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Puritan or

Rebel?
Ambiguity and
Conflicts in the
Works of
Nathaniel
Hawthorne

Kate Rogers
May, 2007
This book is a thesis in satisfaction of requirements for the
degree of Master of Arts in Teaching with concentration in
Secondary Education: English conferred upon the author by
Union Graduate College, Schenectady, NY in May, 2007.

Original document admitted to the thesis collection of the


Schaffer Library, Union College, May, 2007.
Call No: Thesis UO992 R724p 2007

© 2007 Catherine Ashworth Rogers


All rights reserved
Table of Contents
Abstract .......................................................................................... 4
The Puritan Legacy ........................................................................ 6
Early Puritan History................................................................ 13
Puritan Beliefs ......................................................................... 15
The Second Generation .......................................................... 18
The Salem Witch Trials ........................................................... 23
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Inheritor of the Puritan Legacy ................. 28
An Emerging American Literary Tradition ............................... 35
The Transcendentalist Movement ........................................... 38
Impacts of Transcendentalism ................................................ 40
Puritan or Rebel? .................................................................... 43
The Custom House ...................................................................... 45
“The Haunted Mind” ..................................................................... 50
“The Maypole of Merry Mount” .................................................... 54
“The Minister’s Black Veil” ........................................................... 62
“Alice Doane’s Appeal” ................................................................ 68
“Young Goodman Brown” ............................................................ 76
The Scarlet Letter ........................................................................ 84
Works Cited ................................................................................. 92
Works Consulted ......................................................................... 95

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Abstract

Throughout his literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne can be


seen to both embrace and reject his Puritan heritage. His work
reveals that he has clearly internalized many of the beliefs and
values espoused by the Puritans. However, by those standards,
he is an unworthy sinner, a state that he earnestly attempts to
reject. He accepts Puritan judgments while rebelling against its
conclusions. He is a rebel guilt-ridden by his own rebellion.
Hawthorne‟s writing can be seen as a struggle to accept
his “sinful” status. He wants the promise of salvation, but
can‟t achieve it by his own internalized Puritan standards. By
those standards, he sees himself as sin-stained. Hints about
the nature of his secret sin may be discerned through a critical
reading of his stories and The Scarlet Letter. Scholarship
might never reveal the ultimate truths about what secret sins
plagued Hawthorne‟s guilty heart, but much of his writing can
be seen as a rebellion against his internalized ancestral Puritan
values.

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Puritan or Rebel?
Ambiguity and Conflicts in the Works of Nathaniel
Hawthorne

The Puritans left a legacy that has become deeply


embedded in American culture. Their early goals and values
have become defining traits that continue to shape the evolving
concepts of American identity. Far from being an
anachronistic part of our nation's ancient history, the coming of
the Puritans was perhaps the most defining event in the
ongoing evolution of an American national sense of self. Their
driving sense of purpose, serious demeanor, unshakable faith,
famous work ethic and commitment to their cause became a
standard against which future generations of Americans
measured themselves.
As a direct descendant of these Puritan forebears,
Nathaniel Hawthorne inherited the weight of their legacy. At a
defining period of the forming of an American literature, he
simultaneously embraced and rejected Puritan beliefs and
values. This ambiguity serves as the foundation for
Hawthorne‟s psyche, and is critical to understanding his work.
As a “founding father” of American literature, Hawthorne‟s
ambiguity also contributed to the formation of a similar
ambiguity in the American psyche.

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The Puritan Legacy
The early Puritans were critical of the first glimmerings
of American identity. Nonetheless, our national history begins
with their arrival. They were a committed group of
intellectuals and religious activists who were determined to
prove the superiority of their beliefs to the entire world. They
weren‟t running to these shores out of fear or desperation.
Rather, they deliberately set out on a mission to create a
society based on ecclesiastical law (Kazin 7). In a very real
sense, one strand of early national identity was founded by
these early Puritan missionaries. Although the Pilgrims were
also important early founders, they were forced by
circumstances to come here. Their story of religious
persecution remains the inspirational progenitor of our national
determination to preserve the freedom of religion. However,
the Puritans were not escaping religious persecution as much
as they were on a mission to prove the superiority of their
interpretation of Christianity. It is this mission which has left
an enduring imprint on the American psyche.
The Puritans‟ original mission to create an ideal society
became an important piece of our national legacy. Beginning
as a belief that New England would form an ideal societal
order depicted as a „City on a Hill‟ that would show the world
the way to be, the seed of this idea blossomed into the concept
of Manifest Destiny. In fact, the policy of Manifest Destiny
propelled the nation into an unparalleled era of expansion. The
idea that this nation had a responsibility to spread its ideals
around the world, and that such a goal is sanctioned by God,

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continues to be heard from national political leaders even
today.
Our current social and political systems are also an
outgrowth of the early structures that were successfully built
by the Puritan leaders. The Puritans conceived of a community
of the "elect," God's chosen people, who would work
cooperatively to govern themselves according to God's law, as
interpreted from the Bible. They came here believing that they
were fulfilling a holy covenant with God. Only such a divinely
inspired mission would take them away from their homes to
travel halfway around the world to a wilderness they believed
was inherently evil. The temptations of Satan were quite real
to them, especially in an uncivilized pagan wilderness, but
these obstacles were overcome by their determination to
uphold their end of their covenant with God. This single-
focused determination played a critical role in their survival
during the early years of hardship, and their diligent work ethic
led to their eventual prosperity. Their sense of mission never
left them, and became the birthright given to their children. In
many ways, America was shaped by the Puritans‟ early
mission.
The influence of the Puritans can be clearly seen in the
arena of politics. From George Washington to George W.
Bush, American leaders have drawn upon the conviction that
Americans are motivated by a divine mission from God. In
spite of the ideal of religious freedom imprinted on the
American psyche by the Pilgrims, it is the Puritans‟ sense of
divine covenant and establishment of a political body based on
God's will that has been used by politicians ever since.
Regardless of the constitutional mandate of the separation of

7
church and state, these two domains have been intimately
intertwined in American national rhetoric since the very
earliest days of colonial America.
The cultural impact of the early Puritans is so pervasive
that authors are continually returning to this colonial identity to
reinterpret what it means to be an American. As a nation and a
people, we define ourselves in comparison to our forebears.
The past serves as a shaping influence for our national
dialogue. As the fabric of society is woven of the interactions
between our hopes, values, and actions, so each American
author weaves a thread into the tapestry of American literature,
crafted on the loom of the Puritans‟ mission to create a
paradise on earth.
We can see this most clearly through the writings of
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many of his stories and novels can be
seen as a personal exploration as he struggles to resolve a
conflict between Puritan ideals and his own personal reality.
Hawthorne continually defined himself in comparison to his
ancestors. His ancestral lineage was prestigious in some
regards, but deeply shameful in others. As Hawthorne reached
back to the Puritan legacy, he did so with mixed emotions of
homage and shame. For this reason, Hawthorne‟s work serves
as an excellent example to demonstrate the impact the Puritan
legacy had on this young, developing author as he struggled to
define a uniquely American identity.
The Puritan legacy is not one dimensional, but is in
conflict with another dynamic aspect of American identity: that
of the independent rebel. As described in “The Declaration of
Independence,” Americans typically feel that they are entitled
to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although the

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genesis of this ideal formed in the cradle of democracy, this
secular ideal runs contrary to Puritan core values and has led to
a contradictory split in American identity. Although Puritan
values have had a pervasive influence on the development of
American identity, their influence has also led to the formation
of an identity that is contradictory in many ways to the original
Puritan ideals. The Puritan worldview is dependent on the
notion that they are a people chosen by God to fulfill His
mission. Seeking God's will and finding the means to
implement it was the highest purpose of the early Puritan. This
idea runs directly contrary to the cherished American notion of
self-willed independent action. Individual freedom was not a
notion embraced by the Puritans. Social conformity was
explicitly expected, and obedience to the common good was
valued over personal independence. Submission of the
individual will to God‟s will was expected from the devout.
As people have found throughout time, religious adherence is
often at odds with the pursuit of individual goals.
Since the American ideal of personal freedom runs
contrary to the Puritan ideal of social conformity, the conflict
sets up a dynamic tension in the country‟s sense of identifying
an American national character. In many ways, Hawthorne
embodied this tension. He struggled to conform to the
expectations of his family and community while
simultaneously striving to break free from such restraints. His
was a life of unresolved, internal conflict.
A large component of the American identity is the
larger-than-life hero who tests himself against the dangers of
the wilderness. “The wilderness” is an idea that has served as
a defining concept in the formation of an American identity.

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To the Puritans, it represents the ultimate unknown, a territory
of godless dangers, the domain of Satan. It is the realm where
true individualism is tested against the American expansionist
drive. Therefore, to confront the wilderness requires courage,
strength, and a kind of spiritual purity able to withstand the
vicissitudes of an inherently corrupt environment. An
individual goes into the wilderness to define him or herself,
often in defiance of limiting cultural expectations. Since the
wilderness is a place of unknown dangers, Americans tend to
admire those who seek to challenge these unfamiliar
boundaries. From Lewis & Clark's famous exploration of the
early American frontier to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the
moon, Americans lionize the heroes who challenge unknown
frontiers by exploring the wildest, most uncivilized wilderness.
This hero rebels against limits, and expresses the value
of individuality. However, the Puritans were all about self-
imposed limitations and the value of community effort. The
success of the Puritans lay in their ability to form close
communal bonds, a notion that runs contrary to the ideal of
American individualism. The explorer defies authority and
seeks to rise above societal expectations. These ideals of
independence and rebellion against authority run contrary to
the core Puritan ideal of obedience to God. Whereas the
Puritans feared the wilderness as the domain of Satan, the
explorer embraces the challenges of the wilderness as he
pushes to find out what new ideas lie beyond the boundaries of
civilization. Where the explorer revels in his ability for
independent action, the Puritans valued obedience to authority.
While the Puritans devoutly believed that an individual's

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salvation lay solely in God's hands, the explorer embodies the
very American notion of the "self-made man."
We can still see vestiges of Puritan values expressed in
our heroes, though. We profess our ideals through the heroes
we uphold. Through Superman, an icon of American
independence, we see that Americans profess to believe in
"truth, justice, and the American Way." These are values
echoed in the Puritan past in Puritan rhetoric. Puritans were
particularly devoted to ideals of truth and honesty, devoting
endless hours to scouring their souls and scorning any
deception found. They were also adamant supporters of
justice, as long as it was based on God's law as revealed in the
Bible. Their early system of self-governance created the
foundation for our democratic form of government. Although
the Puritans had no way of knowing that their experiment in
forming a “city on a hill” would eventually result in a new
nation called “America,” they certainly had an abiding interest
in establishing their own “way” of doing things. The early
influences of the Puritans are revealed through such icons of
American identity.
The contradictory impulses embodied in Puritan values,
however, have become an important part of the American
psyche, leading to a rich field of exploration for American
writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the first American
authors to grapple with this contradiction directly. As
Americans have continued to struggle with defining a sense of
purpose in the world, it is the authors of American literature
like Hawthorne who have served to give shape to an evolving
duality of American identity. Early American writers had a
dynamic role in shaping American identity, since as a new

