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Hawthorne’s Symbolic Use of Wilderness

From Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence:

The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.





. . .Both Hawthorne and western writers treat man's relationship to the wilderness in terms of the hunter myth.  Hawthorne's tales reflect a Puritan image of the wilderness as the land of the terrible unconscious, in which the dark dreams of man impress themselves on reality with tragic consequences.  The hunter becomes like the beast he hunts; the would-be destroyer of bestial sin himself degenerates into a Belial.  Western writers like [Timothy] Flint and Thomas B. Thorpe take a different view, an Indian rather than a Christian or Puritan view, of the myth of the hunter.  In their tales it is presented as a white American equivalent of the Indian creation myths.  However, the western writers were only half aware of what they were doing and so failed to get beyond the expression of the myth to an analysis of the myth's origin and consequences.  Hawthorne, who was aware of both the nature of his literary tradition and the mythic or legendary content of his tales, developed the consequences of the myth more fully.  Indeed, his moral and philosophical concerns extend so far beyond those of popular hacks who used the same or similar material that any analysis limited to his use of traditional frontier myth-matter is bound to oversimplify the works.  Still, it is clear that such traditionary matter is a preferred point of departure for him, and his handling of it illuminates the ambiguities inherent in the popular mythology, even though such illumination is but one aspect of his artistic concern.


Hawthorne's tales of the frontier employ the method of the personal narrative in its purest form.  The hero's experience is always one of self-discovery and conversion, either from a sinner to a good man or from an innocent to a sinner.  Although Hawthorne stresses the social virtues of fellow-love and domesticity, his heroes discover the importance of these values only through the confrontation of their isolated souls with a divine truth or reality.  His vision of the wilderness is strongly influenced by that of the Puritans, as well as by the psychological theories of Romanticism.  The wilderness is a screen on which the human mind and heart project images of secret guilts and desires.  Because the wilderness is outside the realm of social order and convention, these desires become deeds and the dreams realities.  True character emerges from the husk of social habit, to reveal the soul as either a white or a blasted ear.


Hawthorne was widely read in Colonial literature, and the symbolic vocabulary of that literature was his own.  The Puritan association of the wilderness with religious fanaticism and Quaker radicalism appears in "The Gentle Boy" and "The Man of Adamant.”  The latter tale portrays the fanatic as one who seeks God in isolation, forsaking social duty and love to pursue his quest in an isolated cave, and as a result turns into the stone of the cave that he sought as a temple.  In "The Great Carbuncle" the foolish and materialistic searchers for a jewel follow an Indian legend to its destructive conclusion in the forest; and the hero of Septimius Felton is enslaved to materialism by an Indian-brewed potion of immortality.  Roger Chillingworth returns from the forest in the company of Indians, perfected by them in malice and black science, to wreak vengeance in The Scarlet Letter.  In the latter tales, the early dreams of the New World as a source of both unending wealth and the perpetual renewal of life are symbolically dramatized and rejected.


Like Cotton Mather, Mercy Short, and Mrs. Rowlandson, Hawthorne associates the sensual delights of the pagan dance with both the dark denizens of the woods and the dark thoughts of the hidden mind.  The man who enters the wilderness hunting for something he regards as truth or power is always led to a place where devils dance in a ring, inviting him to a Black Eucharist.  The young kinsman of Major Molineux meets the devil in Boston, and the devil, dressed as an Indian, opens the young man's innocent eyes to reality in a hellish dance scene.  The mob, dressed as Indians, are playing the part of rebels and Jacobins by humiliating the figure of paternal authority, Major Molineux.


     In "Young Goodman Brown" the wilderness plays the role Cotton Mather feared it would play.  It is the abode of a mocking devil of cynical realism, whose power is to reveal and make concrete for Brown the dark impulses and suspicions he has suppressed, thus teaching him the hollowness of civilization and religion and robbing him of the unquestioning faith that alone binds him to man, society, and God.  Brown, whose sires massacred the Pequots and scourged Quakers, becomes like his sires the victim of the disintegrative forces of the wilderness.  His self-restraint is overcome by the temptation to know what the wilderness has to teach him, and his hunt for "truth " leads him to the circle where the witches dance.  Even his subsequent recantation of devilish knowledge and rejection of the wilderness lesson, which sends him fleeing back to the safety of his hedged enclave, leaves within his heart the seeds of disaffection planted by the wilderness experience.  These make him a man of solitude within the social pale, self-contained and--in his denial of conjugality--without heirs and self-ending.


Hawthorne's tales are both critiques of and participations in the Puritan myth of the wilderness.  Hawthorne sees that myth as a tale of man's fall and degeneration through the arbitrary grace of given experiences--not, as in Flint's tale of Boone, a myth of self-creation and self-renewal through the hunt.  The hope of his protagonists is the captive's hope, that his ordeal will expiate his sin.  It is not the hope of the hero that his trials will make him a king.


















Source:  Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence:  The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.  University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK  2000.  Excerpts from pages 475- 477.  Used with the author’s permission.



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