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Representation of Evil in the Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne

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            A struggle between spiritual faith and evil temptation comprises a central theme in Hawthorne’s literary works. From his famous story, “Young Goodman Brown,” to his most-famous novel “The Scarlet Letter” a struggle between good and evil is represented allegorically by Hawthorne by way of a carefully crafted symbolism, character development, and plotting. By investing these traditional elements of storytelling with deeper, more symbolically complex meanings, Hawthorne achieved an style which literary critics now view as both moralistic and confessional in nature.

            Hawthorne’s familiarity with the historical background of Puritanism coupled with his personal experiences and the history of his own family blend into the actions and allegorical resonances of a story such as “Young Goodman Brown,” functioning both as a confrontation with personal (and universal) dualities, but uniting the opposites within the well-wrought form of the story itself, although the “moral” of the story is not explicit, and there is an intentional ambiguity to the story’s denouement which indicates an embracing of ambiguity as resolution. This acceptance of ambiguity is therefore a symbolic rejection of Puritan surety and dogma.

             Hawthorne developed an intricate set of symbols and allegorical references in his fiction which simultaneously conceal and explicate the confessional elements of the story. Individual objects, characters, and elements of the story thus function in “dual” roles, providing, so to speak, overt and covert information. In constructing a self-sustaining iconography within the confines of a short story, Hawthorne was obliged to lean somewhat on the commonly accepted symbolism of certain objects, places, and characteristics.

            The story “Young Goodman Brown” like “The Scarlet Letter” advances symbolic associations from the very beginning. The setting of the Salem Village recalls the center of the witchcraft trials, in 1692, steeped in components of a spiritual trial and a backdrop of fierce and judgmental religious faith. Similarly, Goodman Brown’s wife is named “Faith,” indicating an allegorical efficiency, wherein the reader is coaxed to recognize the elements of everyday life in a more dramatic, more spiritually profound cast. The pink ribbons of Faith’s cap provide an explicit symbolism: when later in the story, Hawthorne violates the initial conception of the “Faith” character, it is correspondingly more dramatic for his having initially presented Faith positively in symbolic terms.

             They pink ribbons are suggestive of sweetness and girlishness, and they are an important part of the plot, and as an emblem of heavenly faith their color gradually deepens into the liquid flame or blood of the baptism into sin. Similarly, the scarlet “A” in “The Scarlet Letter” symbolizes the sexual connotations of both sin and judgment. The key factor in Hawthorne’s writings about the nature of evil is that, despite his allegorical method, Hawthorne regards evil as an actual force in the universe apart from man and involved with mankind. Even if he rejects a solidly Puritanical notion of evil, or attributes evil to those whom would never see themselves as such in his literary works, Hawthorne’s perspective diminishes only the hypocrisy associated with evil and not its actual existence.

              By reaching through his own personal doubt, guilt, and religious ambivalence to find expression for the irony and injustice of Puritanical dogma, Hawthorne was able to embrace ambiguity, rather than stolid religious fervor, as a moral and spiritual reality. By using the symbolic resonances of everyday objects, places, and people in his fiction, Hawthorne was able to show the duality – the good and evil – in a ll things, and in all people, thus reconciling the sheer division of good and evil as represented by the edicts of his (and America’s) Puritanical heritage.

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