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nation, the national sense of self was still very fluid and
evolving. As the decades passed and the body of original
American work grew, younger writers had their own newly-
emerging canon of uniquely American viewpoints to draw
upon, to explore, and to expand.
Through his personal explorations and conflicts,
Nathaniel Hawthorne directly contributed to the creation of a
uniquely American literary canon. The Puritan legacy became
a canvas upon which he and other writers could explore the
contradictory nature of national identity. Hawthorne‟s works
of literature serve as both a reflection of the past as well as a
commentary on the present. Throughout the centuries, whether
a writer affirmed or rejected the values granted by the Puritan
founding fathers, their influence has been extensive in
American literature.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is famous for directly drawing on
his Puritan heritage as a backdrop for The Scarlet Letter as
well as many of his short stories. In these works, Hawthorne
rejects his personal family connection to his Puritan forebears
while seeming to embrace the concurrent stifling influence of
their Puritan values. He explores the underpinnings of the
Puritan ideal in his own particular ways and according to his
own sets of beliefs. He often focuses on topics related to
American identity by exploring ideas that relate to this identity
split offered by Puritan values in opposition to independent
self-will. As a shaper of American identity, Nathaniel
Hawthorne expanded the discussion of Puritan and American
values in many ways.
Puritan or rebel? These two contrary sets of
characteristics have defined the American identity: the values

12
of the Puritans, and the simultaneous rejection of those values.
This inherent contradiction has proven to be a rich field for the
cultivation of unique voices in American literature. This
dichotomy helped to define Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman,
Melville and Dickinson as well, all contemporaries of
Hawthorne who also contributed to the new American
literature. By examining the personal and social context
surrounding Nathaniel Hawthorne and his works, we can see
how the Puritans influenced one important writer instrumental
in establishing an American national character.

Early Puritan History


In order to better understand what motivated Nathaniel
Hawthorne, we have to examine the historical context he
steeped himself in. He was an avid student of history, and
immersed himself in the subject of early colonial history. He
regularly and deliberately drew upon this history as the basis
for his tales and a sound understanding of this background is
necessary to understand Hawthorne‟s works.
The Puritans, central players in Hawthorne‟s works, did
not choose this name for themselves. The term "Puritan" was
first applied in the 16th century as a descriptor of a type of
religious belief, rather than the name of the religion itself. It
became a derogatory label used by those who didn‟t share the
Puritans‟ strict religious views. The Puritans considered
themselves to be Calvinists. They were members of the
Protestant Reformation movement advanced in part by John
Calvin in the 16th century. As part of the Reformation, the
Puritans believed that the form of Christianity practiced in

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Roman Catholicism was irreparably corrupt. They felt that the
rituals and practices of the Church had become disconnected
from the “pure” teachings of the Bible, and that Church
bureaucracy had become too entwined with political intrigue.
Throughout Europe, various protestant reformers sought to
strip the church of its secular power and reestablish religious
authority found in the Bible. Their attempts to "purify" the
church and bring it closer to what they believe God intended
led to their gaining the name of Puritans.
The Protestant movement in England did manage to
succeed in taking political power out of the hands of the
Catholic church and placing religious institutions directly in
the hands of the British government. However, this left many
of the objectionable religious structures and hierarchies intact,
which became a target for religious reformers like the Puritans.
Puritans believed that the church had become altogether too
secular and political, and had strayed significantly from
biblical doctrine. The Puritans of England aimed to change all
that, and began agitating for political reform. However, with
the establishment of settlements in the new world, another
option for reform became available.
In 1630, a Puritan leader named John Winthrop led a
group of approximately 400 co-religionists to establish a
colony in the new world. While on board their flagship
"Arbella", he delivered his now-famous speech "A Model of
Christian Charity," where he outlined the hopes and dreams of
this group of settlers. In this stirring sermon, Winthrop laid out
the foundations for the mission that would continue to inspire
an American sense of purpose for centuries onward. He
decreed that their community shall be as a "city upon a hill"

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(Kennedy 32-33). As a city on a hill is clearly visible and
stands out against the horizon, outlined for all to see even from
great distances, so Winthrop envisioned the Massachusetts Bay
Colony that his group intended to establish. This piece of vivid
imagery has endured through the ensuing centuries, cutting a
trail throughout American history. This vision of New
England gradually expanded to include all of America as the
ideal city on a hill.
Winthrop intended this community of "God's Elect" to
serve as an example of righteousness and moral purity in the
world. His sermon outlined the mission to create a civil and
ecclesiastical government based on God's law. It was a very
deliberate effort to create the kind of pure Christian society that
the Puritans were unable to accomplish in England. These
Puritan missionaries hoped that by establishing a brand new
society, they could start from scratch and build it with
deliberate intention by a group of people completely
committed to the cause. Calvinist hopes for a new society
based on God's law rested with the success of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans had something to
prove to the world, and they were very aware that the eyes of
the world were upon them.

Puritan Beliefs
Many features of their belief system distinguished the
Puritans from other fundamentalist Christians. One such
feature was the concept of the "elect," which arose from their
belief in predestination. According to Calvinist doctrine,
humanity is born tainted by sin, and most people are destined

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for hell. This doctrine had no mechanism for absolution or the
forgiveness of sin. Simply put, sinners were damned, and
nothing could be done by human agency to change that. This
belief created an incredible effort toward sinless perfection – a
standard attainable by only a select few. They believed that
only these few would be saved from damnation, but according
to predestination. No efforts on behalf of humans could
compel or create this salvation. Salvation was solely in the
hands of God – a freely given gift – who was the sole decider
about who was to be saved and who was not (Campbell
“Puritanism in New England”). Adherence to religious
practices could reveal who God‟s elect were, but one could not
be saved simply by religious obedience. Damnation was an
irrefutable fact for the majority according to Puritan doctrine.
Members of the Church devoted themselves to God's
laws hoping for direct proof of His blessing – a personal
experience of salvation. Only those who experienced a direct,
personal revelation of God's grace were considered eligible for
full Church membership. These experiences were then
submitted to the Church leadership in the form of "Conversion
Narratives" which documented the revelation of Divine grace.
Only upon close examination by Church Elders was a new
member admitted into the congregation (Campbell “Forms of
Puritan Rhetoric”). This many-layered structure helped to
insure that all members of the Church had a profound and
personal commitment to God.
Thenceforth, Church members were expected to act in
accordance with their state of grace. It was believed that those
who had been saved by God would act accordingly, a process
known as "sanctification." However, it was also recognized

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that Satan especially prized the souls of those who had been
elected by God for salvation, and were therefore especially
susceptible to "back-sliding." Thus, church members were
expected to devote a considerable amount of time to active
soul-searching in an attempt to root out all taint of sin that
might lead to their loss of grace. The ultimate status of their
souls was therefore always a bit ambiguous, and great effort
was expended insuring that God remained close in thought and
deed.
Puritans were not reticent about expressions of their
faith, but they generally scorned frivolity. For them, frivolity
might be defined as anything that distracted a person from the
serious business of living according to God‟s strict will.
Music, dancing, and revelry of all sorts were scorned as
unnecessary and even sinful. Clothing was notoriously drab in
color and unadorned, because it was considered vain to take
pride in a person‟s appearance. They were not an outwardly
exuberant people but valued self-control and emotional
restraint, even among their children, who were expected to be
obedient, hard-working, and silent.
Jeremiads and other Puritan sermons served an
important role in early Puritan worship. They often lamented
the precarious nature of salvation, and warned of the
consequence of not living according to biblical law (Campbell
“Forms of Puritan Rhetoric”). Such regular reminders of the
wages of sin helped maintain adherence to the strict social
order. These exhortations reminded the congregation of the
grave and bitter aftermath of ignoring God's will, and served to
sharpen the community‟s efforts to be obedient to God's will.

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A cohesive sense of purpose was critically important to
the success of the Massachusetts Bay colony. The Puritans had
to create their settlement from the ground up, and the early
years were extremely difficult. Death moved freely through
the community in the forms of disease, starvation, and Indian
attacks. Strong social cohesion helped the Puritans to survive
and eventually thrive in the hostile new world they found
themselves in.
The Puritans were well educated intellectuals who were
personally and directly committed to their mission of creating a
society based on God's will. This intensely focused
commitment led to the kind of tight social bonds that were so
necessary to the success of the colony. Their shared mission
led to a closely woven social fabric that supported the colonists
through their difficult early years. Their strong social
solidarity and their clearly focused sense that they were "one
people" on a mission became the foundation for creating a
national identity.

The Second Generation


As the Massachusetts Bay Colony continued to grow,
its political influence in the emerging colonial culture also
grew. The period between approximately 1650 through the
end of the century saw enormous growth in terms of population
and the colonial economy. As an emblem of this growth,
Harvard College was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts
in 1650, just twenty years after the foundation of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony. Not only does this show what
kind of value the Puritans placed on education, but it also

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reveals a community stable and well-established enough to be
able to support such an institution.
The midway point of the seventeenth century found
England and its American colonies in an unstable political
situation. The English Civil War was coming to a close,
deposing the monarchy and leaving the forces of the Puritan
Oliver Cromwell in control. The Protectorate of Cromwell did
not establish stability that the loss of the monarchy had created,
leading to an extended period of political uncertainty in
Europe. The English monarchy was eventually restored two
decades later in 1660 with the abdication of Cromwell‟s son.
With much of Europe distracted by such tumultuous events, the
Massachusetts Bay Colony found that it was difficult to serve
as their intended “city on a hill” if nobody was watching.
Just as the Puritans in England were having difficulty
achieving long-term success, so were the Puritans in New
England. Although the Massachusetts Bay Colony was
internally governed through the authority of a royal charter
which insulated them somewhat from the political instability
abroad, it was a very unsettled time for the colonists as they
tried to establish a Puritan model of government. The
community was governed by Magistrates who established laws
based on strict biblical interpretation. Laws were enforced via
community policing; Members of the community were
expected to report on possible transgressions by their
neighbors, and even minor lapses were met with strict
punishment. Punishment for violations were typically public
affairs that deliberately employed humiliation to enforce norms
of behavior. Examples include public whippings, locking
offenders in stocks or the pillory, and the branding or wearing

