Puritan Beliefs in Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne strongly criticized Puritan society for the damage that it caused Christian people, under the auspices of Christian beliefs. In his works of literature, Hawthorne frequently addressed the flaws in Puritan beliefs, some of which included, though were not limited to, inability to reach perfection, sexism, deceiving appearances, and reward for good deeds (or punishment for crimes). These four leitmotifs are reflected in three short stories: “”Rappacini’s Daughter””, “”The Birthmark””, and “”Young Goodman Brown””.
In “”Rappacini’s Daughter””, Hawthorne promotes the topic of natural imperfection. When trying to improve a human being, Hawthorne’s characters are attempting to parallel God, who already made every person just the way they are supposed to be. Beatrice is beautiful in every aspect and perfectly happy in her natural habitat, yet Giovanni desires her so much that he disrupts her natural routine. When Giovanni gives Beatrice the antidote, he kills her in an act of wicked irony. Giovanni tried to play God with his beloved, and lost her as a result of his own megalomania. Rappacini himself in this story might signify God, who created a perfect person to live in his metaphorical Eden. Giovanni in this parallel becomes both a tempting snake and Adam, with Beatrice’s death symbolizing the exile from Paradise.
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The same struggle with imperfection makes an appearance in “”The Birthmark””. Georgiana, young wife of a scientist named Aylmer, has a small birthmark on her cheek. Many men considered Georgianna’s birthmark attractive, but her husband found it to be ugly and unnatural: “”It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain”” (Hawthorne, 8). When comparing this situation to the one unraveling in “”Rappacini’s Daughter””, one notices a pattern. Georgiana’s natural habitat was among people who admired her despite her flaw, just as the redemptive garden was to Beatrice. We see in both instances a man who deems himself worthy of altering the physique of a living human being, disrupting her natural state, in a vain attempt to achieve perfection. Yet again, in “”The Birthmark”” such megalomania was highlighted and then punished by the scientist’s wife death.
Sexism was a prominent feature in many works of literature over the centuries, but Puritan sexism, and Hawthorne’s struggle with sexism especially, are curious in their unique qualities. The “”Madonna-Whore Complex”” terrorizes Puritan women, making them feel either genderless, or dirty. In his short stories, Hawthorne subtly criticizes the Puritan society for sexism in general, as well as for a very specific eroticism-related form of misogyny.
In “”Rappacini’s Daughter””, Beatrice is painted as a creature that is pure at heart, despite her poisonous physique. When Giovanni appears in her life, however, her purity is compromised. As the two touch Giovanni is scarred – he is literally branded for touching a woman. Beatrice herself finally succumbs to the man’s will, allowing herself to be changed into a fitting, more submissive gender role. And when that happens, the young lady dies, Her death turning bittersweet as the reader realizes that Beatrice was never truly free, imprisoned initially by her father, and then guided to her death by Giovanni. In a way, she maintained her innocence, paying for it with her life – an exchange that is undeniably Puritan.
“”The Birthmark”” features a similar attack on sexuality. Georgiana’s birthmark is red – a color associated with passion, sex, and, therefore, sin. As seen through a Puritan lens, Aylmer tries to remove all sin from his wife’s body, because he cannot bear a thought of his woman being impure in any way, especially if the palm-shaped mark evokes thoughts of somebody else putting their hands on Georgianna. The red palm-print on the cheek also might be associated with a mark, left from a slap – a rather common form of punishment for misbehavior, frequently applied to older children or women in the past. Yet again, in “”The Birthmark”” a woman lets a man decide what to do for her, and dies as a result. However, the fact that women have to die for being mistreated, while the men who have hurt them live on, is a curious indicator of Hawthorne’s own latent misogyny.
Puritans believed that good deeds and faith in God were ultimately rewarded. With Heaven as the ultimate prize, earthly suffering through hardship was seen to build character and bring one closer to God. Hawthorne’s stories often reflect this Puritan belief, and sometimes go further, showing good characters dying an untimely death, while the villains continue to live on. From a Puritan point of view, the death of good characters is rationalized as their release from a cruel world, and the evil doers will surely meet the consequences of their actions someday in a fiery afterlife.
