Puritanism is often reflected and examined in Hawthorne's works. After breaking with the Anglican Church in England, Puritans moved to New England and developed a strong presence. Hawthorne was raised in Salem, Massachusetts, and his grandfather was a judge in the infamous Salem witch trials. Thus, Puritanism was a very important part of his background, a part that he often questioned throughout his stories; many of Hawthorne's stories take place in Puritan settings.
Though he attended church, he was conflicted regarding the strict intolerance of the religion, which is exemplified through his portrayal of John Endicott in "The Maypole of Merry Mount." In the story, the Puritans and the real historical figure Endicott are described as a group that cruelly thrusts their own morals onto others.
Again, in "Young Goodman Brown", the most upright Puritans are shown associating with the devil, demonstrating the hypocrisy Hawthorne may have seen in his religion or religious neighbors. This also calls to mind Salem's dark historical association with witchcraft.
Good versus Evil in Man
Related to the theme of Puritanism is the idea of man's inherent good and evil nature. Though people may outwardly appear moral, they may bear inward sin. Likewise, those who appear sinful on the outside may have the most clear consciences.
For example, in "The Minister's Black Veil", the minister is perceived as harboring a great sin simply because he wears a veil over his face. However, the minister demonstrates only righteous behavior and suffers from great solitude as the townspeople reject him only because of his veil. The townspeople who are quick to judge and gossip about him reveal their inwardly evil nature.
Likewise, in "Young Goodman Brown" Brown sees the most distinguished and respected members of the religious community associating with the most immoral figures, including the devil himself. He is shocked to find the most outwardly pure (his own wife, Faith, and his catechism teacher) at such an evil gathering. When he returns to town the next day, he sees the same religious leaders and cannot bear to look at them the same way, for he has seen their hypocrisy and hidden sin. However, Brown himself treats his own wife with coldness and this judgment severs him from his fellow men. By failing to recognize that humanity is not just black and white, he cannot take part in humanity.
Moral conflict is again seen in "Roger Malvin's Burial". While Reuben begins the story as a good boy, he fails to uphold his promise to Roger, and lies to Dorcas out of shame. The guilt from this knowledge tortures him until he becomes a bitter and unhappy man.
Dreams and the Otherwordly
Many of Hawthorne's short stories blur the lines between the supernatural and reality, as the characters often experience dream-like events.
One example of this blurred distinction occurs in "Young Goodman Brown". It is unclear whether the witch gathering Goodman Brown witnesses in the forest is a dream or reality. The events in the story seem quite unimaginable, yet are recounted in great detail, and apparently change Goodman Brown in a very realistic way for the rest of his life. The quick shift from the gathering to Goodman Brown awakening in the forest, however, makes the event seem like a mere nightmare. Magical details, such as the devil's staff resembling a snake, or the appearance of Faith's ribbons, also appear dream-like. Regardless, whether Goodman Brown imagines his experience or in fact lives it, he is forever changed by the experience.
The supernatural also comes into play in "Ethan Brand". When Brand throws himself into the lime kiln, his remains are do not reflect what would be expected in reality. His heart is found, perfectly preserved, within his skeleton. Before his search for the Unpardonable Sin, he was rumored to commune with the devil. When he dies, Mount Graylock is bathed in a glorious sunshine, lending an air of redemption to his passing. Hints of the otherwordly pervade this tale.
Hawthorne employs mystical occurrences as symbols both in "Ethan Brand" and in "The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter"; each tale hinges on the ruin of a mortal following philosophical experimentation. Afflicted Georgiana and poisonous Beatrice are also somewhat otherworldly figures whose circumstances couldn't possibly arise in the real world. Hawthorne uses doomed or cursed individuals to exaggerate moral conflicts; Brand's stone heart is a warning against alienation, Georgiana's stain illuminates her husband's hubris and Beatrice's death indicts her father's meddling in nature.
Pursuit of Scientific Inquiry
Many of Hawthorne's stories show a fascination with, yet also fear of, science. It is unclear whether he deems scientific inquiry to be without honor, but certainly demonstrates a mistrust of it in relation to humanity. For example, in "Rappaccini's Daughter", Rappaccini is shown as a man so embedded in intellectual pursuits that he creates a monster out of his own daughter, Beatrice. Though it may be argued that he made her dangerous to protect her, therefore perhaps using science for the sake of humanity, the audience is left to decide which has been the greater driving force behind his actions. At the same time, Professor Baglioni professes to value humanity over scientific inquiry, yet ultimately delivers the potion that kills Beatrice. Here, the audience is again left to decipher whether scientific inquiry trumps humanity, or whether both have their inherent evils.
