The works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe are among the most recognizable in American literature because of their haunting mood and the disturbing, sad, sometimes dreadful feelings they evoke. But whereas Hawthorne was deeply concerned with the dark secrets of the human soul, his characters constantly finding themselves in the swirl of ethical debate, Poe made no such pretensions. While Hawthorne was a moralist who wrestled with sin and evil, Poe was a skillful craftsman who gave life to the phantasms that dwelt in the realm of his imagination. By analyzing some of their more popular works in this essay, we shall compare and contrast their use of perversion, mystery, and horror or the symbols thereof and to what extent they focus themselves on the nature of evil and sin.
Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown “probes the psychology of Puritan Salem’s witchcraft frenzy to offer insights into the moral complexity of human nature” (Modugno). At dusk, Goodman Brown starts on a journey to the forest, passing through “a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest” to where the witches of the village congregate at midnight. Goodman Brown echoes the common man’s dread when passing through such paths: “What if the devil himself should be at my elbow!” And sure enough, there appeared an old man with the twisted staff “which bore the likeness of a great black snake.”
The setting in itself does not terrify, nor does the twisted staff: the realization that the entire village has fallen prey to witchcraft –including the minister and Goody Cloyse who taught Goodman Brown catechism, and perhaps, his own wife Faith herself - does. When Goodman Brown finds Faith’s ribbon in the forest, he is “maddened with despair”, crying: “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.” Losing all hope, he plunges headlong into the forest. Yet all is not lost: while the leader of the fiend worshippers declares that “Evil is the nature of mankind.
Evil must be your only happiness,” Goodman Brown and Faith were the only pair, it seemed, “who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world.” Before the mark of baptism was laid on their foreheads, Goodman Brown implores Faith to “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.” Whether it was all a dream or heaven intervened is not known, but the next morning Goodman Brown finds the town of Salem as it was before. But the experience had changed him: he now looks upon everyone with distrust. He could not listen to the singing of psalms during the Sabbath services. “When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence . . .Goodman Brown turned pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers.”
Poe’s Ulalume also speaks of a lonesome journey into “the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir”: “Here, once, through an alley Titanic/Of cypress I roamed with my soul/Of cypress with Psyche my soul.” Psyche begs him to fly, seeing a star which she “mistrust”, but the poet/narrator prevails upon her to continue, until they arrive at a legended tomb – that of the lost Ulalume. The poet/narrator cries in anguish upon realizing that it was on that very night a year before that he “brought a dread burden down here”. In this poem, Poe makes use of symbols (leaves that were “withering”, “crisped”, and “sere”; a “miraculous crescent” with a “duplicate horn”, the “dim lake of Auber”, the “misty mid-region of Weir”) only to set the mood, which is one of melancholy and dread, not to arouse any inner struggle about moral values.
A reader accustomed to look for a moral in a story will find The Cask of Amontillado, a gothic tale of revenge written by Edgar Allan Poe, devoid of any allusion to conscience.The narrator’s only concern is to execute his vengeance in cold blood and escape unpunished. But here is an intriguing note: the narrator assumes the reader “knows the nature” of his (the author’s) soul. Of course we do not know until we come to the climax, where the narrator (Montresor) entombs his friend Fortunato alive in a granite wall in the catacombs. Could it be that Poe believed every human soul was potentially capable of unbelievable cruelty? If so, he and Hawthorne have at least a thing in common: a Freudian belief in the latent animal nature of man. (Incidentally, Melville, a friend of Hawthorne, describes, in Moby Dick an angel as “nothing but a shark well-governed”).
In The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe again narrates a murder most foul, provoked by what the killer perceived as the victim’s “vulture eye”. Here Poe describes from the murderer’s point of view how he committed the deed, and why he finally broke up, telling searchers to “tear up the planks” upon being tormented by the beating of the victim’s “hideous heart”. The narrator’s anguish is not caused by knowing he had committed a grave wrong: he is only concerned only with fear of punishment, like Montresor in The Cask of Amontillado.
The constant allusion in Hawthorne’s works about the dark secrets concealed in the human heart also appears in The Minister’s Black Veil, where the town parson surprises his parishioners by wearing a black crepe to hide his face. Till his last breath he refuses to remove the veil, resolutely clutching at it when it was to be forcibly taken away. His final words ring as an indictment against the hypocrisy of men and society.
Why do you tremble at me alone? . . .Tremble also at each other! When . . .man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!
The black veil may be a symbol of sin, against which the stern moralists of Hawthorne’s day zealously guarded their congregations. Hawthorne probably saw through the Puritans’ impeccable religious conduct, or perhaps imagined that despite their avowals of faith they harbored sins known only to themselves. It is possible that Hawthorne’s works are an echo of the powerful sermons delivered by the likes of Cotton Mather in colonial America, making the sinners cringe in fear of hellish damnation.
Rappacini’s Daughter, another Hawthorne tale, tells of a young woman, Beatrice, who was exposed by her father from childhood to the flowers of a gorgeous shrub, inhaling its poisonous fumes until she became immune to it and possessed of the ability to kill by her breathe anyone who comes to her. To Dr. Rappacini, this made her terrible as she was beautiful. He chides his daughter for accusing him of having made her life miserable. “Wouldst thou then,” he says, “have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none?” Beatrice drinks the antidote which kills her. In this tale, Hawthorne explores the complexity of human nature. The poisonous flower may symbolize many things. Its outward appearance of beauty that secretly kills can be taken as the material things most people crave but instead of happiness bring them sorrow.
Whereas Hawthorne wrote from the viewpoint of the conscience-stricken Puritan, Kennedy believes that Poe’s works were influenced by the violence of that period of American history: “Writing in the wake of Charles Brockden Brown, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and James Fennimore Cooper, all of whom depicted episodes of bloody cruelty, Poe was yet the first important American writer to foreground violence and to prove its psychological origin” (4).
Through the works of Poe, the reader can see “his “darkly passionate sensibilities: a tormented and sometimes neurotic obsession with death and violence and overall appreciation for the beautiful yet tragic mysteries of life” (Merriman). To Hawthorne, the symbols of perversion, mystery, and horror in his works were but instruments to bring into focus, despite its aura of light and beauty, the horrible nature of sin.
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