Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "David Swan" is typical of his other work, both in the long and short form. Hawthorne cloaks his philosophical musings within a narrative tale. Unlike other authors who might hide this technique, Hawthorne invites the reader into his musing. In his opening paragraph he lets the reader know his intent by writing, "Could we know all the vicissitudes of our fortunes, life would be too full of hope and fear, exultation or disappointment, to afford us a single hour of true serenity. This idea may be illustrated by a page from the secret history of David Swan."
In this piece the main character, David Swan, represents the everyman - ignorant of his life's purpose and its influences. Hawthorne sets the stage by providing the reader with information about the main character. He is a young man embarking on a journey that will most likely shape the rest of his life. He has finished school and is in search of employment. Hawthorne places David Swan in a slightly secluded and scenic area off the side of a roadway. This quiet area, near a pond, is a tranquil place for David Swan to fall asleep. This environment simulates the blindness everyone has to their own existence and further exhibits what Hawthorne described in his opening paragraph when he stated, "There are innumerable other events-if such they may be called-which come close upon us, yet pass away without actual results, or even betraying their near approach, by the reflection of any light or shadow across our minds."
Hawthorne uses setting as an allegory to the real world his readers inhabit. The quiet pool parallels hearth, home and a reader's own self image. Surrounding this semi-private glen is a road full of travelers. The roadway and the travelers represent life's journey and the people who enter and exit our lives. With this simple set-up Hawthorne manages to allegorize his themes of "the events which actually influence our course through life, and our final destiny."
The story centers on the three parties that pass by David Swan as he sleeps. The first group could have bequeathed riches upon the young man but just at the moment when they might have conferred an inheritance they were called back to the road. The second party was a young woman who, had David Swan awakened, would have loved him. She would have also indirectly given him wealth and stability through her father's employment. The last group had malicious intent and would have robbed the young man had they not been distracted by sounds and movement in other areas of the wood. Each of these instances relates examples of what could have been had the young man been conscious and responsive.
The events taking place in the center of the story continue the allegory of missed opportunities and blindness to fortune, as well as misfortune. The story ends with David Swan awakening, unaware of the people who passed by and events that occurred during his rest. Blissfully ignorant, he boards a coach and continues with his journey. Hawthorne then allows the reader and narrator to wonder if it is better to know all of one's life's influences and possibilities or would this knowledge be too much for an individual to comprehend.
Hawthorne uses a fictional narrative to illustrate philosophical musings for which there is no discernible answer. His allegorical techniques are similar to those found in biblical narratives, narratives that greatly influenced the 18th century author.