Another story where scientific inquiry comes into conflict with humanity is "The Birthmark", where Aylmer's lofty intellectual aims instill him with an incurable desire to rid his wife of a birthmark on her cheek. His wife, Georgiana, comes to appreciate his love for science, and submits her life to him, knowing full well that he will fail. Her ultimate demise at the hands of her husband's science casts a shadow over the human quest for heavenly achievement.
Ethan Brand's search for the Unpardonable Sin may be more philosophical in nature, but the result of his intellectual pursuits are similar to those of Rappaccini and Aylmer. In the end, he is cut off from his own humanity and gives the mind prominence over his own heart. Through each man's tragedy, Hawthorne cautions his readers to strive for balance between thought and love and a respect for nature.
Some of the most telling aspects of Hawthorne's stories exist not in the interactions between characters, but in the minds of individual characters and the internal struggle within themselves. The concept of shrinking away or creating a divide between oneself and the rest of the world occurs time and again in his short stories.
For example, in "Wakefield", the main character removes himself from his daily responsibilities, choosing to live a strange life in between life and death. He alienates himself from his family and friends, but chooses to move only a block away, continuing to observe his wife without interacting with her.
Another example of self-alienation is presented in "The Minister's Black Veil", where the minister Mr. Hooper wears a mysterious black veil that causes the townspeople to ostracize him. While the veil does not physically separate Hooper from the rest of the town, their entire attitude toward him changes, leaving him to lead a life of solitude.
Innocence and Love
Though darkness overshadows many of Hawthorne's short stories, this darkness is often balanced with a glimmer of light, brought about through the themes of innocence and love. Often the victims of the dark pieces of the tale exemplify the trait of innocence, leading the reader to sympathize with that character. Love, furthermore, in part accompanies innocence, but comes with its own complications. Love can triumph over all, but at the same time, can lead individuals astray if impure.
In "The May-Pole of Merry-Mount", the Lord and Lady of the May are saved from harm and taken in by the Puritans because they demonstrate a pure and passionate love. The fact that their love was so recognizable and so moving to the cold and seemingly joyless Puritan leader demonstrates that Love is not simply a thing of laughter; rather, it is the height of human emotional connection.
Love and innocence are again revisited in "Rappaccini's Daughter", when Beatrice and Giovanni first begin their relationship. Beatrice is the most innocent of the characters in that story, as while Giovanni begins innocent, his continued doubt of Beatrice and eventual accusation toward her proves that his love was tainted, and unworthy of her pure and unadulterated emotion.
Betrayal and Guilt
Many of Hawthorne's short stories involve some type of betrayal of trust. Betrayals break apart relationships and can cause various emotions within the character, one of which is guilt. However, the spectrum of emotions experienced after a betrayal are wide, and leaves room open for other themes such as inherent good and evil, to emerge.
One story that demonstrates betrayal and guilt together is "Roger Malvin's Burial", in which the main character Reuben fails to execute a vow he made to Roger, a wounded comrade. Reuben tells Roger's daughter that he has given the soldier a proper burial, hiding the fact that he left his partner to die in the wilderness alone. For years, he does not return to carry out the burial, and the guilt gnaws at him to the point of turning him into a disagreeable and desolate man. The guilt eventually drives him back to Roger's place of death, where Reuben accidentally shoots his son in a hunting accident. It is unclear at the end of the story whether the shooting was truly an accident, fate, or the product of Reuben's mind which had gone mad from guilt.
Another story that demonstrates betrayal, but with a different emotional reaction, is "My Kinsman, Major Molineux". When Robin sees his relative tarred and feathered, he experiences both terror and pity, but in the end laughs along with the rest of the crowd. In laughing, he turns his back on his uncle and forsakes their familial relationship. Robin asks to be taken back to the ferry after the incident, demonstrating that he may feel some type of remorse, or just disillusionment. However, his new companion urges him to stay, and carry on without the influence he sought from his disrespected elder. Robin may begin a new life unfettered by poisonous attachments.
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"Wickedness or not," said the traveler with the twisted staff, "I have a very general acquaintance here in New-England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen, of divers towns, make me their chairman; and...
Study Guide for Young Goodman Brown and Other Hawthorne Short Stories
Young Goodman Brown and Other Hawthorne Short Stories study guide contains a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis of Hawthorne's short stories.