliest clay, but instinct with celestial fire—were those that
chiefly attracted my eye. Fielding, Richardson, and Scott, occupied
conspicuous pedestals. In an obscure and shadowy niche was deposited
the bust of our countryman, the author of Arthur Mervyn.
"Besides these indestructible memorials of real genius," remarked my
companion, "each century has erected statues of its own ephemeral
favorites, in wood."
"I observe a few crumbling relics of such," said I. "But ever and
anon, I suppose, Oblivion comes with her huge broom, and sweeps them
all from the marble floor. But such will never be the fate of this fine
statue of Goethe."
"Nor of that next to it—Emanuel Swedenborg," said he. "Were ever
two men of transcendent imagination more unlike?"
In the centre of the hall springs an ornamental fountain, the water
of which continually throws itself into new shapes, and snatches the
most diversified hues from the stained atmosphere around. It is
impossible to conceive what a strange vivacity is imparted to the scene
by the magic dance of this fountain, with its endless transformations,
in which the imaginative beholder may discern what form he will. The
water is supposed by some to flow from the same source as the Castalian
spring, and is extolled by others as uniting the virtues of the
Fountain of Youth with those of many other enchanted wells, long
celebrated in tale and song. Having never tasted it, I can bear no
testimony to its quality.
"Did you ever drink this water?" I inquired of my friend.
"A few sips, now and then," answered he. "But there are men here who
make it their constant beverage—or, at least, have the credit of
doing so. In some instances, it is known to have intoxicating
"Pray let us look at these water-drinkers," said I.
So we passed among the fantastic pillars, till we came to a spot
where a number of persons were clustered together, in the light of one
of the great stained windows, which seemed to glorify the whole group,
as well as the marble that they trod on. Most of them were men of
broad foreheads, meditative countenances, and thoughtful, inward eyes;
yet it required but a trifle to summon up mirth, peeping out from the
very midst of grave and lofty musings. Some strode about, or leaned
against the pillars of the hall, alone and in silence; their faces wore
a rapt expression, as if sweet music were in the air around them, or as
if their inmost souls were about to float away in song. One or two,
perhaps, stole a glance at the bystanders, to watch if their poetic
absorption were observed. Others stood talking in groups, with a
liveliness of expression, a ready smile, and a light, intellectual
laughter, which showed how rapidly the shafts of wit were glancing
to-and-fro among them.
A few held higher converse, which caused their calm and melancholy
souls to beam moonlight from their eyes. As I lingered near them—for
I felt an inward attraction towards these men, as if the sympathy of
feeling, if not of genius, had united me to their order—my friend
mentioned several of their names. The world has likewise heard those
names; with some it has been familiar for years; and others are daily
making their way deeper into the universal heart.
"Thank heaven," observed I to my companion, as we passed to another
part of the hall, "we have done with this tetchy, wayward, shy, proud,
unreasonable set of laurel-gatherers. I love them in their works, but
have little desire to meet them elsewhere."
"You have adopted an old prejudice, I see," replied my friend, who
was familiar with most of these worthies, being himself a student of
poetry, and not without the poetic flame. "But so far as my experience
goes, men of genius are fairly gifted with the social qualities; and in
this age, there appears to be a fellow-feeling among them, which had
not heretofore been developed. As men, they ask nothing better than to
be on equal terms with their fellow-men; and as authors, they have
thrown aside their proverbial jealousy, and acknowledge a generous
"The world does not think so," answered I. "An author is received in
general society pretty much as we honest citizens are in the Hall of
Fantasy. We gaze at him as if he had no business among us, and question
whether he is fit for any of our pursuits."
"Then it is a very foolish question," said he. "Now, here are a
class of men, whom we may daily meet on 'Change. Yet what poet in the
hall is more a fool of fancy than the sagest of them?"
He pointed to a number of persons, who, manifest as the fact was,
would have deemed it an insult to be told that they stood in the Hall
of Fantasy. Their visages were traced into wrinkles and furrows, each
of which seemed the record of some actual experience in life. Their
eyes had the shrewd, calculating glance, which detects so quickly and
so surely all that it concerns a man of business to know, about the
characters and purposes of his fellow-men. Judging them as they stood,
they might be honored and trusted members of the Chamber of Commerce,
who had found the genuine secret of wealth, and whose sagacity gave
them the command of fortune. There was a character of detail and
matter-of-fact in their talk, which concealed the extravagance of its
purport, insomuch that the wildest schemes had the aspect of every-day
realities. Thus the listener was not startled at the idea of cities to
be built, as if by magic, in the heart of pathless forests; and of
streets to be laid out, where now the sea was tossing; and of mighty
rivers to be stayed in their courses, in order to turn the machinery of
a cotton-mill. It was only by an effort— and scarcely then—that the
mind convinced itself that such speculations were as much matter of
fantasy as the old dream of Eldorado, or as Mammon's Cave, or any other
vision of gold, ever conjured up by the imagination of needy poet or
"Upon my word," said I, "it is dangerous to listen to such dreamers
as these! Their madness is contagious."