19
of an emblem of the crime, such as “T” for “thief” or “A” for
“Adulterer.” This strict system of justice helped to insure
conformity of social behavior reinforcing strong community
bonds.
However, the first blush of their initial energy and
enthusiasm seemed to wane once the settlement became better
established. Although the early years of Puritan settlement
were dedicated to the establishment of mutually dependent
communities that would help to insure survival, as these
communities became better established, survival became more
assured and the bonds that held the communities together
began to weaken. The need for such rigid social norms were
less apparent to the second generation of colonists. The
children of the original settlers found themselves one step
removed from the original mission that compelled their fathers
to cross an ocean.
As the original settlers raised children in the new world,
these children presented a dilemma. What happens to a
community based on a covenant with God if the children, the
inheritors of the community, do not share in the covenant?
This question was centrally important to the Puritans‟ original
mission to establish a community based on God's laws. If their
children were not also "elected" by God to be among the
chosen, who then will lead the community when the elders are
gone? This question threatened to undermine the long-term
political and social stability of the fledgling colony, and
introduced a key component in the formation of a unique
American identity. The children of Puritans had a choice: the
pursuit of their parents‟ original dream of being a “city on a

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hill” and serving as an example of moral purity for the world,
or the forging of a new independent identity.
A solution was found in a religious compromise called
the "Halfway Covenant," whereby children of fully-accepted
church members could be admitted into the church with partial
rights on the presumption that they would eventually become
one of God's chosen elect. According to Robert McCaughey, a
history professor at Columbia University, the Halfway
Covenant would "Allow the children of “Visible Saints”
(admitted church members) who have not had a religious
experience assuring them salvation to be halfway members of
the church." These children were given full voting rights in
town, which led to both an increase in church membership and
a decline in what membership meant. The second generation
was still expected to seek God's grace, but they could enjoy the
rights of membership without the established protocols that
confirmed God‟s salvation.
Although this compromise was necessary for the
political continuity of the community, it also served to dilute
the concentration of the membership who were completely
committed to the original mission of the founding fathers. The
jeremiads of the period were filled with dire warnings of the
doom that would befall them if they didn‟t cleave to God and
the church. In the mid to late 1700s, a famous minister and
orator of the time, Increase Mather, delivered jeremiads with
titles like “The Day of Trouble is Near,” “A Discourse
Concerning the Danger of Apostasy,” and “A Renewal of
Covenant the Great Duty Incumbent on Decaying and
Distressed Churches.” Titles such as these suggest that the

21
elect had a great unease about the direction and success of their
ongoing mission.
The second generation had plenty of concerns of their
own. They inherited the strong and enduring sense of mission
from their parents, yet they were one generation removed from
the passion that inspired the start of this great enterprise. They
inherited a promise to God, without the promise of salvation.
The second generation of Puritans became preoccupied with
their own role in shaping history and fulfilling God's mission
to create an ideal society. The sermons of the time reveal a
deep disquiet among religious leaders, as they questioned their
role and their progress toward fulfilling God's promise (Miller,
P. 2). In 1670, the Reverend Samual Danforth gave an election
sermon titled "A Brief Recognition of New England's Errand
into the Wilderness" where he explicitly outlines for the second
generation this Puritan mission "into the wilderness" to
establish a community of the elect. Reverend Danforth and his
peers of the day seemed to think that the mission was in danger
of failing. By 1677, the very influential Reverend Mather was
delivering his most strongly worded jeremiads questioning the
faith of the church membership. At the very least, it seems
clear that these religious leaders were concerned that the
success of their ongoing mission might be in doubt. With the
overthrow of Cromwell's Protectorate and the restoration of the
monarchy in England, it seemed that England was preoccupied
with its own concerns, and was no longer paying attention to
the grand experiment in Christian living that was the goal of
the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The mission was in danger of
failure; What good is it being a "city upon a hill" if nobody is
looking toward its shining promise?

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The Salem Witch Trials
In one of early America‟s most evident episodes of
mass hysteria, an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt created
a toxic environment perfectly suited to the formation of a tragic
episode in the country‟s formation. It is commonly thought that
the strict social structure of the Puritans helped create the kind
of milieu where accusations of witchcraft could lead to
innocent deaths. Rather than provide a safety net to insure the
survival of the community, the tightly woven social fabric of
the Puritans served to trap them under the weight of their own
internal politics. Ultimately, this tragic event affected
Hawthorne as well many generations later.
The tragedy unfolded in the village of Salem, a farming
community several miles removed from the nearby Town of
Salem, of which it was a part. The Massachusetts Bay Colony
had been established for over sixty years, long enough for
basic survival issues to have been solved, and long enough to
diminish the sense of community solidarity that having a
shared Puritan mission created in the earlier years. The year
1692 was a difficult one for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The French and Indian war was ongoing, disrupting peace and
progress in the region. The witchcraft accusations revealed
hidden stressors within the community that ripped apart the
fabric of social cohesion. Whereas before the tight-knit social
structure of the Puritans helped them to survive, the petty
jealousies and disputes that form in such tight-knit
communities served as fuel for the hysteria.

23
Witchcraft and Satan were very much a reality for the
Puritans. They saw the world as a battleground between God
and the Devil, fighting for individual souls. Puritans believed
that Satan recruited witches to work for him, and they believed
that disease, natural catastrophes, and other misfortunes were
all signs of the Devil‟s work. Since they believed that God‟s
intentions could be read in natural phenomena, they were apt to
see natural events as signs of God‟s or the Devil‟s work.
According to local Salem historian Robert Cahill, the
winter of 1691-92 was a particularly long, bitter, and snowy
one. For the residents of Salem Village four miles away from
the shops and activities in town, it effectively shut in the
hundred or so families for four months. Recreation was
limited to fireside tales, Bible study, and stories of the Indian
and French massacres. Although the villagers presumably still
worked hard at what chores they could, the winter weather kept
them bored with inactivity (Cahill 13). This must have been
particularly difficult for the children, who were expected to
work hard at an early age and discouraged from idleness and
play. These repressive Puritan strictures helped to create an
atmosphere that allowed the drama to unfold.
The Puritan faith itself forms a key backdrop to the
events that led to the Salem witch trials, for the situation began
in the parish house of the Reverend Samuel Parris. A strict
Puritan, he had recently been appointed as minister to Salem
Village after the previous pastor, Reverend George Burroughs,
left following a dispute with a prominent member of the
community, Ann Putnam (Cahill 16). Among Reverend Parris‟
household was a servant whom he had bought as a slave in the
West Indies. Tituba was very much an outsider to the Puritans.

24
She was not very interested in the Bible because she was a
practitioner of her native Caribbean religion called Vodoun,
also known as voodoo, a syncretic blend of Roman
Catholicism and native African religious practices. These
practices included spirit possession, spells and charms, and
fortune-telling, all of which were considered crimes of
witchcraft to the Puritans.
Tituba had the primary responsibility of caring for the
needs of Reverend Parris‟ daughter Elizabeth and her cousin,
Abigail Williams. In the evenings, the girls and their friends
would gather around the kitchen fire and listen to the exotic
tales of Tituba. She reportedly read their palms, and talked
openly of forbidden topics like magic (Cahill 13).
Before long, the girls began experiencing strange fits
that seemed inexplicable at first glance. They would weep and
groan, then fall to the floor in convulsive fits. Reverend Parris
sought medical help from the village physician who, finding no
other physical cause for their symptoms, pronounced that the
girls had been “bewitched” (D‟Amario). Once the specter of
witchcraft was raised, it sped like wildfire through the isolated
farming community. Soon, other girls were exhibiting similar
symptoms, and it didn‟t take them long to name Tituba and two
other women as their tormentors. Like Tituba, the other two
women also had characteristics that made them outsiders in the
tight-knit community. Sarah Good was homeless and was
described as a pipe-smoking beggar, while Sarah Osborn was
an elderly cripple.
These three women were immediately arrested and
questioned. Tituba easily confessed that she was a witch, and
by the criteria of the Puritans, she likely was. But Sarah Good

25
and Sarah Osborn were shocked by the sudden accusation, and
denied the charges vigorously. They were the first to fall
victim to false accusations, but they were by no means the last.
By the time the trials were halted over a year later, 168 people
had been accused of witchcraft, and 23 people had lost their
lives. Approximately fourteen years later one of the prime
accusers, Ann Putnam, recanted her accusations and publicly
apologized for her role in sending innocent people to their
deaths (Cahill 21).
This tragic episode was a defining event in the shaping
of an American identity. The strict morality created an
atmosphere where any aberrant behavior was seen as the work
of the Devil. The social tensions led to people accusing their
neighbors of serious crimes to satisfy petty jealousies and
private vendettas. The first targets were those who had
characteristics that caused them to stand out of the crowd in a
community where individuality was not encouraged.
In spite of the Puritans‟ efforts to serve as the “visible
saints” of the church and live according to God‟s law, they
proved vulnerable to the worst expressions of human nature.
Those who lost their lives were victims of a rigid intolerance
that was supported by righteous certainty of belief. The
Puritans blindly accepted the “spectral evidence” of the
accusing children because it so neatly fit into what they were
already predisposed to believe. Their utter belief in the Devil
and his supposed works created a screen of plausibility for the
hysterical claims of mischievous children. This episode of the
colonial period still serves as warning to the dangerous power
exerted by judgmental extremism of all sorts, and it is a chapter

26
of history that personally haunted Nathaniel Hawthorne, a
resident of Salem, Massachusetts.

27
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Inheritor of the
Puritan Legacy
Nathaniel Hawthorne became a quintessential figure
among nineteenth century American writers. He achieved
great literary acclaim in his lifetime, and his works continue to
have an enduring impact on modern students of American
literature. No discussion of literature's contribution to the
formation of a unique American voice and identity would be
complete without an examination of Nathaniel Hawthorne and
his contributions to the intellectual wealth of the emerging
nation.
Few authors have a greater claim to represent the voice
and spirit of the American people. Even his date of birth,
Independence Day in 1804, seems to foreshadow the pivotal
role he played in the shaping of a national identity. Born in
Salem, Massachusetts, his family had not strayed from where
they planted their earliest roots. Five generations of Hathornes
preceded Nathaniel in the New World. He was born into one
of the "First Families," tracing his direct lineage to the very
first settlers of the land. Born and raised in the very location of
that first prominent settlement, Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne
had the weight of personal and national history always upon
him.
For Nathaniel Hawthorne, it seems clear that the
Puritan settlement period was not distant history, but a current
and personal family tale that suffused nearly all that he wrote.
It takes no cleverness of critics or imagination of biographers
to say that Nathaniel Hawthorne was preoccupied with his

