Writing under the influence of his Puritan background, Hawthorne’s attention was on individuals and their relationships within their community. Theocratic Puritans punished sinners as deviants of society and used the punishments to restate the boundaries within the group. The five tenets of Puritanism reveal the curious nature of a religion that promoted goodness as a constant goal of each individual, but provided only negative reward of no punishment for good behavior and actions. The tenet of Unconditional Election made predestination clear. No matter how hard one tried to be good, only those elected were going to heaven.
In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne introduces the community by way of the prison house and the women of the community “being of mature age and church members in good repute.” In the conversation that the women have about Hester their jealous hearts and vengeful attitudes are revealed. In this way he shows us that this community, although it was designed to be the perfect Christian community, interprets itself as something else. We can assume that Hawthorne shows us the bitchy ways of the women of the church, the ones who supposedly care for the sick and tend to the elderly, nurturing and comforting in a Christian-like manner, and the prison house to inform us that Puritan society has problems, the same problems that any society might have. We can begin to read Hawthorne from the romantic perspective and see society as the guilty party. Indeed, the author sets us up to see Hester as a heroine, a rose, even though a wild rose.
And Young Goodman Brown takes his place as hero in his tale. Although we know that he embarks on an “evil purpose,” we also know his intentions are to return to his good Faith. But how can a Puritan return to his good faith when he is a sinner? There is no way to achieve goodness, because Adam sinned, so sinned we all. And if you accept that, even if you reject communion with it, who can be trusted? Not even your self. Young Goodman Brown’s happiness could only come from a life with Faith/faith and all he could believe in was the reality of his faith, which was that all were sinners. That means that communion has to be communion with sin.
Hence, the master of ceremonies, the devil, pronouncing at the communion, “Evil must be your only happiness.” Was it even possible to achieve goodness in Hawthorne’s world? Brown experienced an awareness, he had an experience of the embodiment of another tenet of the Puritan faith – total depravity. And the catch-22 is that belief in the faith is belief in total depravity, which is belief in one’s communion with evil, which locks you out of goodness. Therefore, to take part in the communion or to refuse to take part in the communion makes no difference in the outcome. Goodness is unachievable.
Realizing this, Brown is destined to shun the community. Of course he was distrustful; he knew that all the people in his community were in communion with the devil. He wasn’t even sure about Faith, “whether Faith obeyed, he knew not.” I find a drop of hope in “Young Goodman Brown.” “While a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled him with the coldest dew.” I think Hawthorne has nature baptize him. I think this story reveals the torture of a sincere believer who comes to confusion within the faith he knows and can not feel sure about leaving it. In Hawthorne’s awareness, in Brown’s awareness, we have misery. But what else could one choose? Open communion with the devil is obviously bad.
Hawthorne’s confusion comes from not knowing how to achieve goodness. Perhaps Hawthorne tells us that we need to sin in order to be able to choose goodness. Then Brown’s misery reveals that not acknowledging one’s sinful nature makes it impossible to be a part of the community. Hester is quick to acknowledge her sisterhood and she was loved by the community. “It is to the credit of human nature that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates (referring to Hester, page 147).” But is love of others a judge of goodness? And, even if they loved her, they continued to treat her as a deviant. Hester was a sinner.
Hilda, too, acknowledges her sinful nature, when she says to Miriam, “If I were one of God’s angels with a nature incapable of stain and garments that never could be spotted, I would keep ever at your side, and try to lead you upward.” She acknowledges her humaness. Goodman Brown only acknowledges his fear of “what polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw.” He could not hear the goodness in the psalm for his knowledge that the singers were sinners, “an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain.”
Hester’s acknowledgement of her sin had the opposite effect, “the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness . . .” It would seem that, through this contrast, it is obvious that it is acknowledging sinful nature that brings goodness. This lends itself to attributing heroism to Hester. This lends itself to the romantic approach or the transcendental approach, which states that it’s not the sin that matters. Or the psychological realistic approach, which takes the focus off of the sin and makes of it a plot device, one that each character wrestles with individually.
But Hester was set apart “alone in the world” like Goodman Brown. She was cold like marble. He was stern. He was sad. “(Hester’s) tendency to speculation made her sad.” He was darkly meditative, distrustful if not desperate. On page 152 of the Scarlet Letter – “There was a wild and ghastly scenery all around her and a home and comfort nowhere.
At times a fearful doubt strove to posess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.” I wish Hawthornes house were made of stone, so that I could alter the interior. I want Hester to be the heroine. I want to believe that her society made her wrong, but that they were the ones in the wrong. Hawthorne was influenced by the romantics and he did textually point his finger at society. He also glorified Dimmesdale’s and Hester’s passion by rationalizing their actions (particularly by explaining the mistake of her marriage to an inappropriate man) and by making Pearl blessed by riches in the end.
But, all in all, he is based too strongly in Variant Christian thought. He is too attached to total depravity and too immersed in his own confusion.