"Yes," said my friend, "because they mistake the Hall of Fantasy for
actual brick and mortar, and its purple atmosphere for unsophisticated
sunshine. But the poet knows his whereabout, and therefore is less
likely to make a fool of himself in real life."
"Here again," observed I, as we advanced a little further, "we see
another order of dreamers—peculiarly characteristic, too, of the
genius of our country."
These were the inventors of fantastic machines. Models of their
contrivances were placed against some of the pillars of the hall, and
afforded good emblems of the result generally to be anticipated from an
attempt to reduce day-dreams to practice. The analogy may hold in
morals, as well as physics. For instance, here was the model of a
railroad through the air, and a tunnel under the sea. Here was a
machine—stolen, I believe—for the distillation of heat from
moonshine; and another for the condensation of morning-mist into square
blocks of granite, wherewith it was proposed to rebuild the entire Hall
of Fantasy. One man exhibited a sort of lens, whereby he had succeeded
in making sunshine out of a lady's smile; and it was his purpose wholly
to irradiate the earth by means of this wonderful invention.
"It is nothing new," said I, "for most of our sunshine comes from
woman's smile already."
"True," answered the inventor; "but my machine will secure a
constant supply for domestic use—whereas, hitherto, it has been very
Another person had a scheme for fixing the reflections of objects in
a pool of water, and thus taking the most life-like portraits
imaginable; and the same gentleman demonstrated the practicability of
giving a permanent dye to ladies' dresses, in the gorgeous clouds of
sunset. There were at least fifty kinds of perpetual motion, one of
which was applicable to the wits of newspaper editors and writers of
every description. Professor Espy was here, with a tremendous storm in
a gum-elastic bag. I could enumerate many more of these Utopian
inventions; but, after all, a more imaginative collection is to be
found in the Patent Office at Washington.
Turning from the inventors, we took a more general survey of the
inmates of the hall. Many persons were present, whose right of entrance
appeared to consist in some crotchet of the brain, which, so long as it
might operate, produced a change in their relation to the actual world.
It is singular how very few there are, who do not occasionally gain
admittance on such a score, either in abstracted musings, or momentary
thoughts, or bright anticipations, or vivid remembrances; for even the
actual becomes ideal, whether in hope or memory, and beguiles the
dreamer into the Hall of Fantasy. Some unfortunates make their whole
abode and business here, and contract habits which unfit them for all
the real employments of life. Others—but these are few—possess the
faculty, in their occasional visits, of discovering a purer truth than
the world can impart, among the lights and shadows of these pictured
And with all its dangerous influences, we have reason to thank God,
that there is such a place of refuge from the gloom and chillness of
actual life. Hither may come the prisoner, escaping from his dark and
narrow cell, and cankerous chain, to breathe free air in this enchanted
atmosphere. The sick man leaves his weary pillow, and finds strength to
wander hither, though his wasted limbs might not support him even to
the threshold of his chamber. The exile passes through the Hall of
Fantasy, to revisit his native soil. The burthen of years rolls down
from the old man's shoulders, the moment that the door uncloses.
Mourners leave their heavy sorrows at the entrance, and here rejoin
the lost ones, whose faces would else be seen no more, until thought
shall have become the only fact. It may be said, in truth, that there
is but half a life—the meaner and earthlier half—for those who
never find their way into the hall. Nor must I fail to mention, that,
in the observatory of the edifice, is kept that wonderful perspective
glass, through which the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains showed
Christian the far-off gleam of the Celestial City. The eye of Faith
still loves to gaze through it.
"I observe some men here," said I to my friend, "who might set up a
strong claim to be reckoned among the most real personages of the day."
"Certainly," he replied. "If a man be in advance of his age, he must
be content to make his abode in this hall, until the lingering
generations of his fellow-men come up with him. He can find no other
shelter in the universe. But the fantasies of one day are the deepest
realities of a future one."
"It is difficult to distinguish them apart, amid the gorgeous and
bewildering light of this hall," rejoined I. "The white sunshine of
actual life is necessary in order to test them. I am rather apt to
doubt both men and their reasonings, till I meet them in that truthful
"Perhaps your faith in the ideal is deeper than you are aware," said
my friend. "You are at least a Democrat; and methinks no scanty share
of such faith is essential to the adoption of that creed."