28
Puritan ancestors. Hawthorne himself provides that link when
he said, "The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family
tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my
boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still
haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past"
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 10). He had a complex love-
hate relationship with his Puritan ancestors, and continually
explored his ongoing relationship with them through his
writing.
Hawthorne‟s family tree‟s earliest roots were planted at
the infancy of the New World. His first New World ancestor
was William Hathorne (1607 - 1681) who sailed with John
Winthrop aboard the Arbella. As such, William was one of the
early Puritans dedicated to Winthrop's vision of a "city on a
hill." He truly embodied the ideal of a founding father,
becoming both a military and political leader. He became a
deputy of the General Court of Boston, held the rank of major
in campaigns against the Native Americans, as well as
presiding as magistrate and judge in the settlement (Miller,
E.H. 20).
William Hathorne sentenced law breakers according to
the often brutal punishments of English justice: ears were cut
off, holes were bored in women's tongues with red-hot irons,
and prisoners were starved. Hathorne was said to pursue
wickedness "like a bloodhound." It is reported that on one
occasion, he ordered a burglar's ear be cut off and had him
branded with the letter B on his forehead. On another
occasion, William Hathorne is responsible for the punishment
of a Quaker woman. She was stripped to the waist, tied to the
back of a cart, and pulled through town where she was given

29
thirty lashes before being driven into the forest (Miller, E.H.
21). His performance as a judge brought him acclaim, but this
"grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned
progenitor" was viewed by his great-great grandson, Nathaniel,
as cruel and tyrannical (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 10).
William Hathorne's son, John, followed in his father's
footsteps. Like his father, he was a deputy to the General
Court in Boston, served as a Colonel in the militia, and most
infamously, served as a magistrate during the Salem Witch
Trials of 1692, continuing his father's tradition of court-
sanctioned cruelty (Miller, E.H. 22). Although many of those
involved in the witchcraft trials later publicly recanted or
repented their roles in the tragedy, John Hathorne never did
(Stade xviii). He embodied the notion of the stern, unforgiving
Puritan elder.
In his writing, Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed to be
trying to reach back across the span of years and measure
himself against his ancestors‟ achievements. In the
autobiographical "Custom-House" sketch which precedes The
Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne refers to these family members as
"those stern and black-browed Puritans" but doubts whether his
success as a writer would win their stern approval. He refers to
himself as an "idler" in their eyes, and imagines that they
would find his chosen work "worthless, if not positively
disgraceful." Although he recognized that his profession
would have made him less of a man in the eyes of his
forebears, he acknowledges his abiding connection with them
when he says, "And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong
traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine"
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 11).

30
Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrated his conflicted
connection to his forbears when he changed the spelling of his
name a year after graduating from college. When Horace
Conolly, a resident of Salem, remarked to Hawthorne that he
didn't look like the Salem Hathornes, Nathaniel reportedly
responded, "I'm glad to hear you say that, for I don't wish to
look like any Hathorne." When Conolly speculated that
perhaps this was the reason for the changed spelling of his
surname, Hawthorne didn't correct him (Wineapple 63).
Scholars generally assume that Hawthorne changed his name
in an attempt to distance himself from the unrepentant cruelties
of his forebears. He implies this reasoning when he said, "I,
the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame
upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred
by them… may be now and henceforth removed" (Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter 10). Although five generations separated
Nathaniel Hawthorne from the family patriarch, he still clearly
felt the connection of blood.
According to Hawthorne scholar Brenda Wineapple,
Nathaniel had a lifelong habit of genealogical and historical
research into Salem and its inhabitants. He reportedly read old
documents, public records, travel books, biographies, poetry,
as well as “great gobs of history” (Wineapple 61). His
mother's side of the family, the Mannings, were also a family
of enduring lineage in the community, but without the
ancestors of such wide renown as the Hathornes. The
Manning patriarch, Richard Manning, was a blacksmith by
trade, who eventually established a stagecoach between Salem
and Boston (Miller, E.H. 28). It was a prosperous profession,
if not a prestigious one. By the time Nathaniel's father, also

31
named Nathaniel, married Betsy Manning, the Manning family
had become relatively prosperous in Salem, owning properties
and businesses in town (Wineapple 18).
In contrast to the grand achievements of the first
Hathorne forebears, the grandsons of William and John
Hathorne became sailors of little renown. According to
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the succeeding generations of Hathornes
"subsisted… in respectability; never, so far as I have known,
disgraced by a single unworthy member; but seldom or never,
on the other hand, after the first two generations, performing
any memorable deed, or so much as putting forward a claim to
public notice" (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 11). By this, we
see the Hathorne line as a family renowned in its founding, but
unremarkable in its lineage. Hawthorne's father, Nathaniel
Hathorne Sr., was a captain who made a meager living at sea,
and died when his son Nathaniel was only four, leaving his
mother in debt. Left without a father, Hawthorne was left with
the cold comfort of his family legacy.
After the death of her husband, Betsy Manning
Hathorne and her children were taken in by her family, the
Mannings, to live (Martin 17). Nathaniel Hawthorne was
raised in the Manning household, and it was his uncle, Robert
Manning, who ultimately undertook the care and management
of his nephew (Miller, E.H. 29). Uncle Robert gave
Nathaniel a job as a bookkeeper when he was a teenager, but
Nathaniel didn't seem to appreciate this opportunity. In a letter
to his mother, Nathaniel proclaimed, "No man can be a Poet
and a Bookkeeper at the same time" (Martin 17). In spite of
this close connection to his mother's side of the family,
Nathaniel Hawthorne underplayed his connection with them,

32
and focused his imagination on his Hathorne relatives.
Although the Mannings provided his direct, material support
during his upbringing, it was his Hathorne patrimony that
inspired an abiding interest in Nathaniel. According to
Wineapple, "if he didn't much like his father's side of the
family - reputedly he told a friend he wanted no connection to
them - he begrudgingly admired their self-regarding vanity, so
different from the secular strivings of blacksmiths and
bookkeepers" (Wineapple 60).
According to Hawthorne biographer Edwin Haviland
Miller, “Hawthorne had almost nothing to say about the
Mannings in letters or other writings.” In spite of the fact that
the Mannings took him in as a fatherless child, sheltered and
supported him, his mother and siblings, Hawthorne seems to
completely ignore his mother‟s side of the family in the large
body of work he left behind. Considering how utterly
absorbed Hawthorne was in his personal ancestral history, this
seems a bit unusual. But as Miller said, “Silence, however, can
also speak” (Miller, E.H. 29-30). For someone who is so
interested in family history, why might Hawthorne be silent
about the Mannings?
One possible answer might lie in the Manning history.
Like the Hathorne‟s participation in the Salem Witch Trials,
the Mannings also had a shameful episode in their past.
Theirs, however, bears the unbearable weight of an
unbreakable cultural taboo: incest. According to E.H. Miller,
some time in the late 17th century, the time period of particular
interest to Hawthorne, two Manning sisters were accused of
having “carnal relations” with their brother, Captain Nicholas
Manning. According to court records, they were forced to sit

33
“in the meeting house with a paper upon each of their heads,
written in Capital Letters, „This is for whorish carriage with
my naturall Brother‟” (Miller, E.H. 35). With all of Nathaniel
Hawthorne‟s well known interest in familial and local history,
he would most certainly have known about this ancient scandal
in his family‟s past. The fact that his written record remains
silent in regard to the Manning side of his family leaves open
the doorway to speculation. Hawthorne seems willing to
confront the shame of his Hathorne ancestors, and even take it
upon himself in an effort to expiate it. Why is he silent about
the other half of his heritage?
Several scholars have suggested that perhaps
Hawthorne‟s silence on the subject reflects a secret guilt and
shame of his own. His upbringing within the Manning
household caused him to form close relationships with his
siblings, particularly his older sister Elizabeth, affectionately
known as Ebe. E.H. Miller indicates that "Hawthorne‟s ties to
his sisters were close, perhaps too close for the emotional well-
being of all concerned” (Miller, E.H. 33). Hawthorne scholars
have been unable to find any hard evidence that an incestuous
relationship existed, however, some scholars have suggested
that The Scarlet Letter and some of his other stories hint
toward this conclusion (Stade xviii). Herman Melville, a friend
of Hawthorne‟s, once said that he knew of Hawthorne‟s
“secret.” A number of commentators have suspected that this
“secret” could be an incestuous relationship between
Hawthorne and Ebe. This theory could help to understand
many of Hawthorne‟s tales. Guilt and secret sin are certainly
dominant themes through much of Hawthorne‟s writing,

34
although there is no certain proof that the intensity of these
depictions was based on any actual incestuous events.
His filial connections and abiding personal interest in
his ancestral past emerged frequently in the writings of
Nathaniel Hawthorne. His own sister, Ebe, identified "the
Puritan instinct that was in him" (Wineapple 61). Without
question, Nathaniel Hawthorne, by both accident of birth and
driving personal interest, linked himself to the Puritan standard
by both affirming and rejecting it. As such, Hawthorne
embodies the conflicted notion of an emerging American
identity. He simultaneously embraces and rejects his Puritan
heritage, and plays out his irreconcilable emotions in the arena
of his literature.

An Emerging American Literary Tradition


When Hawthorne completed The Scarlet Letter in
1850, he had already established himself as a writer (Martin
15). His career can be traced back to his teen years, when he
began sharing occasional pieces of poetry with his beloved
sister, Ebe. As early as thirteen years old, Nathaniel
Hawthorne was writing poetry (Wineapple 31). An injury to
his foot kept him house-bound for two years, where he was
tutored by Joseph Worcester, who later became a famous
lexicographer. It was during this period of relative inactivity
that young Nathaniel developed his love for literature
(Wineapple 27). According to Wineapple, young Nathaniel
was "a voracious reader… [consuming] Walter Scott, Ann
Radcliffe, the Arabian Nights, Tobias Smollett, William
Godwin, Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise, the poet James

35
Greenland, Samuel Johnson, James Hogg, Oliver Goldsmith,
Byron, Southey, Burns, and Henry Fielding, his taste running
to Gothicism, poetry, and social comment" (Wineapple 40).
With these literary influences shaping him, he was sent
to Bowdoin college in Maine in 1821 (Martin 11). While
there, he befriended a group of intellectuals who would have a
lingering influence on his life. One of his professors was
Thomas C. Upham, who published a collection of poems in
1819 in which he called for a national literature (Wineapple
63-64). This would have been a call that Nathaniel Hawthorne
was well suited to hear and respond to. His family history tied
him to this new nation. It's not surprising that Hawthorne
would actively seek to become a national voice. His college
years provided a rich environment for him to develop his craft.
In addition to receiving a very formal Calvinist education, he
was also surrounded by the brightest young intellectuals of his
age. While at Bowdoin, he formed lifelong friendships with
people who would become famous in their own rights,
including future U.S. President Franklin Pierce and writer
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Stade ix).
He self-published his first novel in 1828, just three
years after graduating from Bowdoin College. Titled
Fanshawe: A Tale, it did not achieve the acclaim he sought,
and he later attempted to destroy all existing copies.
According to Wineapple, Fanshawe reportedly "mortified"
him. "Not three years after its publication, Hawthorne wanted
to expunge it from his past" (Wineapple 78). Hawthorne was
reportedly his own worst critic, and rarely expressed public
satisfaction with his work. By his own accounts, he routinely

36
and readily burned old manuscripts or works that he felt were
flawed.
Nonetheless, Hawthorne's reputation grew slowly but
surely. There was not a clearly defined market for American
literature at that point, and lacking copyright laws to protect
intellectual property, both writers and publishers took financial
risks in presenting original work to the public. In spite of his
self-judged failure of Fanshawe, he persevered in his pursuit of
a literary career. He sent a few of his short stories to a
publisher, Samuel Griswold Goodrich. Goodrich recalled
Hawthorne as "unsettled as to his views; he had tried his hand
in literature, and considered himself to have met with a fatal
rebuff from the reading world" (Wineapple 74). In spite of
Hawthorne's personal sense of discouragement as a writer, his
persistence paid off. His earliest stories, "Provincial Tales" and
"Seven Tales of My Native Land," were published
anonymously in 1830, beginning a long and eventful career
(Stade ix).
That Hawthorne initially began his publishing career
anonymously speaks to his conflicted desire to both assert
himself into the public arena, as well as his contrary desire to
remain private. On the one hand, he seemed to wish to revive
the honor of his patrimony, and yet his "Puritan instinct"
seemed to keep him from fully asserting his right to pursue
such a career. Wineapple concludes that "if Goodrich was able
to capitalize on Hawthorne's obscurity, Hawthorne acceded to
the arrangement, as if afraid of the recognition he desperately
sought" (Wineapple 77).

