Study Guide

Song of Hiawatha Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    There's probably nothing in The Song of Hiawatha you'll notice as much as Longfellow's enthusiasm about nature. Back in 1855, Longfellow was in a good position to see the way that modern technology and big cities would drive a wedge between people and their natural world. That's why he used his poetry to look back to an earlier time before Europeans arrived in North America—a time when people apparently had a much more intimate connection with the natural world around them. The problem here is that Longfellow often falls into the trap of projecting all his personal baggage onto Native Americans who aren't around to talk back to him. Longfellow longs for a simpler existence, but the truth is that he has no clue how simple or complicated things were (or are) in Native American culture. And that's what you call empty nostalgia.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Do you sympathize with Longfellow's way of treating Native Americans as more authentic than white people in their connection to nature? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Longfellow spends so much time obsessing over nature in this poem?
    3. How does Hiawatha use the natural world to his advantage? Can you think of any specific scenes where he does this?

    Chew on This

    In The Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow makes Native Americans seem more natural than white people by portraying them as simple and primitive.

    In The Song of Hiawatha, we learn that anyone can connect with nature—if they just learn to listen.

  • Gender

    As a dude writing in 1855, Longfellow was pretty much destined to show many of the gender prejudices that existed during his time (and still persist today). But instead of challenging these prejudices, Longfellow reinforced them by making them seem like a natural part of human existence. He did this by highlighting them in the relations of Native Americans. The general idea was that Native Americans lived a natural way of life, which thus made their gender roles seem natural too. At the end of the day though, in The Song of Hiawatha human beings decide who works in the home and who goes out to hunt, not nature.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Do you think that The Song of Hiawatha is a sexist poem? Why or why not?
    2. Are Nokomis or Minnehaha strong female characters? Why or why not?
    3. Why do the male characters in this poem insult one another by comparing one another to women? What do they think is so bad about being a woman?

    Chew on This

    In The Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow does pretty well to present us with strong and interesting female characters, especially for someone writing in 1855.

    Nice try, but the fact that Longfellow wrote in 1855 doesn't excuse the sexism that we can find in his writing.

  • Violence

    It's safe to say that The Song of Hiawatha is a violent poem. It seems like every few pages we hear about a skull being caved in or a corpse getting picked at by seagulls. For Longfellow, this kind of violence is connected to the cycles of the natural world. Predators kill their prey, of course. But human beings also get into conflicts with one another that they try to settle with violence. It's true that Gitche Manito appears at the beginning of this book to bring peace to the many tribes of North America. But some folks must not have gotten the memo, because there's still a ton of murdering and revenge that goes on.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Are there any conflicts in this book that would have been better settled without the use of violence? Which ones and why?
    2. Do you agree with the idea that there's something deep in our primitive souls that makes us violent with other humans? Why or why not?
    3. Does Gitche Manito's call for peace at the beginning of the poem actually achieve anything? Why or why not?
    4. How many times does Hiawatha "kill" Pau-Puk-Keewis? How does he eventually succeed?

    Chew on This

    The Song of Hiawatha shows us that, sometimes, violence is the only answer.

    The Song of Hiawatha shows us that violence can only solve short-term problems, while making long-term problems worse.

  • Family

    With a dead mother and an absent father, Hiawatha has a challenging family life to say the least. Let's not forget that he actually tries to kill his father after finding out that the guy is responsible for his mother's death. Yet, in The Song of Hiawatha Longfellow treats family as an important part of life. Ideally, a person can treat everyone in their neighborhood as family. But Longfellow also knows that this might be asking too much of most people. At the end of the day, the men in this poem tend to treat family as a parent-child relationship where the parent thinks of the child as a possession that they can be proud of. That's the case both for young men like Hiawatha and young women like Minnehaha.

    Questions About Family

    1. What's the overall impression (good or bad) that this poem gives of the concept of family? What evidence can you use to support your answer?
    2. How would you describe Hiawatha's relationship to his father? How does their battle end and why?
    3. Who is the best family role model in Hiawatha's life? Why?
    4. Who warns Wenonah against listening to Mudjekeewis' seductions? Why doesn't Wenonah listen and what happens as a result?

    Chew on This

    The Song of Hiawatha shows us that it's more natural for us to fight with our families than to get along with them. (Feeling better now?)

    The Song of Hiawatha reminds us that there's no stronger connection than blood. (Feeling worse?)

  • Love

    In The Song of Hiawatha, Hiawatha would be a much less interesting character without the love story that Longfellow weaves into this poem. After all, who wants to read about a guy who's awesome at everything and who wins every battle he fights fairly easily? No one, that's who. Love is what makes Hiawatha mortal, especially when the people he loves start to die and there's nothing he can do about it. Love reminds us that, no matter how strong or awesome we are, we're never in total control because the people we love have minds and lives of their own.

    Questions About Love

    1. When does Hiawatha first notice Minnehaha and how does he interpret his feelings? What parts of the poem give you your answer?
    2. Who does Hiawatha love in his life apart from Minnehaha? Why?
    3. How does Hiawatha react when he loses his loved ones? What does he decide to do after losing Minnehaha?

    Chew on This

    In The Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow reminds us that love is the one thing that'll always keep us mortal.

    The Song of Hiawatha shows us that that, if we never love anyone, we'll never have to feel pain. (Um, yay?)