Among the characters who had elicited these remarks, were most of
the noted reformers of the day, whether in physics, politics, morals,
or religion. There is no surer method of arriving at the Hall of
Fantasy, than to throw oneself into the current of a theory; for,
whatever landmarks of fact may be set up along the stream, there is a
law of nature that impels it thither. And let it be so; for here the
wise head and capacious heart may do their work; and what is good and
true becomes gradually hardened into fact, while error melts away and
vanishes among the shadows of the hall. Therefore may none, who believe
and rejoice in the progress of mankind, be angry with me because I
recognized their apostles and leaders, amid the fantastic radiance of
those pictured windows. I love and honor such men, as well as they.
It would be endless to describe the herd of real or self-styled
reformers, that peopled this place of refuge. They were the
representatives of an unquiet period, when mankind is seeking to cast
off the whole tissue of ancient custom, like a tattered garment. Many
of them had got possession of some crystal fragment of truth, the
brightness of which so dazzled them, that they could see nothing else
in the wide universe. Here were men, whose faith had embodied itself in
the form of a potatoe; and others whose long beards had a deep
spiritual significance. Here was the abolitionist, brandishing his one
idea like an iron flail. In a word, there were a thousand shapes of
good and evil, faith and infidelity, wisdom and nonsense,—a most
Yet, withal, the heart of the stanchest conservative, unless he
abjured his fellowship with man, could hardly have helped throbbing in
sympathy with the spirit that pervaded these innumerable theorists. It
was good for the man of unquickened heart to listen even to their
folly. Far down, beyond the fathom of the intellect, the soul
acknowledged that all these varying and conflicting developments of
humanity were united in one sentiment. Be the individual theory as wild
as fancy could make it, still the wiser spirit would recognize the
struggle of the race after a better and purer life than had yet been
realized on earth. My faith revived, even while I rejected all their
schemes. It could not be that the world should continue for ever what
it has been; a soil where Happiness is so rare a flower, and Virtue so
often a blighted fruit; a battle-field where the good principle, with
its shield flung above its head, can hardly save itself amid the rush
of adverse influences. In the enthusiasm of such thoughts, I gazed
through one of the pictured windows; and, behold! the whole external
world was tinged with the dimly glorious aspect that is peculiar to the
Hall of Fantasy; insomuch that it seemed practicable, at that very
instant, to realize some plan for the perfection of mankind. But, alas!
if reformers would understand the sphere in which their lot is cast,
they must cease to look through pictured windows. Yet they not only use
this medium, but mistake it for the whitest sunshine.
"Come," said I to my friend, starting from a deep reverie,— "let
us hasten hence, or I shall be tempted to make a theory— after which,
there is little hope of any man."
"Come hither, then," answered he. "Here is one theory, that swallows
up and annihilates all others."
He led me to a distant part of the hall, where a crowd of deeply
attentive auditors were assembled round an elderly man, of plain,
honest, trustworthy aspect. With an earnestness that betokened the
sincerest faith in his own doctrine, he announced that the destruction
of the world was close at hand.
"It is Father Miller himself!" exclaimed I.
"No less a man," said my friend: "and observe how picturesque a
contrast between his dogma, and those of the reformers whom we have
just glanced at. They look for the earthly perfection of mankind, and
are forming schemes which imply that the immortal spirit will be
connected with a physical nature, for innumerable ages of futurity. On
the other hand, here comes good Father Miller, and, with one puff of
his relentless theory, scatters all their dreams like so many withered
leaves upon the blast."
"It is, perhaps, the only method of getting mankind out of the
various perplexities into which they have fallen," I replied. "Yet I
could wish that the world might be permitted to endure, until some
great moral shall have been evolved. A riddle is propounded. Where is
the solution? The sphinx did not slay herself until her riddle had been
guessed. Will it not be so with the world? Now, if it should be burnt
to-morrow morning, I am at a loss to know what purpose will have been
accomplished, or how the universe will be wiser or better for our
existence and destruction."
"We cannot tell what mighty truths may have been embodied in act,
through the existence of the globe and its inhabitants," rejoined my
companion. "Perhaps it may be revealed to us, after the fall of the
curtain over our catastrophe; or not impossibly, the whole drama, in
which we are involuntary actors, may have been performed for the
instruction of another set of spectators. I cannot perceive that our
own comprehension of it is at all essential to the matter. At any rate,
while our view is so ridiculously narrow and superficial, it would be
absurd to argue the continuance of the world from the fact that it
seems to have existed hitherto in vain."
"The poor old Earth," murmured I. "She has faults enough, in all
conscience; but I cannot bear to have her perish."
"It is no great matter," said my friend. "The happiest of us has
been weary of her, many a time and oft."
