Hawthorne’s Symbolic Use of Wilderness
From Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through
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.
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.
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.
"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
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.