Nathaniel Hawthorns Characters of Ambiguity
“There is a righteousness to the characters of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a self-defined logic that prevents easy interpretations of intent. The underlying argument with moral ambiguity is that the good or bad nature in the character is never thoroughly stated or understood. Hawthorne questions the truths behind human ethics and the extent to which humanity can be truly pious or sinful. He brought this argument up through his characters in a majority of his writings including “Young Goodman Brown,” The Scarlet Letter, “Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Nathaniel’s works highlighted the hypocrisy of the New England Puritan lifestyle, and his use of historical facts and symbolism accentuated the duality of man’s nature to be both good and bad.
Nathaniel’s purpose in having characters with moral ambiguity is to exemplify the evil qualities in humans and show that they are the most natural. “Young Goodman Brown” demonstrates that evilness resides in everyone, even the purest of people. Goodman Brown is a newlywed man who leaves in the middle of the night for an appointment. He goes into the woods and meets with a man that mirrors his grandfather but might actually be the Devil. With hopes that he can turn back and forget his unholy meeting, Goodman witnesses a conversation between the Devil and Goody Cloyse, a Christian woman who teaches the Bible to children. Goodman overhears Goody bestow her faith to the devil and hints at herself being a witch. At this point, Goodman is terrified and wants to go back to Salem and return home to his wife—Faith. In this story, Goodman’s wife represents piety and innocence. So, when Goodman begins to question the goodness of the people surrounding him, he clings to the thought of returning home to Faith. On his path back he overhears the Deacon and the Minister of the church discuss an unholy congregation that Goodman then runs into. As Goodman witnesses the black mass, he witnesses everyone who he once thought to be good to prove themselves to be nothing but hypocrites. The Devil proclaims that “evil is the nature of mankind” and that it resides in everybody (Hawthorne, “Young Goodman,” 676). Satan’s phrasing emphasizes the betrayal Goodman might feel towards the people in his town. However, what the Devil purposely fails to include in his statement is that good may reside in the nature of mankind as well. That moral ambiguity is not only a character trait, but a trait found in all human beings.
Ultimately feeling defeated, Goodman decides to join the black mass. Yet, in a final attempt to restore faith in his beliefs he tells Faith to forsake the Devil. Suddenly the scene disappears, and Goodman Brown is left dumbfounded and confused. From that day forward Goodman remained suspicious of the people he saw that night and anyone he would ever meet. The character of Goodman Brown is a perfect representation of a man deprived of his innocence. At the scene of the black mass, Brown saw everyone he once knew to be religiously devoted to Christian faith turn their back at God. Leaving Goodman to make the ambiguously moral decision of choosing to keep faith in his religion or accept evil in his heart like the others. This decision is hard to make being that everyone who has influenced his moral judgment has partaken in acts of evil. In short, Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates the effect and reality of human deviation. Though Goodman doesn’t choose to join the black mass, his feelings towards life and mankind afterwards shows the moral ambiguity of his decision. When Goodman refuses to trust anyone again, he chooses to spend the rest of his life in bitter alienation. Nathaniel thus proves that refusing to understand or see the evil in people results in skepticism of the outer world; with that being said, Nathaniel suggests that denial and hypocrisy might, in fact, be the worst sins in human nature.
The sin of hypocrisy is seen in most of Nathaniel’s works, especially in “Minister’s Black Veil.” When Reverend Hooper, minister of New England town, one day decides to wear a black veil as he delivers a sermon, rumors begin to circulate as to whether he is confessing to a sin. Being that this town is a pious puritan community, it’s safe to say the people of this town were terrified. The following dialogue from the people of this New England town coincides with my previous statement, “‘I can’t really feel as if good Mr. Hooper’s face was behind that piece of crape,’” “‘He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face,’” “‘Our parson has gone mad!’” (Hawthorne, “Minister’s Black,” 686). The minister’s black veil became the town’s biggest mystery; it’s vagueness and silence terrified everybody, but the veil’s true meaning remained concealed in the mind of Reverend Hooper.
The true meaning and intention Reverend Hooper had behind the veil played the morally ambiguous role in this story. The veil made everyone question its meaning and whether the reverend was confessing to something evil or—better yet—if he knew about a sin committed by one of the people in town. The fact that he never reveals the veil’s objective demonstrates the Reverend’s selfishness on his knowledge of mankind. Rather than explain himself to the Christian community he once ministered with deep affection, Reverend Hooper decides to isolate himself behind the black veil; thus, once again demonstrating Nathaniel Hawthorne’s belief that hypocrisy is one of the worst sins in human nature.
“Young Goodman Brown” and “Minister’s Black Veil” share the theme of highlighting the true evil held in human nature. Though it was the Reverend’s choice to remain silent about the veil, the Puritan community turned their back to Reverend Hooper, only proving the evilness in human nature. The Puritan community faithfully devoted themselves to the Christian church every Sunday, but outside of the Church they reveal themselves to be people of different identities. In this sense, could the veil’s true meaning symbolize the hypocrisy of people? The definite meaning behind the veil is left for the Puritans to ponder on. The veil remains morally ambiguous as readers are unable to tell whether it was meant to symbolize sin or galvanize the Puritans to become better people.