"I doubt it," answered I, pertinaciously; "the root of human nature
strikes down deep into this earthly soil; and it is but reluctantly
that we submit to be transplanted, even for a higher cultivation in
Heaven. I query whether the destruction of the earth would gratify any
one individual; except, perhaps, some embarrassed man of business,
whose notes fall due a day after the day of doom."
Then, methought, I heard the expostulating cry of a multitude
against the consummation prophesied by Father Miller. The lover
wrestled with Providence for his foreshadowed bliss. Parents entreated
that the earth's span of endurance might be prolonged by some seventy
years, so that their new-born infant should not be defrauded of his
life-time. A youthful poet murmured, because there would be no
posterity to recognize the inspiration of his song. The reformers, one
and all, demanded a few thousand years, to test their theories, after
which the universe might go to wreck. A mechanician, who was busied
with an improvement of the steam-engine, asked merely time to perfect
his model. A miser insisted that the world's destruction would be a
personal wrong to himself, unless he should first be permitted to add a
specified sum to his enormous heap of gold. A little boy made dolorous
inquiry whether the last day would come before Christmas, and thus
deprive him of his anticipated dainties. In short, nobody seemed
satisfied that this mortal scene of things should have its close just
now. Yet, it must be confessed, the motives of the crowd for desiring
its continuance were mostly so absurd, that, unless Infinite Wisdom had
been aware of much better reasons, the solid Earth must have melted
away at once.
For my own part, not to speak of a few private and personal ends, I
really desired our old Mother's prolonged existence, for her own dear
"The poor old Earth!" I repeated. "What I should chiefly regret in
her destruction would be that very earthliness, which no other sphere
or state of existence can renew or compensate. The fragrance of
flowers, and of new-mown hay; the genial warmth of sunshine, and the
beauty of a sunset among clouds; the comfort and cheerful glow of the
fireside; the deliciousness of fruits, and of all good cheer; the
magnificence of mountains, and seas, and cataracts, and the softer
charm of rural scenery; even the fast-falling snow, and the grey
atmosphere through which it descends—all these, and innumerable other
enjoyable things of earth, must perish with her. Then the country
frolics; the homely humor; the broad, open-mouthed roar of laughter, in
which body and soul conjoin so heartily! I fear that no other world can
show us anything just like this. As for purely moral enjoyments, the
good will find them in every state of being. But where the material and
the moral exist together, what is to happen then? And then our mute
four-footed friends, and the winged songsters of our woods! Might it
not be lawful to regret them, even in the hallowed groves of Paradise?"
"You speak like the very spirit of earth, imbued with a scent of
freshly-turned soil!" exclaimed my friend.
"It is not that I so much object to giving up these enjoyments, on
my own account," continued I; "but I hate to think that they will have
been eternally annihilated from the list of joys."
"Nor need they be," he replied. "I see no real force in what you
say. Standing in this Hall of Fantasy, we perceive what even the
earth-clogged intellect of man can do, in creating circumstances which,
though we call them shadowy and visionary, are scarcely more so than
those that surround us in actual life. Doubt not, then, that man's
disembodied spirit may recreate Time and the World for itself, with all
their peculiar enjoyments, should there still be human yearnings amid
life eternal and infinite. But I doubt whether we shall be inclined to
play such a poor scene over again."
"Oh, you are ungrateful to our Mother Earth!" rejoined I. "Come what
may, I never will forget her! Neither will it satisfy me to have her
exist merely in idea. I want her great, round, solid self to endure
interminably, and still to be peopled with the kindly race of man, whom
I uphold to be much better than he thinks himself. Nevertheless, I
confide the whole matter to Providence, and shall endeavor so to live,
that the world may come to an end at any moment, without leaving me at
a loss to find foothold somewhere else."
"It is an excellent resolve," said my companion, looking at his
watch. "But come: it is the dinner hour. Will you partake of my
A thing so matter-of-fact as an invitation to dinner, even when the
fare was to be nothing more substantial than vegetables and fruit,
compelled us forthwith to remove from the Hall of Fantasy. As we passed
out of the portal, we met the spirits of several persons, who had been
sent thither in magnetic sleep. I looked back among the sculptured
pillars, and at the transformations of the gleaming fountain, and
almost desired that the whole of life might be spent in that visionary
scene, where the actual world, with its hard angles, should never rub
against me, and only be viewed through the medium of pictured windows.
But, for those who waste all their days in the Hall of Fantasy, good
Father Miller's prophecy is already accomplished, and the solid earth
has come to an untimely end. Let us be content, therefore, with merely
an occasional visit, for the sake of spiritualizing the grossness of
this actual life, and prefiguring to ourselves a state, in which the
Idea shall be all in all.