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The theme of sexual unease permeates his finest work. From "My Kinsman,
Major Molineaux" and "Young Goodman Brown," written in his mid-twenties, to
the tales of art and beauty that culminate with "Rappaccini's Daughter,"
Hawthorne struggled to arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of the nature of women
and the power of passion. Yet even in his best tales it is difficult to decide when
tragic wisdom, with its proud protest against mortality, yields to private obsession, with
its neurotic fear of the body. Only when Hawthorne is at his most crafty and
ironic, suggesting sincerity and clear meaning one moment and coyly hinting at the
impossibility of ultimate truth the next, can he switch from being the virtuous
philosopher that was expected of him to the chameleon poet more in keeping with his
genius. Thus Hawthorne, in a sense, had to fool himself to become a great
writer. He had to subvert his conventional rhetoric and sentimental stereotypes as
well as his semiconscious neurotic compulsions. This required a delicate balance;
very rarely can he both summon his demons and make them jump through the hoops of his
choosing. And even when he can analyze the deeper psychology of his hypersensitive
heroes, tormented by their inability to come to terms with the feminine, he still can't
cure himself of being like them.
"My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" and "Young Goodman Brown" are companion
pieces about a naive hero's quest for experience and his discovery of what he takes to be
evil. Both Robin and Brown draw their names from Puck in Shakespeare's A
Midsummer Night's Dream, "That shrewd and knavish sprite/ Call'd Robin
Goodfellow." The two youths rely on their shrewdness and scruples to protect
them on their adventures. Robin has come to the city for the same reason Brown has
gone to the forest, to be initiated into the mysteries of sexuality. For Robin
temptation comes in the form of "the slender-waisted woman, in the scarlet
petticoat,"whose saucy eye and round, beckoning arm "proved stronger than the
athletic country youth" (76). Captivated by her charms and on the verge of losing his
scruples, Robin according to the inverted logic of the dreamwork causes Molineaux's fall:
By defying the moral authority symbolized by the Major and yielding to illicit wishes he
unleashes all the forces of chaos. Soon "a multitude of rioters" surges
around the corner with Molineaux, "in tar-and-feather dignity" (85), trying to
make the best of his humiliation. What Robin at first assumes is some kind of
"prodigious merrymaking" (83), proves to be mob violence in the service of
revolutionary ideals: "On they went, in counterfeit pomp, in senseless uproar,
in frenzied merriment, trampling on an old man's heart" (86). As this passage
makes clear, Hawthorne's sympathies lie with the overthrown patriarch, whose
"head...grown grey in honor" deserved better than this "foul disgrace"
(85). As for Robin, the fact that he so easily catches the "convulsive
merriment" (86) of the crowd, and joins in its shout of wild laughter, does not bode
well for his maturity or independence of mind. He may use his shrewdness to
"rise in the world" (87), but will he ever achieve the distinction of his
The motif of merriment run amuck is carried over into "Young Goodman
Brown." If Robin, as we are told, is eighteen, we might well ask just how young
is Brown? Although he is three months married, he is clearly a neophyte with little
knowledge of the world. The witch Goody Close describes him as "silly" and
"nice." His wife is aptly named "Faith," and her pink ribbons
puzzle and allure Brown the way the scarlet petticoat tantalized Robin. She begs her
husband to "tarry" with her "this of all nights of the year" (276),
but he has plans to tarry elsewhere. He has a "covenant" (278) to attend
a black mass in "the heathen wilderness" (282). In the Puritan
imagination, a black mass was a perversion of the Eucharist; what took place around the
Devil's blazing altar was an orgy among witches and warlocks. Brown, in short, has
come to the forest seeking satanic sex. And he is not setting family precedent: In
the past his forefathers took this same primrose path of dalliance, and "returned
merrily after midnight" (278). The story traces Brown's progressive dis-
illusionment, as all the townspeople he looked up to join in the demonic merriment:
"...irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these
elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute
lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice..."
(285). Brown learns that the urge to think wicked thoughts, speak wanton words, and
do lustful deeds unites mankind in sinful brotherhood. And when he evidently sees
his own Faith of the pink ribbons among the throng, he shrieks with hideous laughter,
renounces his faith that his wife is "a blessed angel on earth" (276), and
converts to the hellish doctrine that "Evil is the nature of mankind"
(287). Has Brown only "dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?"
(288). If so, it is a dream laced with phallic anxiety as the imagery of trees,
twigs, staffs, snakes, broomsticks and walking sticks illustrates and the distraught young
man awakes with his
cheek "besprinkled...with the coldest dew" (288).
Has Brown discovered evil or only dreamt about his own sexual inadequacy? Has a
glimpse of the abyss blighted his life? What does his "sad transformation"
mean? It is possible for a penetrating mind to conceive a larger truth from a
seemingly trivial event. What Oedipus learns is and is not "trivial": The
root meaning, "where three roads meet," literally recalls the place where he
slew his father and the word also symbolizes the ill-fated trio of his tragedy.
