Nathaniel Hawthorne and Societal Obsession
Nathaniel Hawthorne set his stories in 17th – to 19th century America, but he was not focused on history. Rather, Hawthorne’s focus was on the psychological journeys of individuals, who were influenced by the societies and the societal ideas surrounding them. Two of Hawthorne’s short stories, “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Birthmark” both feature characters who take ideas from their society, obsess over the ideas, and eventually are destroyed by them. In this essay, I’ll describe both the unraveling psyches and the societal influences that acted on these characters.
The story “Young Goodman Brown” was set in a 17th century Puritan society where fear of the devil prevailed, distorting the lives and mental health of individuals like the fictional Goodman Brown. The irrational fears of Hawthorne’s character mirrored the whole society in which he lived. Puritans believed the devil was actively recruiting and that people needed to always be on their guard against him. The following poem by immigrant Thomas Tillam, written in 1638, illustrates the Puritan preoccupation with sin and the devil:
Possess this country; free from all annoy
here I’ll be with you, here you shall enjoy
my Sabbaths, sacraments, my ministry
and ordinances in their purity.
But yet beware of Satan’s wily baits;
He lurks among you, cunningly he waits
To catch you from me. Live not then secure
But fight ’gainst sin, and let your lives be pure.
Prepare to hear your sentence thus expressed:
Come ye my servants of my Father Blessed. (Tillam, 6)
Tillam’s poem persuades its readers to stay fearful and actively vigilant, as the devil never rests in his eternal pursuit of new souls, using every trick to seduce the unwary. Goodman Brown shares these preoccupations in the story. As he leaves his wife, Faith, one night, to go on an evil errand (which may be a dream), he fearfully thinks… “There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,’ and, ‘What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow?” (Hawthorne 1289) The Puritan fear of the devil was real, and in Hawthorne’s story, was one of the societal influences which acted on Brown with tragic consequences.
Another historical feature of Puritan societies that impacted Brown (especially prominent in Salem, where this story was set), was the public nature of piety. Families and individuals compared their behavior with that of others in the community and kept close watch on others for signs of witchcraft or devil worship. Neighbors, it was believed, could be in league with the devil and as dangerous as the devil himself. Community members were watched for examples of pious living, so that they could continue to be viewed as safe companions. In Hawthorne’s story, the devil recognizes this culture of surveillance and its folly in the forest communion scene:
There…are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! (Hawthorne 1296)
Goodman Brown shared the Puritanical tendency to evaluate the righteousness and sinfulness of others and categorize people as belonging to one side or the other. A related characteristic with a negative impact on his mental health is that he looked for goodness solely outside of himself, seemingly unable or unwilling to search for it within. Brown begins the story with spiritual pride in his family – “We are a people of prayer, and good works, to boot, and abide no such wickedness.” (Hawthorne, 1291) His shadowy companion, however, sheds doubt on this claim and insinuates that his father set fire to an Indian village and his grandfather persecuted a Quaker woman. Goodman, although now doubting his perceptions of his ancestors, nonetheless turns away from his evil purpose and decides to go back to his wife. Brown’s spiritual pride gave him new resolve to stay on the clean path and fight his temptation towards sin, to stay in the “good group.” As long as Goodman Brown could identify a group of good people, he felt safe, even excepting his momentary sinful journey. Brown identified with people in the community that he understood to be spiritually pure, like Goody Cloyse, the woman who had taught him his catechism, “a pious and exemplary dame” (Hawthorne 1291). His minister and his lovely bride were also clearly in God’s camp. As long as Brown believed that there were people in the community successful in resisting the devil, he had hope that sin would not prevail. This group of people was his psychological anchor. As the story continues, Brown gradually learns that every single person he believed to be good was part of this unholy forest communion. The devil said, “Now are ye undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. “ (Hawthorne 1297). At this point Brown lost all of his remaining hope, anchored as it was in the belief that some people in the community could resist the devil. He now believed that all of humanity was eternally damned, and this was the idea that destroyed him.
Hawthorne uses visual imagery to show the psychological transition in Brown from sanity to madness. Hawthorne describes this horrific breaking point for Brown. “’My Faith is gone!’ cried he, after one stupefied moment. ‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! For to thee is this world given.’ …. And maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long…. he himself was the chief horror of the scene. …The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man.” (Hawthorne 1294). This maniacal laughter signifies the moment of psychological climax and destruction for Brown. And Brown afterwards became a shadow of himself. “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.” (Hawthorne 1297). The damage to Goodman Brown was permanent.
The Puritanical preoccupation with evil, fear of the devil, and tyrannical surveillance of others and condemnation of them was like a disease that infected entire communities, and took hold in the most vulnerable to become an obsession. In Goodman Brown, exposure to this set of ideas became a psychological torment. The witchcraft meeting in the forest either really happened or was a dream, however, the experience in his mind was real in either case, leading to alienation from society and his family and destroying his happiness.
Like Goodman Brown, Alymer in “The Birthmark” also nurses an obsession that eventually destroys him and all of his chances for happiness. Set in the late 18th century, in the time of the growth of science, “it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman, in its depth and absorbing energy.” (Hawthorne 1320) Alymer was a man of science, passionate about the natural world and all of its secrets, who married Georgiana, a beautiful and loving young woman with a birthmark on one cheek. The story turns tragic when Alymer’s desire to remove his wife’s birthmark becomes an obsession to prove himself more powerful than Mother Nature. The prevailing societal ideas about science and its power act on Alymer to create disastrous consequences. Alymer concocted a dangerous elixir, which Georgiana, out of love for him, drank at her own peril. It removed the birthmark from her cheek, and also poisoned her to death.
