Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Works
Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the great nineteenth century masters of American fiction. “The Scarlet Letter” and “Young Goodman Brown” are two Hawthorne works that contain heavy symbolism of sin and immorality.
Hawthorne, being of Puritan heritage, sets his “Scarlet Letter” in the seventeenth-century Puritan settlement of Boston. The protagonist of his story, Hester, is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her breast to symbolize her sin of infidelity, of which resulted in a daughter, Pearl. Then when town officials try to take the child away, a young minister comes to the aid of the mother and child, enabling them to stay together. In this story, man is sinful and moreover, human maladies are essentially punishments from God. Although Hawthorne portrays the young minister as compassionate and just, he also depicts him with physical and psychological symptoms that are taken to represent an unhealthy mind and spirit and thus, are basically are the result of guilt. Hawthorne writes, “Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER – the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne -imprinted in the flesh” (Scarlet pp).
While the “Scarlet Letter” represents the story of Adam and Eve and the original sin resulting in banishment from the community of God, “Young Goodman Brown” represents the hysteria of the witch trials. Hawthorne had a connection to the infamous trials, as he writes in the introduction to the “Scarlet Letter,” his ancestor, John Hawthorne had presided over the Salem trials of 1692, thus linking him through bloodline with the persecution of the “supposedly demonic forces” (Maus pp). Hawthorne writes that his family is stained by the blood from this “martyrdom of the witches” and hopes that his literary works can serve as some sort of repentance (Maus pp).
The protagonist, Goodman Brown, sets out on an errand at sunset, traveling through the woods during dark. Hawthorne sets the pattern for evil and devil worshiping by placing Brown in the nighttime forest where witches were believed to gather, and “a regular locale for demonic activity in his works, and is also found in the “Scarlet Letter” (Maus pp). Hawthorne uses “the image of the devil to allegorize the moral conflict within his own soul and, by extension, those of all people” (Maus pp). In this story, Hawthorne creates the “most direct, unabstracted depiction of a devil” that exists in any of his fiction ( Maus pp). Hawthorne gives hints of what is likely to come when Brown remarks that “There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,” and later cries “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil” (Hawthorn pp).
Joseph Modugno writes that Hawthorne probes the psychology of the witchcraft frenzy era in order to offer “insights into the moral complexity of human nature” (Modugno pp). According to Herman Melville, “Young Goodman Brown” reveals Hawthorne at his best, a “skillful writer of symbolic allegory and astute interpreter of Puritan history” (Modugno pp). Not only does the story represent the issue of the witch trials, but several of the characters have the names of Salem residents that had been charged with witchcraft as well, such as Goody Cloyse (Modugno pp). Hawthorne weaves family facts into the plot and theme, and as Edward Wagenknecht points out, “is perfectly clear-cut on witchcraft, as perhaps he had to be to purge himself in his own mind of the sins of his ancestors” (Modugno pp). In this story, an entire habit of the Puritan mind is on trial, and Brown is an “unwitting yet not quite unwilling victim,” thus, adding recognition to the problem that detecting a witch is similar to discovering a saint (Modugno pp). Hawthorn uses the story to point out that witchcraft ended the Puritan world, “its logic of evidence could not stand the Devil’s own test of faith” (Modugno pp).
Matthew Gartner links references in the “Scarlet Letter” to the biblical character of Esther, and that even the name, Hester, is a reference to Esther (Gartner pp). Gartner believes that this work echoes Hawthorne’s “wish to create a story depicting new world Puritanism that would confirm and embody the extreme textualization of that culture” (Gartner pp). Hester even names her child Pearl, with reference to the gospel of Matthew, “But she named the infant Pearl, as being of great price, purchased with all she had, her mother’s only treasure” (Gartner pp). Moreover, the Book of Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Bible that does not include the word God, says Gartner, and compares this to the absence of the word adultery in the story, for which the letter A stands (Gartner pp). Others point out that neither Hester nor Arthur acknowledge the act of adultery, and in fact, the sexual relationship between the two is “so vaguely rendered that only the existence of Pearl as a consequence of it makes it credible” (Donoghue pp).
The influence of Puritan religion and culture is a common theme in Hawthorne’s work and in “Young Goodman Brown,” he examines and provides a commentary on not only the Salem of his own time but his ancestors’ Salem as well (McCabe pp). The fact that the tale takes place on a road is often seen by critics as perhaps the road to conversion, “the conversion experience — a sudden realization brought about by divine intervention, a vision, or perhaps a dream,” which translates into the dream allegory of his work enabling him to use Puritan doctrine and Salem’s history to argue the merits and consequences of such a belief (McCabe pp). Just as the men who condemned and executed the witches of Salem, Brown is confused and searching and is unable to see whether his experience is real or a dream (McCabe pp). Perhaps Hawthorne is pointing out that the “truth conveyed in the dream, that faith may betray us, is also a truth of waking experience” (Gregory pp). Hawthorne references his ancestors when the devil tells Brown that “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly” (Shoemaker pp). Moreover, the deeper he moves into the forest, the more he becomes one with his evil (Gregory pp).
Italo Calvino writes that Hawthorne’s best works are always based on the presence of sin in the human heart (Maus pp). This is evident in both “Young Goodman Brown” and the “Scarlet Letter,” for both stories reflect man’s sin.
Donoghue, Denis. “Hawthorne and Sin.”
Christianity and Literature; 1/1/2003; pp.
Gartner, Matthew. “The Scarlet Letter’ and the book of Esther: scriptural letter and narrative life.” Studies in American Fiction; 9/22/1995; pp.
Modugno, Joseph R. “The Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and ‘Young
Goodman Brown'” North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA
Maus, Derek. “The Devils in the Details: The Role of Evil in the Short Fiction of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol and Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Papers on Language & Literature; 1/1/2002; pp.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown.
McCabe, Michael E. “The Consequences of Puritan Depravity and Distrust
as Historical Context for Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” American Literature Research and Analysis Web Site
Shoemaker, Jacqueline. “Hawthorne’s Realm of Morality: Biographical
Contexts for ‘Young Goodman Brown'” American Literature Research and Analysis Web Site.
Gregory, Leslie. “The text of Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’ with links for the primary symbols and images.” American Literature Research and Analysis Web Site.
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