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Some authors experiment with various styles and techniques throughout their literary career, with distinct differences between various works. This is not true in the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne displays striking similarities in style and content in his works. Such similarities can be displayed between The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown. Both works display Hawthorne’s view on human nature, utilize setting as a character, and contain a fallible clergy member. Analysis of these works will bring similarities to light.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view on human nature was not an optimistic one. In fact, nearly all of his works display an extremely dark and dismal view of human nature. Hawthorne himself describes The Scarlet Letter as “a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (2). Indeed, The Scarlet Letter demonstrates a fragile view of human existence, both physically and spiritually. Many of the characters in this work suffer from internal and/or external ailments that promote Hawthorne’s dismal view of humanity, and contradict a “beautiful” view of human nature.
To begin, an example of human frailty in The Scarlet Letter can be seen in various physical ailments plaguing various characters within the story. Roger Chillingworth is one such character. From his introduction in chapter three it is made clear that this man suffers a deformity. It is said that “one of this man’s shoulder rose higher than the other” (Hawthorne 51). Chillingworth himself admits that he realizes he is ugly and “misshapen from [his] birth hour” (Hawthorne 61).
Obviously, Chillingworth’s deformity serves as a physical representation of the ugliness of human nature, but this deformity has a deeper meaning. Due to the instability in Roger’s shoulders, his body appears twisted and hideous. However, looking beyond the surface the reader can deduce that Roger’s soul is just as twisted. Chillingworth is bent on revenge, and blatantly proclaims when he tells Hester, “His fame, his position, his life, will be in my hands. Beware!” (Hawthorne 63). This statement makes it clear that Chillingworth is an evil man, again reinforcing the darkness of human nature. Indeed, whenever Chillingworth is mentioned the color black appears, and Hawthorne even calls Roger “either Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth” (101). Consequently, the entire character of Chillingworth displays a dark and twisted aspect of human nature, with very little evidence of any beauty.
Dimmesdale’s characterization can also evidence the frailty of the human condition. Once again, physical symptoms reveal the inward condition of this man’s heart. As the story progresses, Dimmesdale begins to grow paler and weaker, and constantly clutches his heart. As it stands, this would satisfy the definition of frailty due to the actual physical feebleness Dimmesdale displays. However, the true infirmity lies in Dimmesdale’s heart. Since he cannot openly confess his sin like Hester, Dimmesdale lives with embedded guilt. This causes Dimmesdale sorrow, and he hints that he would much rather endure Hester’s punishment than his by telling Roger, “But still, methinks, it must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it up in his heart” (Hawthorne 107). While not displaying pure evil as Chillingworth does, Dimmesdale’s internal suffering is yet another manner in which Hawthorne portrays human nature as dark and frail.
Young Goodman Brown also displays examples of such frailty. After his encounter with evil in the woods, Brown discovers that everyone he knows and loves has made some form of pact with the Devil, including his beloved Faith. Upon coming to this realization, Brown becomes sardonic and cynical, finding no solace in the activities he previously enjoyed. Hawthorne states “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream” (n.p.). This is the ultimate example of “frailty and sorrow”, as Goodman Brown has let one night transform his entire existence. Brown himself loses all hope in human nature, and believes it to be absolutely evil at heart, once he realizes his dear Faith has been corrupted by the Devil. After his metamorphosis, Brown cannot listen to sermons with the same fervor as once before, and his relationships with others deteriorate. He then dies as a “hoary corpse” (Hawthorne n.p.) and is buried in an unadorned grave. These images support the idea that Hawthorne intended to portray the human existence as weak and full of sorrow.
Another signature literary technique of Hawthorne’s is the use of setting as a silent character. The setting of Hawthorne’s works impacts the lives of the characters tremendously, often complementing the conflicts between the characters. In this manner, setting affects the thoughts and emotions of the characters, and drives them to commit actions that they wouldn’t normally perform.
Of all the settings presented in Hawthorne’s works, one stands out as having the most impact—the forest. In the novel, the forest is described as “vast and dismal” (Hawthorne 62). Puritans never ventured into this wilderness, as it was considered to be a location of unbridled evil, and even the home of the Devil himself. Interaction within the forest is usually foreboding for Hawthorne characters. As can be evidenced in both the novel and in Young Goodman Brown, characters venturing into the forest often return having committed grievous deeds.
