Hawthorne’s works demonstrate a striking awareness of both the current social, economic, and political environment in which he was writing, but also a keen understanding and appreciation for historical events. Many of the names in his stories, for example, can be traced back to historical figures, adding additional dimensions of meaning and potential analysis that bring the reader beyond the plot.
For example, Hawthorne’s account of the witch trial in “Young Goodman Brown” was not drawn from pure fictional imagination. A number of the characters were named after actual people charged with witchcraft in Salem, and the story takes place in the pasture that was said to be the witches’ gathering place. John Hathorne, one Hawthorne's paternal ancestors, was a famous “witch judge” who did not later repent his actions during the hysteria. Hawthorne later added a “w” to his name, and some have suggested that Hawthorne felt the weight of his ancestor’s role in the wrongful persecution of so many.
Several of the other tales in this collection were inspired by true events, places, or people: "My Kinsman, Major Molineux", which begins with a brief review of governors dispatched by colonists before the American Revolution, centers around the nephew of a fictionalized version of an usurped governor; "Roger Malvin's Burial" references an actual battle between settlers and Native Americans that acts as a jumping off point for a tale of a haunted soldiers; "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" makes use of the names of actual people for characters that loosely fit their counterparts' professional lives; "The Minister's Black Veil" may have been inspired by an actual minister who wore a veil in his parish after accidentally causing a friend's death; "Wakefield" expands upon a story Hawthorne read in a newspaper; and "The Maypole of Merry Mount" is an exaggerated tale of an actual settlement in Massachusetts.
Hawthorne was also wrote about issues that were socially relevant in his day. His views on families and women also stand out in his stories. Hawthorne generally portrays women with a sympathetic attitude, exploring the subjugation of women during a time of social change and presenting them often as victims at the hands of men. In most of his tales, families are dysfunctional, with individuality triumphing over the whole. Even in cases where the family unit stays close together ("The Birthmark", "Roger Malvin’s Burial"), the balance of power is not equally split among its members. For example, in "The Birthmark", Aylmer clearly takes the lead; in "Roger Malvin’s Burial", Dorcas is forced to blindly follow her husband Reuben, unable to change her situation. When family units break apart ("My Kinsman, Major Molineux", "Wakefield") there seems to be a deep and lasting divide drawn between the characters. For example, at the dawn of the American Revolution, Robin in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux", dissociates himself from his relative whose British attachments lead to violent usurping. Robin ends up seeking a new life without the influence of his older kinsman. In his works, Hawthorne finds isolation, not connection, to be the basis of American life.