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Quakers: Introduction

Material prepared by:
David Donavel, Department of English
Masconomet Regional High School, Topsfield, MA

George Fox, Quaker from England
George Fox, Quaker from England (courtesy of Dr. John L. Idol, Jr.)
Hawthorne's interest in the Puritan persecution of the Quakers grew, at least in part, out of the fact that his ancestor, William Hathorne, was one of those responsible for their mistreatment in the 1650's. It is William to whom Hawthorne alludes in "Young Goodman Brown" when the devil explains that he was present when Brown's grandfather "lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem," behavior that Hawthorne found deplorable. However, if he expresses frank sympathy with the Quakers in "Young Goodman Brown," "Main Street," and The Scarlet Letter, that feeling is mitigated in other tales such as "The Gentle Boy" where we see Catherine, the Quaker mother of Ibrahim, the gentle boy who gives the story its title, behaving with the same kind of intolerant fanaticism that so discouraged Hawthorne when displayed by the Puritans. There is, too, an implied criticism of Quaker fanaticism in Hawthorne's sketch, "Mrs. Hutchinson" as the religious audacity of Antinomian Anne Hutchinson reflects the behavior Hawthorne rejects in Catherine. It may well be that Hawthorne's aversion to fanaticism of any sort can be explained by his wry assessment in The House of the Seven Gables of the efforts of Cotton Mather and others to rid the colonies of those they perceived to be witches: "Since those days, no doubt, it had grown to be suspected, that, in consequence of an unfortunate overdoing of a work praiseworthy in itself, the proceedings against the witches had proved far less acceptable to the Beneficent Father than to that very Arch Enemy whom they were intended to distress and utterly overwhelm." It is likely that Hawthorne scented in any "unfortunate overdoing" the aroma of pride, that deadly sin that ruins so many of his characters.

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