Alymer’s obsession to remove the birthmark started gradually, but rapidly grew to become powerful and dangerous. Before his marriage, he didn’t think about the birthmark, but after his marriage, Alymer wanted the birthmark gone, so “that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness, without the semblance of a flaw.” (Hawthorne 1321). As the story continued, Alymer became unstoppable in his obsession to rid her of the birthmark. “Until now, he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace.” (Hawthorne 1323). We learn later in the story that the “lengths which he might find in his heart to go” were beyond reasonable, sane bounds.
Alymer’s second flaw was an unreasonable conception of what science could achieve. At first, Alymer seemed to recognize, though he did not like it, that there were limits to what man could create. While he retained this reasonable understanding, his danger to other human beings was minimized. Hawthorne describes the eminence of Mother Nature over man, and Alymer’s one-time recognition of it:
Here too, at an earlier period, he had studied the wonders of the human frame, and attempted to fathom the very process by which Nature assimilates all her precious influences from earth and air and from the spiritual world, to create and foster Man, her masterpiece.
The latter pursuit, however, Alymer had long laid aside, in unwilling recognition of the truth, against which all seekers sooner or later stumble, that our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results. She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and like a jealous patentee, on no account to make. (Hawthorne 1324)
Alymer had once understood that the Creative Mother retains superiority over her creation and will not let man learn how to create or alter Her masterpiece, the human being. While that was clear, he concentrated his scientific experiments in other realms where he could be more successful. After the maniacal obsession to rid Georgiana of the birthmark, however, Alymer disregarded his former resolution not to meddle with human creation. “Now, however, Alymer resumed those half-forgotten investigations.” (Hawthorne 1324) Alymer had once again set his sights on an achievement that hinged on divine secrets. He also tread dangerously across the line by assuming to conduct his scientific laboratory work on a living human subject, and one he professed to love.
The final flaw in his psychological makeup that allowed this disastrous outcome was prideful self-regard and desire to be all-powerful. Alymer “….had made discoveries in the elemental powers of nature, that had roused the admiration of all the learned societies in Europe.” (Hawthorne 1324). Alymer horrified Georgiana when describing the “…Elixer of Immortality. It is the most precious poison that ever was concocted in this world. By its aid, I could apportion the lifetime of any mortal at whom you might point your finger.” (Hawthorne 1327). Alymer seemed to give little attention to questions of morality and showed a horrifying disregard for reasonable limits and humility.
Remember that in “Young Goodman Brown” it was the Puritan obsession with the devil and eternal damnation that infected Goodman Brown, along with a proclivity to divide human kind into black and white categories of sinner and saint (and avoid looking at humans as a realistic mix of good and bad). In “The Birthmark,” it is Alymer’s scientific peers that provide the ideas that take hold in Alymer and turn dangerous. It was Georgiana who found evidence of these ideas. She read journals in Alymer’s library to learn more about him and what risks there might be with his proposed treatment. First, in the journals of several prominent naturalists, she found: “All these antique naturalists stood in advance of their centuries, ;yet …perhaps imagined themselves, to have acquired from the investigation of nature a power above nature, and from physics a sway over the spiritual world.” (Hawthorne 1327). She also read journals from the members of the Transactions of the Royal Society that “knowing little of the limits of natural possibility, were continually recording wonders, or proposing methods whereby wonders may be wrought.” (Hawthorne 1327). Alymer loved science and revered his peers – and these peers, like Alymer himself, seemed to both overestimate the power science can have over nature and disregard the limits of human knowledge. Hawthorne suggests that readers should be more skeptical through the moral voice of Georgiana:
Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Alymer, and loved him more profoundly then ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. (Hawthorne 1328).
Georgiana recognized, as Alymer did not, that his scientific goals were too far reaching and ill conceived and that he would always fall short of what he wanted to achieve.
Alymer’s obsession with Georgiana’s birthmark, his desire to be all powerful, and his utter disregard for her safety pushed him over the psychological boundary into madness. Like Goodman Brown, his climactic moment of madness was signified by maniacal laughter, here when Georgiana had consumed the elixir and the birthmark began to fade:
“Ah, clod! Ah, earthly mass!” cried Alymer, laughing in a sort of frenzy. “you have served me well! Matter and Spirit – Earth and Heaven – have both done their part in this! Laugh, thing of the senses! You have earned the right to laugh.” (Hawthorne1331)
Alymer truly believed in this instant that he had become the master of the universe and beaten the Divine Creator at her own game. He would soon learn otherwise, as Georgiana quickly perished.
Both Alymer and Goodman Brown were flawed in that they allowed ideas to enslave their minds and drive them to madness. Both absorbed ideas from the societies around them (Goodman Brown from the 17th century Puritan ideas about the devil and sin, and Alymer from the 19th century growing belief in the power of science to effect miracles). The characters in both short stories ultimately pushed beyond normal psychological functioning and allowed their obsessions to destroy their own happiness and the happiness of their families. Neither character successfully navigated the psychological frontier of their day.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Birthmark,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 1289 – 1298 and 1320 – 1332.
Tillam, Thomas, “Upon the First Sight of New England”, Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing, 2009 Page 6.