1. Take some time to look carefully at the images associated with Hawthorne's
and those images associated with Hawthorne's
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
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
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
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
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
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
Much of what Hawthorne admires can also be shown indirectly by identifying
those things he faults. Among the admired are the following:
acceptance of mystery and limits of human knowledge
All of these are to some extent violated in Hester’s world in The
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
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