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Human Nature

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Whether human nature is innately good or evil has been a topic discussed throughout centuries by many philosophers. Aristotle and his student, Plato, were one of the first philosophers to believe that a human’s capability to reason, creates a pathway for human nature to be good. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Self-Reliance, the author ascribes high merit to Plato as speaking “not what men but what they[Plato] thought” (641). Emerson has a positive perception of human nature because he favors the individual’s ability and right to make his own choices. He encourages people to trust and rely on themselves because “to believe your own thought to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius” (641). On the other hand, Nathaniel Hawthorne dismisses Emerson’s perception of human nature, arguing that he was overly optimistic, and that he in fact misunderstood human nature. According to Hawthorne, there is evil that lurks in everyone’s souls and human nature is bound to be flawed and imperfect. The portrayal of this unavoidable sin and evil is expressed through the nature of sin itself, through the main characters of Hawthorne’s stories, and through the people and society surrounding the main characters. Hawthorne’s writings The Black Veil, and Young Goodman Brown provide an accurate assessment of the innate sinfulness that that plagues humanity.

In Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorne depicts the sinfulness and darkness that engulfs the humankind through the character of Young Goodman Brown. In this story, Mr. Brown was a humble and religious man who lived in the Salem village, where he was a devoted Puritan and had a young righteous wife named Faith. Young Goodman Brown took a trip into the forest to meet a mysterious man with a serpent staff who happened to be the devil. Much to Young Goodman Brown’s dismay, the devil informed him that he was acquainted with both his grandfather and father. Throughout his walk through the forest, Goodman Brown refuted the advancement of the Devil to join his path of darkness, “With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil” (675). However, his willingness to fight off the devil and his advances crumbled and weakened when he saw that his pious beloved wife had fallen to the feet of darkness. He came to realize that everyone had a dark side that he or she was concealing from the public, “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name” (675). By seeing all these pious people at a devil worshipping ritual Young Goodman Brown realized that darkness and sin were common and heavily prevalent in the society.

Even Goodman Brown himself fell prey to his own weaknesses, which is demonstrated by his willingness to meet the mysterious man in the forest and advance towards the congregation. Hawthorne does not allude to whether Young Goodman Brown actually experienced the trip in the forest or if it was just a dream, however, Brown came out from this experience distancing himself from religion and losing faith in everyone. This trip shuttered his life and the goodness he used to see around him. It showed him that evil was lurking around and luring people into its web. Hawthorne uses this trip into the forest in a very symbolic way; human nature is paradox and has a tendency to be wicked. “Evil is the nature of mankind” (678). Any individual without doubt has a tendency to succumb to life’s temptations and desires, and therefore can commit a sin at any moment.

The idea of every individual having an “evil nature” or sin is a common theme in both of Hawthorne short stories. In The Minister’s Black Veil, the minister of the town, Parson Hooper wears a black veil covering his face. Hawthorne neither specifies to the reader the reason behind the minister wearing the black veil nor the symbolic meaning of the black veil. However, parishioners of the community start associating the black veil with secret sin. This happen as a result to the minister’s sermon that he gave right after his first appearance in public with the black veil concealing his face. This sermon discussed and referenced secret sin (682). As the minister read from the Bible, Hawthorne described the veil as being an “obscurity between him and the holy page” and concealing his face from “… the dread Being[God] whom he was addressing” (681). The black veil assisted Hooper in masking something that he feared to reveal before God, strengthening the argument that black veil conceals secret sin.

None of the the individuals of the community had the courage to ask Parson Hooper as to why he was wearing the black veil, except Elizabeth, Parson Hooper’s fiancee. She politely asked Hooper to remove the veil so that she could see his face. Hooper denied her request and replied “There is an hour to come, when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then” (685). The hour that Hooper spoke of was Judgement Day where every individual’s sin would be revealed for God to judge. Hooper went on to claim that “no mortal eye will see it[black veil] withdrawn” (686). Elizabeth told Hooper what the parishioners were starting to think, “…there may be whispers, that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin” (686). Hooper was not taken aback by the comment, instead he replied that if the veil did indeed hide secret sin, every mortal would therefore have a veil on as well. After this discussion, Elizabeth became discouraged and frightened by the black veil just like the other parishioners and broke off the engagement.

Although Hooper chose himself to wear the black veil, it had a negative impact on his life, “…it has separated him from cheerful brotherhood, and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart; and still it lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity” (688). Parson Hooper was lonely and surrounded by darkness; there was no light in his life, neither happiness nor excitement. He was haunted by this piece of black cloth as portrayed in the scene of the wedding where Hooper raised a glass to the newly weds and caught a glimpse of himself causing him to be overwhelmed and drop the wine glass (684). The sight of himself made Hooper shudder, for he knew exactly what the black veil symbolized. No one in the community knew what the black veil represented, however, just the idea of the minister or anyone committing a secret sin was enough evidence for the community to isolate the sinner. He could not walk the streets with a peace of mind, so conscious was he that the gentle and would turn aside to avoid him. He explained to the crowd that they should not be terrified of him, but rather of everyone among them because “…lo! On every visage a Black Veil!” (690). The community’s attitude towards Parson Hooper proves that sin is part of human nature, consequently by avoiding him they commit the irony of the sin.

Hawthorne illustrates in both stories that sin and flaws are extremely prevalent in human society. He was averse to Emerson’s perception of human nature, arguing that he misunderstood humanity. According to Hawthorne people are born with a sinful nature so he provided an accurate assessment by illustrating the negative attitude of his main characters and the society surrounding them, in both short stories. Young Goodman Brown was a righteous and humble man but his curiosity, led him to the trip into the forest to meet the mysterious man, who happened to be the devil. Throughout his walk through the forest, Goodman Brown refuted the advancement of the Devil to join his path of darkness, his willingness to fight off the devil weakened as he saw that his community, father, grandfather and even his pious beloved wife, had fallen to the feet of darkness. He came to realize that everyone had a dark side that he or she was concealing from the public.In The Minister’s Black Veil, Hawthorne centers the short story on the minister having a secret sin and sentencing himself to a life of misery because he publicized that he has committed a sin. He argues that even the most righteous people in a society such as the minister can turn out to be sinners, because it is part of human nature. Despite Emerson’s optimism regarding humanity, Hawthorne exposes another side of human nature by portraying an innate sinfulness within the characters of his short stories that reflect upon human beings in general.  

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