Saint Augustine's life-long obsession with original sin, the precursor of the Puritan
doctrine of innate depravity, dated from his feelings of shame as a boy when he got
unwanted erections at the public baths. Since passion was a force ungovernable by
human willpower, he concluded that it must be a legacy from Adam's fall. In sum,
Hawthorne's young heroes, Robin and Brown, play with fire and get burned, but each draws a
different moral: Robin is now "liberated," a masterless man who can do whatever
he wishes; Brown, on the other hand, is doomed: "A stern, a sad, a darkly
meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate, man did he become from the night of that
fearful dream.... They carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was
It is difficult to take either Robin's willful jollity or Brown's fateful gloom very
seriously, since neither was a person of substance to begin with. The Reverend
Hooper in "The Minister's Black Veil" is a more difficult case: He is an older,
more complex man, and the form his gloom takes, covering his face with a piece of black
crepe, is troubling at first sight and, upon reflection, appalling. From the opening
paragraph where we see the sexton "pulling lustily at the bell-rope" and
"spruce bachelors" noting that "the pretty maidens" dressed in their
Sunday best looked even "prettier than on week-days" (371)to the hints that
Reverend Hooper feels a guilty complicity in the death of the maiden whose funeral he
conducts the very day he dawns his veil, the story insinuates that the incense of religion
and the spice of eroticism are not unrelated. Has Hooper covered his face because he
has committed a sexual crime? Or is it because he cannot face connubial bliss with
his plighted wife, Elizabeth? The fact that the veil is a feminine article warning of
sexual taboos a maid's modesty, a nun's chastity, and a widow's mourning is certainly
relevant. Hawthorne's parable implies these possibilities in the process of raising
a more unnerving set of questions.
Hillis Miller, in his astute study Hawthorne & History, argues that "the story
is the unveiling of the possibility of the impossibility of unveiling" (51). He
notes that a parable, by definition, is esoteric,its meaning known only to the initiated
few who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Hooper's baffling decision to see the
world through a veil darkly undercuts his congregation's, and the reader's,
securities. The black veil unmasks our fear of masks, that perhaps nothing can be
taken at face value in this world and that there may be no moment of face to face
revelation in the next. Miller postulates that our ability to see ourselves in a
mirror, or to exchange reciprocal looks with others, is crucial to our sense of having a
true self; that all social intercourse is based on the assumption that people have honest
faces we can trust; that the reason we examine the faces of the dead and dying is to gain
assurance of their salvation, to personify death's enigma, and to find the courage to face
death ourselves; and that we humanize all the great mysteries God the Father, Mother
Nature, the Prince of Darkness, the Grim Reaper to make our existence make sense.
According to Nietzsche, we have art so as not to die of the truth; religion and literature
give us the necessary illusion of meaning: We prefer Adam and Eve in the garden to atoms
in the void. If the world is a set of signs that can be read and interpreted,then
existence is not absurd. But if faces are undecipherable masks, then perhaps no
signs truly signify; thus Goodman Brown may be justified to decide that "sin is but a
name" (283) and to despair and die. For how can anyone know the truth, if
Reverend Hooper discerns "on every visage a Black Veil!"? (384).
In the two years following his marriage to Sophia in 1842,Hawthorne wrote four related
stories about the conflict between ideal beauty and earthly desire. Although these
tales expose the inadequacy of his aesthetic assumptions and his incapacity to accept
women as passionate flesh-and-blood creatures, Hawthorne is reluctant to acknowledge the
truths they dramatize. Instead he writes apologetics for his tendency to
spiritualize and idealize women and the world. Phallic anxiety and a fear of being
touched are prominent motifs in all four stories. Passion is seen as so powerful a
force that any contact with the feminine is intolerably charged. In "The
Birthmark," for example, Aylmer shows Georgiana his magical plant: Then came the
slender stalk; the leaves gradually unfolded themselves; and amid them was a perfect and
lovely flower. "It is magical!" cried Georgiana. "I dare not
touch it." "Nay, pluck it," answered Aylmer,"pluck it, and
inhale its brief perfume while you may. The flower will wither in a few moments and
leave nothing save its brown seed vessels; but thence may be perpetuated a race as
ephemeral as itself."
But Georgiana had no sooner touched the flower than the whole plant suffered a blight, its
leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire. "There was too powerful a
stimulus," said Aylmer, thoughtfully (771). That stimulus is even stronger in
"Rappaccini's Daughter," which teems with lush and lethal plants; never did
"deflowering" have more dangerous connotations! Although Beatrice
"looks redundant with life, health, and energy," Giovanni is convinced that she
should "be touched only with a glove, nor to be approched without a mask"
(979-80). His fears of impotence are apparent when he observes how "a drop or
two of moisture from the broken stem" of one of her flowers falls upon the head of a
lizard, causing it to contort and die (984); he feels "a thrill of indefinable
horror" when he perceives that the beautiful bouquets he has brought her quickly
"wither" and "droop" in her grasp (1000). And when he reaches
his hand toward her favorite purple shrub which he has seen her embrace with
"passionate ardor" and call "my sister"Beatrice cries out in agony:
"Touch it not! Not for thy life! It is fatal!" (993).
