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Explore Activities Related to Hawthorne and Ideas of Good and Evil

Adam & Eve Fireback at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site
Adam & Eve Fireback at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site (courtesy of The House of the Seven Gables Historic Site)
 

1. Take some time to look carefully at the images associated with Hawthorne's Framework of Faith and those images associated with Hawthorne's Ideas of Good and Evil. Imagine you are a young person who is highly educated, deeply sensitive, and steeped in the history of your town and of your family's place in that history. What might the effect be on such a person to live surrounded by the images you see? Write a journal entry or a short autobiographical sketch as if you were Nathaniel Hawthorne or someone like him.

Other Website pages which might assist with this activity are:

2. Students interested in exploring Hawthorne's understanding of the darker human possibilities might consider comparing some of his and Melville's "eager sinners," Roger Chillingworth of The Scarlet Letter, Ethan Brand of "Ethan Brand,"and Melville's John Claggart of Billy Budd, Sailor. How do these characters differ from Arthur Dimmesdale of The Scarlet Letter and Reverend Hooper of "The Minister's Black Veil"? And how do they all compare to Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter who was in Puritan Boston and remains in the minds of many to this day "the type of shame" as Hawthorne observes in Chapter 5?

3. One of the most intriguing and, at the same time, frustrating aspects of studying Hawthorne is his ambivalence toward many of his characters. Few of Hawthorne's people are purely good or purely evil and even old Roger Chillingworth's dark character is moderated by his handsome death gift to Pearl. Some insight into the nature of that ambivalence may be gained by scrutinizing Hawthorne's representation of Ann Hutchinson Ibrahim's mother from "The Gentle Boy" , Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, especially the scene in Chapter 2 where she is first seen on the scaffold.

4. A Research Topic and Preliminary Writing Question on Ideas of Good and Evil

The following makes for a rich topic of investigation as a research project: Ideas of Good and Evil in Works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. (Alternatively, the topic can be adapted to one of the two, rather than both authors.) If students can begin to explore this topic by reflecting upon works they already know by Hawthorne and Melville, then they have a solid head start. Two Hawthorne in Salem website articles that are also helpful in this context are “Christian Imagery in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter” in the Scholars’ Forum section of “Faith and Religion”/“Ideas of Good and Evil” and “Echoes of Hawthorne in Melville’s Billy Budd” in the Scholars’ Forum section of “Hawthorne and Melville”/”Literary Links.”

As a preliminary to research, students familiar with The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd can write detailed paragraphs or brainstorming lists in response to the following question: What are some examples of ways that Hawthorne and Melville identify what they consider to be good, right, or virtuous and bad, wrong, or virtueless in their novels The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd? The following paragraphs provide some responses to consider for this wide-ranging question:

Hawthorne begins the narrative portion of The Scarlet Letter by calling the dissenter Anne Hutchinson “saintly” and by ascribing a merciful tenderness to a wild rosebush that, according to legend, had grown in her footsteps. From this early point in the novel, therefore, and especially as it reinforces “The Custom House” introduction, the reader can see that Hawthorne values freedoms of speech and worship and those courageous enough to champion them in the face of intolerant regimes like those of the Massachusetts Puritans. The use of the rosebush, moreover, infuses Hawthorne’s prose with a typically Romantic reverence for nature. The evident implication is that “speculating” about religious questions, as Anne Hutchinson had and as Hester Prynne does, is natural and good; but exiling and silencing them is against nature and thoroughly wrong.

Other attributes admired by Hawthorne are Hester’s service to her community, her charitable actions, and her longsuffering attitude in atoning for her sin. Clearly he values unselfishness, kindness toward those in need, humility, and bravery.

Much of what Hawthorne admires can also be shown indirectly by identifying those things he faults. Among the admired are the following:

  • tolerance
  • compassion
  • romantic love
  • loyalty
  • industriousness
  • forgiveness
  • individualism
  • flexibility
  • acceptance of mystery and limits of human knowledge

All of these are to some extent violated in Hester’s world in The Scarlet Letter.

