Author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary works constantly reference ideas of the supernatural and the religious ideas of the Puritans who colonized the United States. Of particular interest to Hawthorne is how these two things work together in that time period. Many of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works take place in Colonial times, a good century before the author himself was born. His own ancestors were active participants in Puritan society, even serving as judges during the Salem Witch Trials. Scholars have argued that Hawthorne’s work heavily features this time because of the guilt he felt over the actions of his relatives. Nathaniel Hawthorne used this historical setting to create moral points about Puritanical society and the hypocrisy of those times, as well as the continued hypocrisy of his own time period. This hypocrisy is linked back to the religious zealousness of the Puritan times where the beliefs of the church superseded all others. A man’s life was entirely devoted to church and the teachings of the Bible were paramount in his life. Every action was dictated by the Bible and the word of the town preacher and the town elders was akin to the word of God. In three of his stories, “Young Goodman Brown,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” Hawthorne uses the supernatural to tell his stories about hypocrisy and the trouble that religious zealotry can have when it comes in between man and his sense of logic.
In the short story “Young Goodman Brown,” written in 1854, the title character goes out into the woods to test his dedication to God and his church by going on a trek with the Devil. He literally and figuratively leaves behind his Faith as he goes on his nighttime journey. Faith is Brown’s religious beliefs and his trust in God and the Bible. It is also Brown’s young bride who is the embodiment of all his religious devotions and the choice he has made to become a member of the Protestant community. Brown promises that after this one night of indulging in sin, he will forever after be a devoted member of the church and an equally devoted father. “After this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.” While on his walk with the wicked traveler, Brown comes across many of the men and women he knows from the Puritan township, even the woman who taught him his catechism. The devil swears that they all have signed his book and that each one has committed an act against the church and thus they have all kept his company. All the members of the church, historical figures, even Hawthorne’s ancestors exist in the shadows of the forest, reflecting the evils that have been done by mankind since the beginnings. Even his wife Faith, the embodiment of what he believed to be pure and holy, is among the group of Puritan citizens at the meeting of sinners that is taking place in the center of the woods. Hawthorne does not let the reader know for a fact if the events that Brown has recently witnessed were true or if the things that he saw in the woods were merely the result of a fevered imagination. Brown is a man who refuses to see that there is wickedness in his own self and instead he casts all the other people that he knows in the roles of sinners. What is factual in the text is that Brown awakens in the wood the next morning and is forever altered by the night before. “When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers.” From that moment on, Brown judges everyone by the hypocrisy he believes that they now represent. He takes what he witnessed in the woods as the gospel truth and no one is excerpted from his hatred, especially his wife Faith. Hawthorne makes it clear that the darkness he sees in them is only a reflection of himself.
“Young Goodman Brown” is about a man with demons. Unable to face them, he projects all his own inadequacies on his neighbors. A similar theme can be found in the story of “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” In a garden cultivated by a scientist and professor, toxic and unnatural flowers are cultivated and grow. This is very similar to the society of Young Goodman Brown; on the surface a community of good people who no secrets that, upon further investigation, show themselves to be capable of any evil. The most dangerous of the flowers in the garden is a large poisonous flower in the very center. Equally dangerous is the daughter of the scientist, Beatrice, who is as unnatural as the other flowers in the garden. The young woman, herself, was made of the same toxins as the flower. Beatrice even declares the flower to be her family, more kindred to her than any person could be. “Give my thy breath, my sister” she says to the flower, inhaling the scent which would kill other people. This is the same attitude Goodman Brown possesses. He believed that he could go into the woods with sin and come out unstained. He would be immune to the same things that would cause anyone else to falter and be doomed. Young Goodman Brown is similar to Beatrice in this way and to the hero of the story, Giovanni Guasconti, in another. Brown was both attracted to and repulsed by the sins offered him by the man in the woods, so too Giovanni is attracted to and repulsed by Beatrice. “It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor horror, even while he fancied her spirit to be imbued with the same baneful essence that seemed to pervade her physical frame; but a wild offspring of both love and horror.” Even though he is completely aware that the woman is a toxin to him and can do him no good, he finds himself unable to resist the temptation of the potential for sin. At story’s end, Giovanni survives and Beatrice dies much like Brown at the end of his tale, at least in his own mind. Brown believed that he left the woods, assured in his righteousness and filled with the knowledge that everyone around him was evil and he alone was pure. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Beatrice dies and pure Giovanni survives. In surviving he is forced to face the future alone without any companionship to make his righteousness at all bearable.
This trilogy of stories is thematically similar in exploring the secret side of men and the hidden sins each one has committed that are hidden beneath the facade of Christian life. In the story “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne also probes the line between religion and hypocrisy. Reverend Hooper wears the titled veil as a symbol of “secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them.” Whereas Brown’s family and friends all become enemies within his eyes, Hooper sees all men and women as equals, all sinners. The difference is that Hooper does not condemn his fellow men; rather he is encouraging one and all to admit this dual side to themselves. Instead, it is the townspeople who turn on the wearer of the veil rather than the single man against the townspeople. “In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish.” The people of the town assumed that the reason for Hooper’s actions was that he was hiding of a secret sin of his own and would not allow their selves to see the truth of his behavior, all of them taking on the role of Brown.
All three stories, “Young Goodman Brown,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” all feature the question of religious hypocrisy and the nature of the sinner. This theme begins with the story of Brown and his attitudes are reflected and challenged in the other two stories. Brown goes into the woods in order to determine whether or not his devotion to his religion can withstand a walk into the forest with the devil. As it turns out, it could not. Brown feels like a stronger Christian because he falsely compares himself to the other members of his community according to the crimes and sins he attributes to them, whether they be true or not. The fellow in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” faces a similar choice when he must choose between engaging in a relationship with a woman who is literally as well as figuratively made of sin. This story can be seen as a parable of the duality within Brown himself, the toxic side of his religious fervor and the innocent curiosity that led to the end of his better self. The final story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” tells the story of a man who saw the darkness in men’s souls that Young Goodman Brown rejected in his own soul. The townspeople begged Mr. Cooper to remove the insidious veil that they too might be relieved of the reminders of their sins. Brown could not help but see everyone in his life as wicked because he, like the townspeople, could not see the wickedness in him.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” 1837.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
Poe, Edgar Allen. “Young Goodman Brown.” 1854.
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