37
The Transcendentalist Movement
In 1936, Ralph Waldo Emerson published his ground-
breaking essay "Nature," ushering in the transcendentalist
movement (Stade x). According to Dr. Donna Campbell, a
professor at Washington State University, "American
transcendentalism was an important movement in philosophy
and literature that flourished during the early to middle years of
the nineteenth century (about 1836-1860). It began as a reform
movement in the Unitarian church, extending the views of
William Ellery Channing on an indwelling God and the
significance of intuitive thought. For the transcendentalists,
the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the
world and contains what the world contains" (Campbell
"American Transcendentalism").
In 1941, George Ripley, a Unitarian Minister and
proponent of transcendentalism founded Brook Farm, a
cooperative living community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts
(Stade x). The goal was to create a utopian community much
like the early Puritans had hoped to achieve. According to
Hawthorne scholar Edwin Haviland Miller, the Brook Farm
founders were “pilgrims.” He describes the goals of the
community as follows: “They planned a return to a simple
agrarian life and to simple Christian principles, on the
assumption that an agricultural society and plain religious
virtues could be summoned at will. Imbued with nineteenth-
century, and particularly American, faith in the wonders of
education, they expected to inculcate among youth their ideals
and their dissatisfaction with a money-oriented, industrialized
society” (Miller, E.H. 187). Brook Farm was built on the
ideals of individuality and personal spirituality that was

38
initially inspired by Emerson. As Ripley explained to
Emerson, “Thought would preside over the operations of
labor… We should have industry without drudgery, and true
equality without vulgarity.” According to Wineapple, “The
Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, as the
community would formally be called, eschewed rank, status,
privilege, and formal attire. It welcomed everyone, farmers,
mechanics, writers, and preachers… and whose children…
could be educated in the community school” (Wineapple 144).
Although always a man of modest means, Hawthorne
invested in Brook Farm, and moved there in 1841. Shortly
after his arrival, he wrote to his sister, Louisa, that “he was
transformed into a complete farmer.” According to Terence
Martin, Hawthorne biographer, he had “loaded manure carts,
planted potatoes and peas, and milked cows.” Hawthorne
continued, “The whole fraternity [of the farm] eat together; and
such a delectable way of life has never been seen on earth since
the days of the early Christians” (Martin 29). This quote is
perhaps revealing of Hawthorne‟s attitudes toward the
Puritans – he apparently saw something about them and their
way of life as “delectable.” Romantic idealism, however, soon
gave way to sweaty disenchantment and he left Brook Farm
after only seven months.
Although he stayed at Brook Farm for less than a year,
his participation in such an idealistic enterprise helped to both
shape and reveal his core values. Hawthorne is described as a
private and often secretive author, but his participation in
Brook Farm shows that he tended toward idealism and saw
hope for cooperative achievement toward a lofty goal.
According to Wineapple, “the whole idea [of Brook Farm] had

39
the ring of… democracy, embracing the essential equality of
all humanity. Such had been Hawthorne‟s politics since
college” (Wineapple 147). By lending his name and financial
support to such a venture, he helped reinforce the legitimacy of
the group‟s goals and purposes, thus furthering the influence of
the transcendentalist movement. Following his return to
Salem, he married Sophia Peabody in 1842 and moved into the
Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, the house where
Emerson had written Nature just a few years prior (Martin 29).
By the time The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850,
Hawthorne had won a place for himself in the emerging field
of American literature. Herman Melville, on his way to
becoming a great American writer in his own right, publicly
praised Hawthorne, and wrote laudatory reviews that sang
Hawthorne‟s praises. Melville strongly asserted that
Hawthorne augured greatness for American literature. The
public also enjoyed his stories and novels. Many of his short
stories reveal his growth as a writer, returning again and again
to the Puritan/Rebel dichotomy that runs throughout his works.
The Scarlet Letter represents Hawthorne as a mature writer,
steady-handed in his command of the craft. Many of the
themes that he wrote about in earlier works return in this work
showcased in compelling prose to an eager audience.

Impacts of Transcendentalism
The transcendentalist movement directly challenged
many aspects of Puritan beliefs, and Hawthorne was a direct
contributor to that movement. It is perhaps significant that
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who launched the movement in

40
America with his essay “Nature,” like Hawthorne, had a
lineage in the New World equally as lengthy and prestigious as
Hawthorne‟s. Emerson‟s first ancestor in the colonies was an
immigrant named Thomas Emerson who settled in Ipswich,
Massachusetts as early as 1640 (Ralph Waldo Emerson
Society). He became the progenitor of a family filled with a
long line of ministers and learned men. In fact, in the
Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Paul
More describes Emerson‟s family as follows: “… many other
ministerial ancestors‟ stories abound which show how deeply
implanted in this stock was the pride of rebellion against
traditional forms and institutions, united with a determination
to force all mankind to worship God in the spirit.” In this
regard, Emerson and Hawthorne had a lot in common. Both
were New England gentlemen who had lost their fathers early
in life, and had to struggle with their ancestral heritage in order
to define their own individual sense of identity. It‟s little
wonder that Hawthorne and Emerson became friends.
Emerson first chose to follow in the family profession,
and his early calling was as a Unitarian minister. However, he
eventually left the ministry to pursue a career in writing and
public speaking (Lewis). It is from this tumultuous religious
background that “Nature” was produced. The major thesis of
“Nature” was, in Emerson‟s words, that we should now “enjoy
an original relation to the universe,” and not become dependent
on holy books, creeds, and dogmas (Reuben “Ralph Waldo
Emerson”). In this light, it‟s easy to see how the
transcendentalist movement was both a response to and a
reaction against the prevailing puritanical values of the time.

41
Although Emerson began the transcendentalist
movement, other writers contributed to the movement as well.
Henry David Thoreau was also an influential participant in the
movement, producing such famous works as Walden, a
masterwork that details his two year experiment of living close
to nature at Walden Pond (Reuben “Henry David Thoreau”).
For a time, Emerson and Thoreau even lived with one another.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a neighbor and a friend to both men.
Hawthorne said of Thoreau, “[He] is a keen and delicate
observer of nature… and Nature, in return for his love, seems
to adopt him as her special child, and shows him secrets which
few others are allowed to witness” (Miller, E.H. 216).
According to the ideals of transcendentalism, rigid
dogma was replaced by personal revelation. Strict social
conformity was replaced by harmonious social cooperation.
An unforgiving and judgmental God was replaced by
immanent, indwelling divinity displayed throughout all of
creation. In order to embrace the ideals of transcendentalism,
Puritan values needed to be examined and explored.
For Hawthorne, this movement seemed to serve to
deepen his internal conflicts and moral ambiguities. While
strict Puritan values were part of a heritage he valued, his
involvement in transcendentalism directly defied many of
those core beliefs. Like his experience at Brook Farm, these
alternative values initially seemed attractive, but ultimately
Hawthorne couldn‟t entirely embrace them.

42
Puritan or Rebel?
For Nathaniel Hawthorne, the answer to this question is
elusive and ambiguous. Throughout his literature, he both
embraces and rejects his Puritan heritage. Through this
struggle however, it can be seen that he has clearly internalized
many of the beliefs and values espoused by the Puritans. And
yet, by those same standards, he is an unworthy sinner, a state
that he earnestly attempts to reject. He accepts its judgment
while rebelling against its conclusions. He is a rebel guilt-
ridden by his rebellion.
Salvation appears to be out of reach for Hawthorne, and
his writing can be seen as a struggle to accept his sinful status.
He wants the promise of Heaven, but can‟t have it by his own
internalized Puritan standards. By those standards, he sees
himself as sin-stained. Hints to the nature of his secret sin
might be discerned through his stories. Scholarship might
never reveal the truth about what secret sins plagued his guilty
heart, but much of Hawthorne‟s writing center on these
themes.
Since the Puritan view of predestination offers no
method of washing away sin, Hawthorne inevitably sees
himself as doomed to hell. This unpalatable view forces him to
reject key Puritan values, placing him in the Rebel category.
However, the more he rebels against the strict Puritan mores,
the more he confirms his own damned status. Hawthorne
cannot reconcile these opposed positions. He both accepts and
rejects his sinful rebel status, leading to a life of unresolved
ambiguity.
These intertwined themes of sin, shame, rebellion, and
guilt are woven throughout Hawthorne‟s work. He‟s a sinner

43
and doesn‟t want to be, but apparently can‟t help it. He wants
a salvation he apparently feels is out of reach. He compares
himself continually to his Puritan ancestors; He knows that he
doesn‟t measure up to his Hathorne forebears, and yet doesn‟t
want to. By his works, we can see Nathaniel Hawthorne as an
unwilling rebel as he seeks a path through the dark and
perilous wilderness of moral ambiguity, seeking an elusive
salvation that he fears is forever out of his reach.

44
The Custom House
At the height of his literary career, Nathaniel
Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, a work of literature that
received critical acclaim at the time, and continues to be read
and enjoyed by succeeding generations. If Hawthorne spent his
life in a conflicted relationship with his Puritan forebears, it is
in The Scarlet Letter where that relationship can be explicated.
According to Arlin Turner, former professor emeritus
of American Literature at Duke University, “in The Scarlet
Letter, Hawthorne turned back to the age of his first American
ancestor for a historical background against which to display a
tragic drama of guilt – revealed and concealed, real and
imagined – and its effects on those touched by the guilt… The
substance of the book is moral, religious, theological; the
characters confront questions endemic to the Puritan
community at Boston in the middle of the seventeenth century.
This substance is not at issue; it is given and is accepted by the
author and by his characters. What is at issue includes
primarily the psychological effects produced in the characters
by the background and the situation as given” (Turner).
From the very beginning of its composition, it seems as
though Hawthorne intended The Scarlet Letter to be an
exploration of Puritan values. He begins the novel with a
sketch called “The Custom House,” which at first glance might
seem only tangentially related to the rest of the novel.
However, the autobiographical nature of the Custom House
sketch explains a lot about Hawthorne and what motivated him
during this formative period of American literature.