“”Young Goodman Brown”” is a story of grim disillusionment. Goodman Brown leaves his wife and goes into the woods to complete an errand, only to find himself caught up in a weird series of dreamlike events, each of which makes Goodman question whether his community is as pious and just as he previously thought. When he leaves his wife Faith, as he goes into the woods, he loses faith as a concept. When he comes back, Goodman Brown is a changed man, suspicious of his surroundings. The last sentence of the story describes Goodman Brown dying in a grim way, miserable till the end. Whether he is rewarded in the afterlife for his struggles, or punished for his loss of faith, is unknown. What’s clear, however, is that Goodman’s life was rendered unhappy, marred by the gap between reality and a righteous type of posing within society.
In “”Rappacini’s Daughter”” and “”The Birthmark”” good deeds go unpraised, while misdeeds go unpunished. Both Georgiana and Beatrice show signs of truly Christian character – they are innocent, see only the good in people, and sacrifice their own comfort for their lover’s happiness. Even in death, Beatrice is gentle: “”I would fain have been loved, not feared,”” murmured Beatrice, sinking down upon the ground – “”But now it matters not; I am going, father, where the evil, which thou hast striven to mingle with my being, will pass away like a dream”” (Hawthorne, 20). Hawthorne again lets dangle whether these good women get the Heaven they deserve, but Giovanni and Aylmer just sort of soldier on, their only punishment coming from us, the readers, the way we view such injustice.
Hawthorne ruthlessly criticized the Puritan society for upholding appearances, and substituting a showy, overt morality for the real thing. If common wisdom portrayed an honest person as virtuous in all visual aspects, from their features to their clothes, Hawthorne upends this, delivering pleasant seeming characters who turn vicious, and apparently fallen characters who are virtuous. This works on a psychological level as well, with Hawthorne’s characters acting kind at first, only to disguise ulterior motives, which we learn later.
Aylmer in “”The Birthmark”” represents this type of character. He appears to be a smart virtuous hero, caught up in science and truly loving his young wife. Puritan drive to remove any “”sinful”” tendencies, however, gets the better of Aylmer, escalating in his extreme obsession with his wife’s birthmark. By the end of the story Aylmer is no longer a loving husband and a promising scientist – he is a murderer, who put abstract concept of purity above human life. Ironically, while “”thou shalt not kill”” is one of the least ambiguous commandments, Hawthorne’s stories about Puritans feature a great number of killings.
In “”Young Goodman Brown”” the population of an entire town hides behind the façade of virtue. Goodman Brown unwittingly bears witness to a mysterious, seemingly satanic ritual, where all of his village is present. On his way through the woods he passes individual people he either recognizes or finds familiar, acting strange. Those are probably his Christian villagers, who are somehow traveling through the creepy forest at night on endeavors probably tied to dark magic and the devil himself: “”The devil!”” screamed the pious old lady. “”Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend?”” observed the traveler, confronting her and leaning on his writhing stick”” (Hawthorne, 5). The entire trip makes Goodman reevaluate his relationship with his village and his beliefs. The shock from what he has seen is so grand, that Goodman Brown lives a miserable life, with distrust and doubts gnawing at him until his final hour.
In Hawthorne’s literature, the final outcome is often grim. Good actions and kind disposition go unrewarded, while villains meet no punishment for their misdeeds. Deceiving appearances trick people to associate the outward with the inward, while alterations in the mentioned appearances are considered a crime against god. Women have to be utterly devoid of physical attraction in order to be considered true Christians. Overall, such state of affairs appears pessimistic, albeit Hawthorne kept coming up with virtuous characters that were mistreated not without a reason. Seeing such injustice in literature might evoke longing to fix it in real life, ultimately leading up to some improvements in society, even the Puritan one.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Rappaccini’s Daughter. ReadHowYouWant. com, 2006.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown and other tales. Oxford University Press, USA, 1998.