We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

The Effects of Secret Sin in the Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is a writer whose name invariably seems to appear in critical discussion of romantic literature. In this paper, however, I will examine the short fiction of Hawthorne, discussing the manner in which the author uses symbolic and physical embodiments of evil and secret sin in his work. Versions of the night journey away from home and the community, from conscious, everyday social life, to the wilderness where the hidden self satisfies, or is forced to realize, its subconscious fears and promptings comprise the central Hawthornean plot beneath the narrative and historical displacements of tales like “Young Goodman Brown,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Rappaccini`s Daughter.” In these stories Hawthorne uses the image of the evil (and of those who serve him) to allegorize the moral conflict within his own soul and, by extension, those of all people. From this point of view, Hawthorne’s early development as a storyteller consisted in learning to objectify his private concerns, remove them to a historical setting, and universalize their meaning. This author presented his audiences, either explicitly or implicitly, with demonic figures, and my intention is to illustrate the ways in which Hawthornean uses this evil in his manuscripts.

When I read The Scarlet Letter, I could not avoid feeling that Hawthorne, speaking of sin and sinfulness, had in view nothing as specific as Scobie’s adultery and blasphemy. When he referred to sin, he seemed to assume a force of evil so pervasive that it did not need to be embodied in anyone or in any particular action. In The Scarlet Letter, however, he invented two characters, Hester and Arthur, who do not believe that what they had done was a sin. On the contrary. “What we did had a consecration of its own” Hester says to Dimmesdale. “We felt it so! We said so to each other. Hast thou forgotten it?” and even though Dimmesdale subdues her intensity – “Hush, Hester!”–he also says, “No; I have not forgotten!”(140)

That leaves open the question of Hawthorne’s ability to imagine what it would be – or what it meant in the New England of the mid-seventeenth century – to commit a mortal sin. The sexual character of the relation between Hester and Dimmesdale is so vaguely rendered that only the existence of Pearl as a consequence of it makes it credible. Even if we add our own erotic imagination to Hawthorne’s caution, it is still the case that he conceives of sin as a social transgression only, an act by which one isolates oneself from the community to which he belongs. The sense of evil was moving from theology and morality to politics. Evil was incorrigible because no social institution could accommodate it. The Puritan community as Hawthorne depicts it was strikingly impoverished in ritual and symbolism, in its sense of the sacred, the transcendent, the numinous.

In “The Minister’s Black Veil” Hooper’s most memorable sermon is on 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” (Tales 373). “If I hide my face for sorrow” Hooper says, “there is cause enough. […] And if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” To Hawthorne, it appears that a sin is an act, a condition, a state of consciousness, such that he will not reveal it to his community – or indeed to anyone.

In the short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1846), Hawthorne explores the effect on one’s soul of projecting upon others one’s own darkness. Through a pact with the Devil, Goodman Brown becomes obsessed with the supposed sins of the townspeople. Consequently, “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become” (“Young Goodman Brown”). To use a word descriptive of many people today, Goodman Brown became a cynic. When he died, the townspeople “carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (“Young Goodman Brown”). It shows itself in “Young Goodman Brown” a magnificent romance that evidently means nothing as regards Hawthorne’s own state of mind, his conviction of human depravity and his consequent melancholy.

The values to which Hawthorne appeals are communal and the questions remain the same ones: What makes a good society? Can any society accommodate one’s nightmares, Goodman Brown’s most appalling fears and desires? Whether it is the revelation of omnipresent sin lurking behind virtue that is given to the title character of “Young Goodman Brown” or Hawthorne’s expressed ambivalence toward his family’s past, his work demonstrates a consistent dialogue with the notion that identification (and the attendant avoidance) of evil is ultimately possible.  On the other hand, “Young Goodman Brown,” despite its highly allegorical features, is the most direct, unobstructed depiction of an evil that exists in Hawthorne’s fiction.

In “My Kinsman, Major Molyneux” the contagion of the crowd makes Robin join in the laughter mocking his kinsman, an old Englishman driven through the town in tar and feathers, humiliated, a spectacle. This may be a prophecy of the American War of Independence, and Robin’s laughter may be a sign of the effervescence of colonial America. However we interpret the story, Robin learns that he has become a stranger to himself, bewildered among his surroundings. He may stay in town and make his fortune without the patronage of his kinsman, but he has lost his innocence: the crowd has taken it from him. Hawthorne writes, “Soon, however, a bewildering excitement began to seize upon his mind.” Perhaps it is a blessing, or may in time come to appear such, but it is also a painful lesson about individuals and communities.

If the view from without seemed overhung with ominous shadows, the view from within often seemed obscured by an impenetrable gloom. Such were the encroaching outward circumstances in “Roger Malvin’s Burial” that Reuben Bourne appeared incapable of mastering his moral cowardice. In the end, however, “His sin was expiated, – the curse was gone from him; and in the hour when he had shed blood dearer to him than his own, a prayer, the first for years, went up to Heaven from the lips of Reuben Bourne.”

Evil appears the main element of symbolism in the story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”. Dr. Rappaccini is evil and thinks more about science than people. Hawthorne’s use of nature in the story is used in the allusion to the Garden of Eden. “I am going, father, where the evil which thou hast striven to mingle with my being will pass away like a dream—like the fragrance of these poisonous flowers, which will no longer taint my breath among the flowers of Eden,” (“Rappaccini’s Daughter”) Beatrice says. However, a very important Anti-Transcendentalist component that was comprised in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” was that nature is indifferent, implacable, and unexplainable.

Hawthorne gets a considerable amount of mileage out of a set of symbols derived from a mode of literary expression that often verge on the pedestrian. The “low” literature of folk-tales and the simple allegorical platitudes in which the virtuous resist the devil’s ways participate in the symbolism of devils and demons as fully as the more “elevated” fantastic/romantic literature that sold so well during the active years of the writer career. Hawthorne derives a substantial utility from these symbols by exploring a number of different ways in which they can serve to deliver a message. From the atonement that Hawthorne apparently sought (but was far from sure of receiving) through his writing, to the odd the writer experiments liberally with the image of the devil in his manuscripts in order to attempt to come to some conclusion about his place within life and the nature of the existence of evil.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Tales and Sketches. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown” American Literature Research and Analysis Web Site. 28 September 2005 http://itech.fgcu.edu/faculty/wohlpart/alra/Hawthorne.htm

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. 28 September 2005 http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/HawRoge.html

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. 28 September 2005 http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/HawKins.html

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter & Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 28 September 2005 http://www.bartleby.com/310/1/3000.html

Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59