45
At the first mention of the town of Salem,
Massachusetts, he claims it as his native place. However, his
relationship with his home town is not an agreeable one for
Hawthorne. He says, “And yet, though invariably happiest
elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which…
I must be content to call affection.” He attributes this feeling
to the “deep and aged roots which my family has struck into
the soil” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 9). It is from this
position of an insider then that he prepares to tell the story that
is set in this town in its first years after its establishment. That
Hawthorne feels a connection to his hometown is clear. He has
been steeped in its history since childhood. It is upon those
foundations that he builds his story.
While his description of life in the Custom House
where he worked for three years before losing his post in a
political change of power is meant to be satirical, it also serves
to reveal the lingering influence of his puritanical heritage.
Hawthorne‟s attitudes towards women seem tainted with the
spectre of witchcraft, a view that is sustained as a subtle
undercurrent throughout the novel. When describing the
interior of the Custom House, he says, “It is easy to
conclude… that this is a sanctuary into which womankind,
with her tools of magic, the broom and mop, has very
infrequent access” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 8). For
Hawthorne at least, womankind and magic are linked. Shortly
thereafter, he continues the witchcraft allusion by stating the
“besom of reform has swept him out of office” (Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter 9). A besom is a rough broom, a standard
implement of witchcraft according to the Puritan superstitions
of the seventeenth century when the novel takes place.

46
Intended or not, he is suggesting that perhaps it was a touch of
black magic that contributed to his loss of position as Surveyor
of the Custom House.
As though witchcraft and his Puritan forebears were
closely related in his mind, Hawthorne returns to the subject of
his ancestry. He speaks of his first ancestor, William
Hathorne, as one “who came so early, with his Bible and his
sword, and trode the unworn street with a stately port, and
made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace… he had all
the Puritanic traits, both good and evil.” This contradictory
description aptly describes the conflicted feelings about him
that Hawthorne apparently struggled to come to terms with.
He can neither wholly embrace nor condemn the Puritan values
of his ancestors.
He describes William Hathorne as “a bitter persecutor;
as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their
histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity toward a
woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared,
than any record of his better deeds, although these were many”
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 10). Hawthorne reportedly told
this story of the Quaker woman, Ann Coleman, who was
flogged and driven into the forest, many times, including the
historical atrocity in a short story titled “Main Street”
(Wineapple 199). These were the types of events from his
personal family history that haunted him. Through these
anecdotes, we can see Hawthorne struggling to come to terms
with his heritage. His commentary in the Custom House
sketch shows that he has grudging and conflicted admiration
for a man whose actions he simultaneously admires and rejects.

47
After raising the spectre of his first ancestor,
Hawthorne brings his reader swiftly to his next, John Hathorne,
renowned for his cruel persecution of people accused of
witchcraft in Salem and the surrounding towns. He writes,
“His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made
himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that
their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him”
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 10). It‟s clear by this that
Hawthorne rejects the actions of this famous relative.
Although the modern Hawthorne still retains an almost
instinctive puritanical suspicion against women, he clearly
disapproves of the persecution suffered at the hands of his
ancestor. “I know not whether these ancestors of mine
bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for
their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the
heavy consequences of them, in another state of being.” It is
curious that Hawthorne does not make a direct reference to
hell, the natural location of damnation to a Calvinist. He refers
to hell without naming it as such. In this curious phrasing, we
perhaps see a glimpse of the transcendentalist in him, obliquely
rejecting the religious dogma of his forebears.
Nonetheless, Puritan Salem continues to wrap
Hawthorne in its magical charms. In spite of his conflicted
feelings about his forebears and the place of his birth, “It is no
matter that the place is joyless for him… the spell survives, and
just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise.”
Hawthorne continues to be focused on the place of his family
inheritance, with all of the conflicted feelings unresolved. He
can‟t seem to help himself. For Hawthorne, it is “as if Salem
were for me the inevitable centre [sic] of the universe”

48
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 12). The Scarlet Letter, set in
Salem, is the perfect stage for Hawthorne to explore issues that
are both old history and personally relevant.

49
“The Haunted Mind”
For someone who feels the need to apologize for the
“autobiographical impulse,” Hawthorne‟s “Custom House”
introduction to The Scarlet Letter is only one of many places
where he inserts himself directly into a narrative. In many
ways, all of his stories can be seen as a personal struggle of a
man who is attempting to come to terms with unresolved
conflicts and moral ambiguities. Nowhere is this seen more
clearly and directly than in the brief sketch titled “The Haunted
Mind.” This sketch is told entirely as a first person narrative.
If it is not meant to be autobiographical, Hawthorne gives no
hint to contradict it. In this sketch, he speaks of waking up in
the middle of the night, and the strange thoughts that come to
him at such a time. In this quiet hour “with the mind‟s eye half
shut,” he is able to look at things that could not otherwise be
faced in the harsh light of day. In this context, Hawthorne
tentatively begins to explore a major theme that runs through
much of his work: secret sin and the guilt that accrues to it.
He says that “in the depths of every heart there is a
tomb and a dungeon, though the light, the music, and revelry
above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried
ones, or prisoners whom they hide.” What lies hidden,
entombed and imprisoned, in Hawthorne‟s heart? He asserts
that it is at this dark hour that “these dark receptacles are flung
wide open,” and “A funeral train comes gliding by your bed, in
which Passion and Feeling assume bodily shape.” Is the
passion and feeling that burn within Hawthorne‟s “dark
receptacle” his sister, Ebe? This seems likely, for in this

50
procession, the first vision that arises to greet him is also his
“earliest Sorrow, a pale young mourner, wearing a sister‟s
likeness to first love, sadly beautiful, with a hallowed
sweetness in her melancholy features, and grace in the flow of
her sable robe.”
Replacing the vision of his sister in his mind‟s eye is
another woman of “ruined loveliness.” He describes her as
“faded and defaced.” He describes this vision by saying, “She
was your fondest Hope, but a delusive one; so call her
Disappointment now.” Could this refer to his wife, Sophia?
This disappointment in love certainly describes a common
experience of many married people. Although Hawthorne
occasionally described Sophia as his “savior,” what was she
supposed to be saving him from? Is it possible that Nathaniel
married her in the hope that she would save him from the
guilty longings of his haunted mind? If “Disappointment”
refers to his wife, we might conclude that she was unsuccessful
in helping Hawthorne‟s “earliest sorrow.”
Next, Hawthorne‟s haunted mind returns to his Puritan
ancestors. “A sterner form succeeds, with a brow of wrinkles,
a look and gesture of iron authority; there is no name for him
unless it be Fatality, an emblem of the evil influence that rules
your fortunes; a demon to whom you subjected yourself by
some error at the outset of life, and were bound his slave
forever, by once obeying him.” This brief passage sums up a
wealth of conflicted emotions that Hawthorne bore to his
Hathorne forebears. This stern presence looms over him and
seemingly damns him at birth by the virtue of his heritage.
And if there were any lingering doubt as to the impact that
Puritan heritage had on Hawthorne, he completes his

51
description of this third vision by exclaiming, “See! Those
fiendish lineaments graven on the darkness, the writhed lip of
scorn, the mockery of that living eye, the pointed finger,
touching the sore place in your heart!” Hawthorne seems to
feel the perpetual judgment of these stern, unforgiving
ancestors. They point their accusing fingers at a sore place in
Hawthorne‟s heart.
Is this sore place the “secret” that Melville claimed to
know? It seems clear that Hawthorne is describing some secret
guilt that would be scorned and reviled by his Puritan
ancestors. Hawthorne concludes his reverie of this grim visage
by saying “Do you remember any act of enormous folly, at
which you would blush, even in the remotest cavern of the
earth? Then recognize your Shame.” Did Hawthorne commit
an act of “enormous folly?” His shame and guilt are
abundantly clear, and it seems at least possible that his secret
sin focuses on the first thing on his mind, “wearing a sister‟s
likeness to first love.”
Observing these night-induced visions, he begs for the
“wretched band” to pass him by. He declaims that while
awake, he is riotously miserable, but that worse still would be
if he were surrounded by an even “fiercer tribe,” being “the
devils of a guilty heart, that holds hell within itself.” He is
tortured by demons of guilt. His imagination further develops
this horror, “What if the fiend should come in woman‟s
garments, with a pale beauty amid sin and desolation, and lie
down by your side?” What dwells in Hawthorne‟s
imagination? Is he referring to the same “pale young mourner”
who wears a sister‟s likeness? Could Hawthorne really be
alluding to a nighttime fantasy of lying beside his sister? He

52
concludes this line of thought by saying, “Sufficient without
such guilt is this nightmare of the soul; this heavy, heavy
sinking of the spirits; this wintry gloom about the heart; this
indistinct horror of the mind.” Hawthorne is describing a
haunted mind, indeed. By the end of this sketch, Hawthorne
comes to no conclusions or resolutions about the thoughts that
haunt him. His thoughts continue to tumble about until sleep
claims him once again. Whether or not we may conclude that
Hawthorne‟s “secret” relates to an incestuous yearning toward
his sister, by this sketch we can at least catch a glimpse of his
inmost thoughts to find the origins of the themes of guilt,
shame, and secret sin that are woven throughout his writing.

53
“The Maypole of Merry Mount”
In “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” Hawthorne reaches
into his reservoir of local history to construct an allegory that
contrasts the harsh beliefs and values of the Puritans with the
more socially liberal values of other settlers to the new world.
Hawthorne introduces this story by saying, “In the slight sketch
here attempted, the facts, recorded on the grave pages of our
New England annalists, have wrought themselves, almost
spontaneously, into a sort of allegory” (Hawthorne Complete
Short Stories 40). Almost spontaneously. Hawthorne,
thoroughly familiar with local histories, altered several
historical details in order to better craft a story that paints a
stark dichotomy between Puritan and Rebel.
The sketch relates an early conflict between the
founders of Mount Wollaston, also known as Merry Mount,
and the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Although Hawthorne leaves the bones of the historical event
intact, he simplifies, alters, or suppresses details in order to
highlight the oppositions these groups represent. Yet
Hawthorne‟s point of view is not simplified; it seems
conflicted in the retelling. He appears to be simultaneously
sympathetic and critical to both sides of the conflict. This
attitude underscores many of the ambiguities that pervade all
of Hawthorne‟s work. “The Maypole of Merry Mount” is
thereby a good example of Hawthorne‟s ongoing internal
conflicts as he tries to reconcile himself to his Puritan
ancestors.

