Thursday, March 13, 2014

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Puritan Gothic" Stories

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literarture.

Today I read some short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter), and I was struck by how dark they are (in a good way).  More specifically, Hawthorne is obsessed with showing the dark side of Americans in general, and Puritans in particular.  Most of the stories are set  in colonial New England, in a world inhabited by Puritans, the descendants of the Pilgrims.  The best phrase I can use to describe these stories is "Puritan Gothic."  

Hawthorne's stories usually begin in quite ordinary settings, but end up becoming violent, dark, and grotesque in some way.  In the story "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," a young man (named Robin)  from the country visits a small New England town, looking for his relative, Major Molineaux.  The young man is  kind, and somewhat naive.  He asks people if they know where he can find his "kinsman, Major Molineux".  Instread of welcoming this stranger, the townspeople treat him with utter contempt.  

Finally, Robin discovers his kinsman, the Major, stripped naked, being tarred and feathered by a mob of townspeople, for being a British sympathizer.   As a reader, we do not sympathize with the American "patriots"--they are portrayed as cruel, rude, and sadistic.  We sympathize with the young man, and his poor relative, who is being tortured and humiliated.  This is a common theme in Hawthorne's work, including The Scarlet Letter.  We find ourselves sympathizing with the people we are supposed to condemn, and condemning those whose side we are supposed to be on.  It's a brilliant exercise in empathy.

"Young Goodman Brown," perhaps the most gothic of Hawthorne's stories, deals explicitly with the dark side of Puritans.  It is set in Salem, Masachusetts, after the infamous Witch Trials.  The title character, Goodman Brown, leaves his wife and goes on an unnamed errand one evening.  Slowly, we discover that Brown is going to a satanic cult meeting in the woods.  However, instead of finding strangers there, he finds all the "respectable" people of the town--the minister, local politicians, pious women from the church, even his own wife!  It's a devilish initiation ritual involving torches and black robes.  On his way to the cult meeting, Goodman Brown encounters the devil, who explains that he has been a friend of the Puritans ever since they arrived in the New World.  "I have been well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans," the devil says, and goes on to explain how he helped the Puritans commit many of their national atrocities, like the witch trials, and the burning of Indian villages.

The story devolves into increasing horror, and becomes a powerful meditation on the darkness and hypocrisy of the Puritans, who liked to think of themselves as God's new "chosen people."  Based on the crimes and atrocities they committed, they could very well be the devil's chosen people, Hawthorne suggests.  As a 19th century reader, I am supposed to side with the Puritans/Pilgrims, but in "Young Goodman Brown" they are portrayed as evil.  

What I think Hawthorne is up to in his writing is getting us, the reader, to think differently about ourselves personally, and as a nation.  Americans like to fancy themselves as the perennial "good guys."  Hawthorne, one of America's most famous and important writers, forced his readers to consider the possibility that we, as humans and as a nation, have the same potential for evil and corruption as anyone and any nation.  In fact, we have shown this evil historically, in our treatment of Native Americans, women, and many other groups of people.  Reading is an act of empathy and introspection, and this is a good and healthy thing to do, lest we become complacent and arrogant.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Gothic Writer

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