A major character interacting within the forest is Roger Chillingworth, widely considered to be an agent of evil within the novel. Roger emerges from the forest when he first appears in the novel in Chapter 3, essentially emerging from the darkness. Roger becomes associated more clearly with darkness when he becomes enraptured by his quest to exact revenge upon Dimmesdale. It then makes sense that Roger would emerge from the purported dwelling place of the Devil, as eventually, the people of Boston believe that Roger is either an agent of the Devil, or the Devil himself. To sum up, the setting of the forest complements the wicked nature of Roger’s character, as it directly connects him to what the Puritans would have considered to be a dwelling of darkness and evil.
In addition to its appearance in The Scarlet Letter, the forest as a setting has a tremendous impact on the characters in Young Goodman Brown. Without this crucial setting, Brown’s entire plight would not have occurred, as would his pivotal change in personality. In essence, Brown’s journey to the forest is not merely a trip to some foreign locale, but rather a pact with the Devil himself. This is made evident in the very beginning of the story where Hawthorne calls Brown’s journey “his present evil purpose” (n.p.).
From the beginning of the story, the morose nature of the forest is established. Goodman Brown is described as having “taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest” (Hawthorne n.p.). As the young pastor progresses into the forest, and prepares to commit his evil deed, he encounters more darkness. Hawthorne writes as if merely being in the forest drew Brown to commit evil, as he states that Brown entered “the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal men to evil” (n.p.). Eventually, this prediction comes true and Brown attends an evil Black Mass, filled with horrible “sounds of the benighted wilderness pealing in awful harmony together” (Hawthorne n.p.). This encounter will alter Brown’s life permanently in an overwhelmingly negative manner. As such, one can evidence the importance of the forest on Young Goodman Brown’s entire life, and how this setting becomes a “silent character”.
A final trademark of Hawthorne’s writing style is his use of similar characters throughout his various works. A prime example of this is the stark similarity between Arthur Dimmesdale and Young Goodman Brown. The foremost similarity between the two is that both characters are examples of flawed young clergymen who suffer dearly for their mistakes. In addition, both men exemplify that the Puritan clergy—held to an extremely high standard by parishioners of the day— are nonetheless human and perform the same sins as commoners.
While Dimmesdale’s sin is that of fornication, and Brown’s is of worshiping the Devil, both begin to exhibit external signs of despair for their actions. According to the novel, Dimmesdale’s “form grew emaciated; his voice… had a certain melancholy prophecy of despair in it” (Hawthorne 97). Likewise, after Brown emerged from the forest after his night of evil, he was said to have never been the same again. Hawthorne states how Brown transitioned from a kind-hearted pastor to a jaded and fearful man after that night. Likewise, both characters received retribution for their sinful actions—Dimmesdale through the pain caused by self-flagellation, and Brown through his paranoia and depression.
Another similarity between the two pastors lies in the motivation for their actions. Both men were influenced heavily by women—Dimmesdale by Hester, and Brown by Faith. Evidence of this is more obvious for Dimmesdale, as being implicated as the co-adulterer it is very clear to see that his sin was motivated by passion for Hester. Brown, however, is also influenced by Faith. As mentioned previously, his entire life is altered when he discovers that his “Faith is gone!” (Hawthorne n.p.). Consequently, a similarity can be drawn here between the two upstanding pastors who both had their lives ruined by a woman who they held dearly to their heart.
In conclusion, Hawthorne exhibits a similar style throughout his entire cache of works. While each work has its own nuances, most all take place within the setting he had a personal connection to—Puritan New England. Likewise, his works all display similar elements such as the portrayal of a dark and dismal human nature, setting operating as a character, as well as similarities in characters. These elements act as a unifying force throughout the whole Hawthorne canon, and are recognized as distinctly Hawthorne. While all of Hawthorne’s works are similar, each one tells its own story, and offers yet another look into the lives of the early Puritans.
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