54
According to the explanatory notes in Brian Harding‟s
1987 edition of Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales,
Mount Wollaston was originally a trading post established in
1623. In 1625, the leadership of the post was taken up by
Thomas Morton, who renamed it Merry Mount and “turned the
settlement into a morally dissolute community” (354). The
inhabitants of Merry Mount were not members of the Puritan
congregation, and by all accounts, followed the customs and
community folk traditions brought with them from England.
These traditions included a community Maypole which was
elaborately decorated as the centerpiece of celebrations, and
around which the settlement would drink, dance, and make
merry. These community celebrations flew in the face of the
dour restraint imposed by the Puritans, and the two
communities were bound to clash. The ensuing conflict is
recreated in “The Maypole of Merry Mount.”
The story opens joyfully. “Bright were the days at
Merry Mount, when the Maypole was the banner staff of that
gay colony!” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 40)
Hawthorne immediately establishes an upbeat mood of the
happiness of a bygone era. He then expresses the great hope
that the Maypole represented in the new world; “They who
reared it, should their banner be triumphant, were to pour
sunshine over New England‟s rugged hills, and scatter flower
seeds throughout the soil” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
40). In this opening passage, Hawthorne is trying to present
the community of Merry Mount as a stark contrast and
alternative history to the Puritans. Should their community at
Merry Mount be successful, rough New England would be
covered in sunshine and blooms. Merry Mount is held out as a

55
bright and beautiful hope of what might have been. To make
the stakes in this conflict perfectly clear, Hawthorne then
asserts, “Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire”
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 40). Later in the story he
again proclaims, “The future complexion of New England was
involved in this important quarrel” (Hawthorne Complete
Short Stories 44). This is the same stage on which Hawthorne
attempts to explore his own conflicts and ambiguities.
It is Midsummer Eve, and the Maypole is “gayly
decked” with a silken banner of rainbow hues. Green boughs,
garlands of flowers and a wreath of roses bedeck the pole
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 40). Members of the
community gather around wearing fanciful costumes and
masks, including “an English priest, canonically dressed, yet
decked with flowers, in heathen fashion” (Hawthorne
Complete Short Stories 41). By this, Hawthorne is describing
an Anglican minister, reviled by the Puritans for their “popery”
and fancy garb. For a priest to be further adorned with flowers
would seem excessively sinful to the Puritan onlookers espying
the scene around the Maypole from the surrounding forest.
At first, Hawthorne seems sympathetic to the
inhabitants of Merry Mount. “In their train were minstrels,…
wandering players,… mummers, rope-dancers, and mounte-
banks.” They are genially described as a “giddy tribe [of]
mirth-makers” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 43). As
Hawthorne reveals in the “Custom House” sketch, he would fit
right in. He is keenly aware that his chosen profession is
disgraceful in the eyes of his Puritan forebears. Describing his
profession from the Puritan perspective as a “writer of story-
books,” Hawthorne would likely relate to and sympathize with

56
these settlers (Hawthorne Scarlet Letter 11). In describing the
professions of the settlers at Merry Mount, Hawthorne is
definitely placing himself in league with the “Maypole
worshippers.” To emphasize this connection, he initially
describes the inhabitants of Merry Mount in favorable terms,
calling them a “gay colony… [with] lightsome hearts,” and
“people of the Golden Age” (Hawthorne Complete Short
Stories 40). The revelers are dressed in outlandish costumes
and elaborate masks, ranging from wild beasts to foolscap-
festooned jesters wearing bells. Like the youthful Hawthorne
professed to be, the inhabitants of Merry Mount are “sworn
triflers of a lifetime” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 43).
Within this ring of revelers encircling the Maypole
appeared “the two airiest forms that had ever trodden on any
more solid footing than a purple and golden cloud”
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 41). They were the Lord
and Lady of the May, and the community was gathered around
them to witness and celebrate their marriage. The priest sums
up the community event when he proclaims, “Up with your
nimble spirits, ye morris-dancers, green men, and glee
maidens, bears and wolves, and horned gentlemen! Come; a
chorus now, rich with the old mirth of Merry England, and the
wilder glee of this fresh forest; and then a dance, to show the
youthful pair what life is made of, and how airily they should
go through it!” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 41) The
community of Merry Mount is gathered for a festive
celebration of great joy, indeed!
However, into this celebration of youth and love,
Hawthorne inserts the warning knell of puritanical damnation.
To the secretly watching Puritans, the revelers were seen as

57
“devils and ruined souls.” All is not well with the watching
Puritans, either. Hawthorne first describes these grim voyeurs
as “superstitious… dismal wretches… grim [and] burdened.”
They are the “hostile party.” The contrast painted by
Hawthorne between the “gay colony” and the Puritans is stark.
With the stage thus set, Hawthorne has the Puritans
rush from the forest to break up the celebration. With the
inebriated revelers unable to defend themselves, they are
quickly overcome by the stern and unforgiving Puritans. At
this point, Hawthorne‟s descriptions of the two groups begin to
shift. The inhabitants of Merry Mount are now described less
favorably as “gay sinners,” signaling a shift toward the Puritan
perspective. Hawthorne‟s favorable description of the Merry
Mounters deteriorates rapily. Soon, they are, “Sworn triflers of
a lifetime, they would not venture among the sober truths of
life not even to be truly blest” (Hawthorne Complete Short
Stories 43). Hawthorne‟s conflicted attitude begins to be
revealed. Although he relates to these “triflers,” he feels that
they are incapable of the “sober truths” that lead to salvation.
We can also see this shift of perspective in how the
Puritans are described. They become “grizzly saints,” moving
toward a more favorable description than heretofore offered.
The leader of the Puritans is then described more favorably as
well; “So stern was the energy of his aspect, that the whole
man, visage, frame and soul, seemed wrought of iron, gifted
with life and thought, yet all of one substance with his
headpiece and breastplate” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
44). If strength and power are to be admired, then Hawthorne
clearly has at least grudging admiration for the Puritans.

58
Hawthorne alters historical fact slightly to place John
Endicott, a well-known Puritan leader, at the scene of these
events. Hawthorne likely did this to emphasize the allegorical
nature of this historical event. Hawthorne didn‟t want just any
Puritan to chop down the venerated Maypole; he chose a figure
who could represent all the authority possessed by the Puritans
of that area. Hawthorne‟s Endicott strides forth into the center
of the revelry and harangues the priest and the crowd for their
sinful behavior. With his sword, he “assaulted the hallowed
Maypole” and chopped it down. The allegorical nature of this
act is underscored by the words Hawthorne next has Endicott
proclaim, “There lies the only Maypole in New England! The
thought is strong within me that, by its fall, is shadowed forth
the fate of light and idle mirth makers, amongst us and our
posterity. Amen, saith John Endicott.” In Hawthorne‟s
allegory, “this important quarrel” is settled. The Puritans have
won. The bright promise offered by the settlement of Merry
Mount was ruthlessly overrun by their Puritan neighbors.
Hawthorne, through Endicott, proclaims that the fate of “idle
mirth-makers” is set for future posterity. This is a judgement
that Hawthorne identifies for himself as an “idle” poet.
By this dynamic conflict, we can see the allegorical
point Hawthorne is trying to make. Early in the history of the
settlement of this country, there were two possible courses to
take: the Puritan mission of creating a “city on a hill,” to
conquer the evil dwelling within the wilderness, to be the
shining example of strict religious purity espoused by Calvinist
doctrine; or to set up a dwelling place within the wilderness, to
embrace revelry and celebration as the rightful heritage of

59
English tradition and custom. Was this to be the land of the
Puritans, or the land of the free?
As Endicott says, “woe to the wretch that troubleth our
religion!” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 45) Woe
indeed. The wedding guests and revelers, now finally
described as “bestial pagans,” were ordered tied to pine trees
and whipped. The Priest was arrested and ordered to appear
before the Puritan‟s General Court, and the Lord and Lady of
May were singled out for special attention. They were stripped
of their wedding garb and forcibly absorbed into the Puritan
community. There, after a lifetime of “supporting each other
along the difficult path which it was their lot to tread… they
went heavenward.” By conforming to the Puritan standard, the
Lord and Lady of May were able to successfully join the
Puritan community, but it was a difficult path stripped of all of
their previous joy. As Hawthorne concludes, “As the moral
gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gayety, even so
was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad
forest.” The price of their happiness was high. In the end, they
had each other and their love, but their marriage was
enwreathed in puritanical gloom rather than the roses of merry
joy.
These themes run throughout Hawthorne‟s life. He
yearns toward a life and a profession that would be harshly
judged by his own internalized family standards. He wishes
for an ideal society which he simultaneously scorns as being a
“wild philosophy of pleasure… [the] latest daydream”
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 43). He glorifies the
traditions of revelry displayed in Merry Mount, while
portraying the Puritans who destroyed this settlement with a

60
sympathetic touch for their strength of character. It seems as
though Hawthorne yearns for the hope of salvation offered by
the Puritans, even while remaining doubtful that he can achieve
their standard, or even wants to attain it.

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“The Minister’s Black Veil”
In seeking to understand the conflicted motivations of
Nathaniel Hawthorne, it‟s important to recall an important
tenet of the Puritan faith he was raised to honor. The Calvinist
belief in predestination meant that there was no absolution or
forgiveness for sin. While good deeds might not buy a
person‟s way into heaven, sinful behavior was a sure sign that
a person was destined for hell. Sin, shame, and guilt all arise
naturally from this belief and are recurring themes in
Hawthorne‟s work. Hawthorne alludes to his “guilty heart” in
“The Haunted Mind.” But nowhere is the theme of secret sin
and a guilty heart so clearly seen than in “The Minister‟s Black
Veil.”
Hawthorne subtitles this story, “A Parable” in order to
clearly indicate to his reader that he seeks to tell another
allegorical tale which will reveal some sort of moral truth. Just
as in “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” Hawthorne attempts to
attach a certain degree of historical authenticity to the tale in
order to anchor the parable to reality, it seems important to
Hawthorne that his characters and situations are believable,
and aren‟t dismissed by the reader as unsustainable fantasy.
Perhaps Hawthorne is likewise struggling with a secret sin
similar to the main character of this parable, making this
conflict very personal and real to him.
Before he even begins his tale, Hawthorne refers his
reader to a footnote that informs us that there was “another
clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody [who] made
himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related