In “The Custom House,” Hawthorne shows shame for his family’s roles in the Puritan persecutions of Quakers and alleged witches. To the novel’s character, also a historical figure executed as a witch, Mistress Hibbins, he ascribes mental illness, thus suggesting that Puritans intentionally exterminated the infirm, as would nazis in the century succeeding Hawthorne’s. Certainly, intolerance and cruelty qualify as forms of evil in The Scarlet Letter.

The marketplace women who shout for Hester Prynne’s death exhibit a heartlessness that Hawthorne also condemns. It is clear that those women lust for the blood sport of a public execution much more than they care about any fellow female’s sins of the flesh. Scapegoating, therefore, is also an evil that the novel dramatizes; and in fact any example of objectifying human beings in order to treat them as subhuman for any purpose is clearly frowned upon by the author. Roger’s mind games with Arthur and the Boston brats’ harassment of Pearl are further examples.

The heart and the heartless are indeed key components of the novel. The chapter entitled “The Interior of a Heart,” for example, goes far to redeem Arthur Dimmesdale from his contemptible hypocrisy by showing the reader the weight of guilt the minister carries within; and, when it is clear that his and Hester’s passion derives from a love far deeper than could ever have existed between Hester and Roger, Arthur is all the more forgivable and pitiable, especially in contrast with tormenting, heartless Roger. With his hand frequently over his heart, it is fair to say that Arthur is worn down by acute heartache until a final burst of defiance leaves him stricken as if from heart failure. Loving his faith and the career he has built on it, he is torn mercilessly by the even stronger but forbidden passion he possesses for Hester Prynne.

As Hawthorne’s fiction exhibits exaltation of strong women, Melville’s possesses glorification of a group of free-spirited men -- sailors. He finds them generally far preferable to the kind of people who tend to be corrupted by too much time on land – those wicked landlubbers! He shares the widespread admiration for the fine physical specimens he terms “Handsome Sailors,” but such men are more than just comely. They are also skilled and graceful in their professions, and their good nature makes them approachable and well-liked by many. They do not seem to have axes to grind, nor do they resemble goon squad leaders who rise to prominence by means of belittling others. They are open and refreshing, more than just regular guys, in fact -- endearing ones. All of these attributes certainly belong to one Handsome Sailor –- the title character in Billy Budd.

Billy is not without defect – but then who is? Unfortunately, he is beyond ignorant – completely illiterate and painfully naïve. Melville is certainly not championing these qualities; his leading figure in Moby-Dick, for example, is the very bright, articulate, and observant Ishmael, certainly as sympathetic a character as Billy but definitely no dummy! It is Billy’s inability to articulate anything at all in moments of stress that ultimately serves as his tragic flaw and brings about his downfall.

Beyond defects and weaknesses, however, Billy Budd points to qualities and behaviors that the author clearly abhors and views as evil. Claggart provides examples of most of these: his gross misuse of authority to settle imagined scores rather than serve the good of the whole ship; his disregard for truth as he encourages his henchmen to frame Billy and tell their boss what they think he wants to hear without the interference of accuracy; and his malicious, wanton hatred of the fine and good qualities in the young man he secretly admires but perversely seeks to destroy. Thus Melville seems to say that those who abuse, lie, kill, and destroy are those who serve the devil.

Then there is Captain Vere – the really complicating factor in the story. On the surface, he is an affable, if remote fellow; but clearly Melville finds him to be the last person who should ever have been entrusted with naval leadership in wartime. The bad in Vere is essentially a rigidity of vision, whether from a fundamental meanness or stupidity Melville never says, but certainly Vere does not and evidently could not rise to levels of grace in the face of adversity. Instead, he resorts to what he understands as the letter of the law, even though he knows he employs it in the service of lies and against virtue. Billy may ask God to bless Captain Vere, but Melville makes clear that he, most of the rest of the crew, and probably the novel’s readers as well have other, much less favorable wishes in mind for the severely limited captain.

Following such preliminary writing on the topic of good and evil in Hawthorne’s and Melville’s works, students should be ready to formulate thesis statements. Based on the preceding paragraphs, for example, a thesis could be worded as follows: Hawthorne and Melville share Romantic views of good and evil in their fiction. Both men’s interest in nature and ways that civilization corrupts the natural could help develop such a theme. Whatever direction the student might take, however, s/he clearly benefits from background reading and writing thoughts about it in advance of documenting research ideas with specific citations from sources.




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