The Scarlet Letter, on the contrary, is obvious with its use of moral ambiguity as it revolves its plot around a forbidden act of love. Characters such as Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are morally ambiguous being that it’s hard to identify whether their actions were actually sinful or acts of love. Hester Prynne is seen as an adulteress by the Puritan town of Salem after giving birth to her daughter Pearl. Pearl’s birth was considered a crime due to the fact that Hester’s husband had been considered dead for over a year. Hester is then forced to wear a red “A” on her chest as punishment for her crime. Hester’s husband comes back from the dead as Dr. Chillingworth and, coincidently, treats the father of Hester’s child—Arthur Dimmesdale.
Dimmesdale’s character is the most conflicted, being that he is an admired minister in Salem and the father of Pearl. And, though, he did commit the act of adultery, Nathaniel accentuates that he is not an entirely bad person. As Dimmesdale watched Hester get torn apart and judged by the community, he went home and physically punished himself. His guilt was eating him alive; hence he engaged in various acts of self-torture such as fasting, whipping his body, and staying awake through the night to pray. Dimmesdale takes responsibility for his wrongdoing and secretly carves the letter A into his chest. The “A” is now a permanent wound left on Dimmesdale’s chest that will remind him of his crime. His body is now a reminder of his guilt, hypocrisy, and sin.
The ambiguity of Dimmesdale’s character is identifying whether he is worthy of the sympathy readers may feel towards him. Dimmesdale allows Hester to take the blame for herself as he watches her get mistreated by the community he ministers; this demonstrates the hypocrisy in his actions. However, his guilty feelings are displayed thoroughly in the novel and, in the end, he did confess to his sins. It’s because of this that readers are faced with the moral ambiguity of his character which causes readers to decide whether or not they want to sympathize with a man of sin.
There’s no doubt that Hester, too, holds a great deal of compunction in her heart for her actions. Though, were Hester’s feelings due to the actual feeling of regret and shame of her actions, or from the humiliation she received from the people of Salem? Hester suffers greatly on her trip from the prison to the market only because of the judging eyes that laid upon her as she walked through Salem: “She felt, at moments, as if she must need shriek out with the full power of her lungs and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once” (Hawthorne, The Scarlet, 47). But were these feelings of humiliation hypocritical or valid? Hester had knowingly brought these feelings upon herself when she fully revealed herself before the crowd. Her revealing was an attempt to redeem herself of what she had done and have Salem believe she is capable of being an honest woman. Hester’s feelings are questionable being that they are human but also insincere.
Hester’s hypocrisy is also identifiable by the way she treats Dimmesdale. Her silence on revealing him as the co-adulterer can be viewed as an act of love, hoping that he would be saved from the public shame she deals with. But Hester’s silence contradicted her attempt at being an honest woman and, hence, is never rightly sincere. With that, the puritan town may question what Hester’s true intentions were in remaining unknown. Why did Hester stay in Salem? Why did she care to keep Dimmesdale a secret? The reality of Hester is that she holds the desire of sinning again in the depths of her heart. Though she has regretted what she had done, her love for Dimmesdale remains intact and, perhaps, if he hadn’t died, she would have sinned again. However, Hester is only a woman—a woman with natural feelings and desires. But being that her story happened in the Puritan era, her actions and feelings are questionable and, thus, remain morally ambiguous.
Nathaniel’s pattern of having multiple characters entangled in a conflicting situation is also seen is his short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Beatrice withstands as the embodiment of ambiguity as she sacrificed her life for the sake of others: “‘Though my body be nourished with poison, my spirit is God’s creature, and craves love as its daily food… Yes; spurn me, tread upon me, kill me!’” (Hawthorne, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” 1063). The moral ambiguity of Beatrice’s character resides along the fact that she was victim to her father’s scientific experiments. She had no control over the fact that she was, literally, poisonous to others.
Beatrice was raised in an environment of pesticides and fatal odors and, therefore, became one herself. Her father, Mr. Rappaccini, had been blinded of his sense of morality and intellectual pride that he used Beatrice to prove that man could stand above God: “‘He cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment. He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge.’” (Hawthorne, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” 1048). Mr. Rappaccini’s actions are undoubtedly selfish being that he has deprived his daughter of having a normal life.
However, Mr. Rappaccini’s feelings of love and intention towards his daughter are unveiled at the end of the story. As a result of being intellectually superior than everybody, Mr. Rappaccini is forced to live his life in isolation. Is it entirely selfish of him to want to his daughter to be with him as a result of his isolation? Or even as an attempt to protect her from the evilness of the outer world? The true question is can an action be totally evil if the intentions were pure. The question remains ambiguous as Mr. Rappaccini’s intentions ultimately led to the death of his daughter. Nathaniel purposely created the character of Mr. Rappaccini to withhold the duality of pride and intention. Readers may have sympathetic feelings towards him but, all in all, Mr. Rappaccini was aware of his actions as he committed them; hence, the moral ambiguity of Mr. Rappaccini’s remains whole as we are unable to determine if his actions were intentionally good or inadvertently evil.
In these four tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne deliberately challenged readers to question their beliefs on what should truly be considered good or bad. Characters such as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Goodman Brown, and Mr. Rappaccini were trapped in moral predicaments. Hawthorne referenced symbolism and historical events from the Puritan era and involved it in the fictional tales of these characters. Hawthorne’s use of New England Puritanism as the main setting for all of these stories accentuated the hypocrisy of religion. Not only did he simultaneously conjure pity and hatred from readers through his morally ambiguous characters, but he sought to expose the realities of religion and how deeply it influences moral judgement.”