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Hawthorne and Ideas of Good and Evil: Introduction

Hawthorne and Ideas of Good and Evil: Introduction

Material prepared by:
John W. Stuart, Ph.D., Department of English
Manchester-Essex Regional High School, Manchester, MA
David Donavel, Department of English
Masconomet Regional High School, Topsfield, MA

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)
 
It is impossible to read much of Hawthorne without realizing that what interested him perhaps more than anything else about human beings is our capacity for evil, our capacity to act out the part of Satan. His novels and stories are filled with characters such as Ethan Brand of "Ethan Brand," Goodman Brown of "Young Goodman Brown," Reverend Hooper of "The Minister's Black Veil," Dr. Heidegger of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," and Professor Westervelt of The Blithedale Romance who are portraits of human darkness. There is no character, however, who fits the description of a demon more fittingly than old Roger Chillingworth of The Scarlet Letter. In the following passage, Chillingworth speaks of himself and is described in such a way that it is all but impossible not to see that he is a human turned fiend and thus, in Hawthorne's view, in himself a cautionary tale. "But he knew not that the eye and hand were mine! With the superstition common to his brotherhood, he fancied himself given over to a fiend, to be tortured with frightful dreams, and desperate thoughts, the sting of remorse, and despair of pardon; as a foretaste of what awaits him beyond the grave. But it was the constant shadow of my presence!--the closest propinquity of the man whom he had most vilely wronged!--and who had grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge! Yea, indeed!--he did not err!--there was a fiend at his elbow! A mortal man, with once a human heart, has become a fiend for his especial torment!" The unfortunate physician, while uttering these words, lifted his hands with a look of horror, as if he had beheld some frightful shape, which he could not recognize, usurping the place of his own image in a glass. It was one of those moments--which sometimes occur only at the interval of years--when a man's moral aspect is faithfully revealed to his mind's eye. Not improbably, he had never before viewed himself as he did now.


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