How a love of beauty can be an escape from contact with reality is illustrated by
"The Artist of the Beautiful." Owen Warland, a frail creator of fragile
miniatures, has a "microscopic" mind, "diminutive frame,"
"slender voice," and fingers of "marvelous smallness and delicate
power" (909). Naturally enough, his adored Anne rejects him for Robert Danford,
the blacksmith whose "vast hand" (911) was "accustomed to grip bars of
iron" (925). Owen admits Robert's strength with his sledge hammer, but hopes to
lure Anne away with his artistic ingenuity. But when she reaches for one of his
spiritualized mechanisms, he cries, "For Heaven's sake...do not touch it! The
slightest pressure of your fingers would ruin me forever" (915). The story ends with
Anne's child crushing Owen's "ideal butterfly" in his hand to "a small heap
of glittering fragments" (930). Only in "Drowne's Wooden Image" is
touch seen as a creative force. John Singleton Copley, the American-born painter
who made his career in England, tells Drowne the wood carver that the only thing his work
lacks is "one touch"namely, "passion enough to communicate warmth and
sensibility to the lifeless oak" (936).
The other three stories depict passion as a genie to be eradicated or kept in a stoppered
bottle. Alymer, for example, cannot love his wife until her birthmark that
"crimson stain" symbolizing her mortality and sexuality has been removed.
Even Hawthorne's poor artist of the beautiful was so "thrown off balance" by his
love for Anne that for a time he was swept away by "uncontrollable" passions:
"Owen Warland made proof of whatever show of bliss may be found in riot"
(918). Given Owen's attenuated nature, this assertion is questionable at best, but
it does reaffirm how fearful Hawthorne was of unchecked desire. None of his stories
is more tormented by "the subtle sophistry of passion" than "Rappaccini's
Daughter." Giovanni describes Beatrice in images that suggest a burgeoning,
barely restrained, sensuality: all her luscious "attributes were bound down and
compressed, as it were, and girdled tensely, in their luxuriance, by her virgin zone"
(980). Hawthorne is unusually explicit that what his hero feels for this budding
beauty is lust: "she had at least instilled a fierce and subtle poison into his
system. It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor
horror...but a wild offspring of both love and horror that...burned like one and shivered
like the other.... Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is
the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal
regions" (987). Baglioni's tale within the tale of the beautiful woman whose
"love would have been poison her embrace death" (996) suggests that Giovanni's
tendency to equate pollination with pollution, sex with death, has historical roots.
Freud's essay "The Taboo of Virginity" cites literary variations on the theme of
"The Virgin's Poison," and he traces this notion back to primitive anxieties
about menstruation and castration the fear that sex steals men's strength and infects them
with feminine weakness (71-86).
On an overt level, these stories are remarkably uncritical of their heroes' notions that
the artist's mission is to spiritualize nature and eschew passion. Although
Georgiana tells Alymer "you cannot love what shocks you!" (765), she still sees
his misguided effort to remove her birthmark as noble and lofty, even though he has
"rejected the best the earth had to offer" (780). Only the despised
Aminadab, who gets the last devilish laugh, has the sense to say, "If she were my
wife, I'd never part with that birthmark" (770). In "Rappaccini's
Daughter," when the dying Beatrice cries out, "O, was not there, from the first,
more poison in thy nature than in mine?" (1005), Hawthorne is criticizing Giovanni
for relinquishing his belief that "the real Beatrice was a heavenly angel"
(1001), not for his inability to accept female sensuality. Even the ineffectual Owen
is treated sympathetically as "the ideal artist" striving to keep faith in his
refined vision in spite of a crass and hostile world; it is never stated that his problem
might be misguided assumptions about art and life. The crucial exception to this
pattern is "Drowne's Wooden Image." Although the story contains
Hawthorne's usual insistence on "the ethereal essence of humanity" (935) and the
need to spiritualize matter, it is clear that the woman Drowne carves is endowed with
passionate vitality: The strange, rich flowers of Eden on her head; the complexion, so
much deeper and more brilliant than those of our native beauties; the foreign, as it
seemed, and fantastic garb, yet not too fantastic to be worn decorously in the street; the
delicately- wrought embroidery of the skirt; the broad gold chain about her neck; the
curious ring upon her finger; the fan, so exquisitely sculptured in open work, and painted
to resemble pearl and ebony;where could Drowne, in his sober walk of life, have beheld the
vision here so matchlessly embodied! And then her face! In the dark eyes and
around the voluptuous mouth there played a look made up of pride, coquetry, and a gleam of
mirthfulness, which impressed Copley with the idea that the image was secretly
enjoying the perplexed admiration of himself and all other beholders(939).
Clearly, this is not a sentimental fair maiden, but a mature woman in all her infinite
variety. Drowne has created her in "a brief season of excitement, kindled by
love," and Hawthorne is exactly right when he adds that "Drowne was more
consistent with himself when he wrought the admirable figure of the mysterious lady, than
when he perpetuated a whole progeny of blockheads" (943). The question is, has
Hawthorne yet learned to be "consistent" with his own passionate self?
Until he can outgrow his recoil from sensual experience and renounce his tendency to
idealize instead of embody the physical world, the masterpiece he has been striving for
will elude him. He will never be able to create Hester and write The Scarlet Letter.
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