62
of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In his case, however, the symbol
has a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a
beloved friend and from that day till the hour of his own death,
he hid his face from men.” This footnote introduces the story
perfectly. By it, we are led to understand that this story centers
around a minister, the Reverend Mr. Hooper, who hides his
face from men, but his reasons for doing so are not
immediately explained nor understood. By this footnote,
Hawthorne also indicates the veil‟s status as a symbol. The
reason for the veil becomes the focus of the parable that
follows.
On an otherwise normal Sunday morning, the “good
Parson Hooper” appears at the meeting-house wearing a black
veil that entirely conceals his face. Offering no comments nor
explanation for its sudden presence, in fact, acting entirely as if
this were perfectly normal, Mr. Hooper ascends to his pulpit to
deliver his weekly sermon. The subject of the sermon “had
reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide
from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our
own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can
detect them” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 33). By this,
Hawthorne directly establishes the symbolism of the veil – it
represents the secret sins we seek to hide from the public
world. But Hawthorne also shows the futility inherent in
attempting to hide sin – the belief in an omniscient deity can
only mean that there is no hiding from “the devils of a guilty
heart” (Hawthorne “The Haunted Mind”).
The sight of his veiled visage disturbs the parishioners,
who struggle to understand this strange behavior in their
otherwise exemplary preacher. They avoid his company after

63
the service. The gloom cast over the Parson by the veil isolates
him from his parishioners. He becomes something of a scandal
among the villagers, who speculate that perhaps he‟s gone
insane. “Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper‟s
intellects,” diagnoses the physician of the village (Hawthorne
Complete Short Stories 33). His wife declares that “I would
not be alone with him for the world. I wonder he is not afraid
to be alone with himself!” Answers her husband, “Men
sometimes are so.” This exchange alludes back to the “The
Haunted Mind,” where Hawthorne wrestles with the visions
and thoughts that haunt him in the still of the night. Through
that, we might conclude that Hawthorne is also afraid to be
alone with himself. Is Hawthorne exploring aspects of himself
through the guise of the Reverend Mr. Hooper? It seems at
least a plausible speculation.
There is evidence that the veil is fraught with
significance for Mr. Hooper. He is heavily burdened by
whatever has caused him to take the veil. The mere sight of it
is enough to make Hooper react strongly. “At that instant,
catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black
veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it
overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered, his lips grew
white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet, and rushed
forth into the darkness” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
35). Clearly, the veil isn‟t merely an empty symbolic gesture
on behalf of a clergyman, but a deeply personal issue of urgent
emotional import.
Both the Parson and his parishioners labor under the
burden of the sin represented by the black veil. Whereas the
community was never before at a loss to offer advice to their

64
minister, in this situation, they were all miserably reluctant to
confront their Parson and ask him directly about his reasons for
taking the veil. In the context of the parable that Hawthorne is
attempting to paint, this reluctance is entirely understandable,
for most people are notoriously reluctant to confront the guilt
and shame that emerge from within their deepest hearts. The
fact that Reverend Hooper would choose to make his status as
a sinner public and apparent would be a confounding dilemma
to most people unaccustomed to facing the desires that lead to
sin. To them, the veil was a “symbol of a fearful secret
between him and them” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
35).
The only person who does not initially cringe from the
black veil is Mr. Hooper‟s betrothed. She apparently sees
nothing terrible in it, and asks him directly to tell her why he
put it on. She sees his sin for what it is and does not condemn
him for it. Notably, Hawthorne gives this kindly protagonist
his sister‟s name, Elizabeth. Could Hawthorne be making a
direct reference to his own secret sinful yearnings? Does he
hope for a similar understanding from her?
When Elizabeth begs Hooper to reveal his reason for
taking the veil, Hooper indicates that he has taken a vow to
wear the veil that conceals both his face and his reason for
doing so. He responds to her plea for answers by saying,
“Elizabeth, I will, so far as my vow may suffer me. Know,
then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it
ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze
of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar
friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal
shade must separate me from the world: even you, Elizabeth,

65
can never come behind it!” Could it be that if Elizabeth were
to see what hides behind the veil, she would see a truth that
“wears a sister‟s likeness to first love?” (Hawthorne “The
Haunted Mind”)
Although he was a fairly young man when the story
opens, the Reverend Hooper is an old man when the story
finally closes. He spent the rest of his life veiled, never
revealing the full nature of the secret that caused him to put it
on. And yet, in spite of the consternation caused by the veil,
Hooper continued to find success in his vocation. “Among all
of its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable
effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the
aid of his mysterious emblem… he became a man of awful
power over souls that were in agony for sin” (Hawthorne
Complete Short Stories 37). By this, we can see another more
hopeful theme that recurs often in Hawthorne‟s work: the good
that can arise from even a sinful life. The Lord and Lady of
the May both eventually managed to attain heaven, in spite of
their “sinful” start to life. Likewise, good Parson Hooper
managed to become a revered minister in spite of the obvious
signs of a guilty and sinful soul. “In this manner Mr. Hooper
spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in
dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly
feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy,
but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish” (Hawthorne
Complete Short Stories 38). Calvinist doctrine offers no hope
that good deeds can mitigate the damning effects of sin, but the
transcendentalist in Hawthorne possibly felt otherwise.
Perhaps Hawthorne likewise sought some form of imperfect
absolution through living a good life.

66
On his deathbed, Reverend Hooper was attended by his
beloved Elizabeth, “whose calm affection had endured thus
long in secrecy, in solitude, amid the chill of age, and would
not perish.” Alas! Is this the long, fateful stretch of years that
Hawthorne foresees for himself and his beloved Ebe? Just like
“The Haunted Mind,” Hawthorne again mentions the “the
saddest of prisons, his own heart” (Hawthorne Complete Short
Stories 38). Drawing parallels between Hooper and
Hawthorne, the reader is forced to consider what secretly lurks
in the prison of Hawthorne‟s heart.

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“Alice Doane’s Appeal”
The answer to Hawthorne‟s secret might be found in
“Alice Doane‟s Appeal,” another story in which the
“autobiographical impulse” seems to get the better of Nathaniel
Hawthorne. The fictional story of Alice Doane is embedded
within an outer, autobiographical story. By this method,
Hawthorne directly inserts himself into the narrative, yet by
creating characters to perform the actions of the fictional story
line, he also separates himself from the substance of the story
at the same time. This story exemplifies his conflicted
relationship with his puritanical Hathorne forebears in many
ways, and reveals some of the consequences of living contrary
to an internalized set of Puritan values and standards.
The story begins as a first person narrative. Hawthorne
describes going for a walk with two young ladies on a pleasant
afternoon in June. Rejecting all other destinations in his native
town of Salem, he decides to lead them to Gallows Hill, the
site of the execution of the “martyrs” accused of witchcraft
during the Witch Trials of 1692. For Hawthorne, not only is
Gallows Hill a central feature of this story, but also of his own
life. He says, “I have often courted the historic influence of the
spot” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 557). For someone
with such a direct lineage to those tragic events, it‟s easy to see
why Hawthorne would continue to be drawn to this location.
His conflicted feelings about his ancestors remain a sore spot
that he returns to again and again, just like Gallows Hill.
When describing Gallows Hill, he says, “a physical
curse may be said to have blasted the spot, where guilt and

68
frenzy consummated the most execrable scene that our history
blushes to record. For this was the field where superstition
won her darkest triumph; the high place where our fathers set
up their shame, to the mournful gaze of generations far
remote” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 557). Hawthorne
is harshly critical of the outcome of those events, and the
people responsible for the tragedy. Representing that remote
generation, Hawthorne‟s scorn for the actions of his ancestor,
Judge Hathorne, is clear. The curse that blasted Gallows hill
has echoes to the curse Hawthorne lays claim to in the
“Custom House” sketch when he, “the present writer, as their
representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes,
and pray that any curse incurred by them… may be now and
henceforth removed” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 10). By
this we can see that Hawthorne sees the behavior of his Puritan
forebears as cursed, and that he bears the weight of that curse.
Once upon Gallows Hill, Hawthorne attempts to
connect his light-hearted companions to “all the melancholy
associations of the scene,” but only partially succeeds. Here
we can see the same stark dichotomy that was represented in
“The Maypole of Merry Mount.” Hawthorne‟s companions
are described as having the “gayety of girlish spirits… mirth
[which] brightened the gloom into a sunny shower of feeling,
and a rainbow in the mind” (Hawthorne Complete Short
Stories 557). The imagery used to describe the inhabitants of
Merry Mount and Hawthorne‟s female companions are similar.
Their mirth is in direct conflict with the setting, which evokes
the extremes of the stern, unforgiving Puritans. This
ambiguous, conflicted mood is cultivated by Hawthorne.
“With now a merry word and next a sad one, we trod among

69
the tangled weeds, and almost hoped that our feet would sink
into the hollow of a witch‟s grave” (Hawthorne Complete
Short Stories 557).
Into this foreboding atmosphere of ambiguous light and
shadow, Hawthorne asks his companions to indulge him as he
reads them one of his stories. He had brought a manuscript
with him on this walk, an indication that he intended to share
this tale with them and that his choice of destination was not as
random as he had previously indicated. The very existence of
the manuscript reveals Hawthorne‟s youthful rebellion against
the judgement of his Puritan ancestors. Continuing in his
autobiographical mode, he said that the manuscript‟s existence
was something of an accident, since he burned a “great heap”
of his other stories. “They had fed the flames; thoughts meant
to delight the world and endure for ages had perished in a
moment, and stirred not a single heart but mine” (Hawthorne
Complete Short Stories 558). The burning of manuscripts can
be seen as both a gesture of frustration and intolerance from a
writer with very high self-imposed standards, as well as an
instinctive gesture of self-loathing brought on by the
conservative values imposed by his Puritan heritage.
According to Wineapple, “He was a man of high standards,
rigorous and stern, and like the protagonists in his stories who
torch the tales that no one reads, Hawthorne didn‟t separate
anger from anguish, vengeance from self-punishment, when he
felt he had failed” (Wineapple 58). Throughout Hawthorne‟s
career, he was continually striving for personal excellence and
public approval, perhaps in the hope that, like Parson Hooper,
his good works might counteract his secret sin.

70
Hawthorne‟s explanation of the manuscript‟s survival
is revealing. He said that he wrote the story years prior, when
“my pen, now sluggish and perhaps feeble, because I have not
much to hope or fear, was driven by stronger external motives,
and a more passionate impulse within, then I am fated to feel
again” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 558). At the point
when Hawthorne writes this story, he apparently feels that he
no longer has much to hope or fear, a sign that a lingering
belief in predestination is influencing his locus of control and
sense of empowerment. It also reveals that he once had a more
passionate inner impulse. Not coincidentally, a passionate
inner impulse drives the story contained in the manuscript.
Hawthorne then begins to relate to his companions a
dark tale of murder and significantly, incest. He tells the story
of a brother and sister, Leonard and Alice Doane who, through
the death of their parents in childhood, became unnaturally
close. Leonard is characterized “by a diseased imagination and
morbid feelings.” Alice is described as “beautiful and
virtuous, and instilling something of her own excellence into
the wild heart of her brother, but not enough to cure the deep
taint of his nature” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 559).
The autobiographical nature of this story immediately lends
weight to the assumption that Hawthorne is inserting himself
into this narrative as well. He might easily be describing
himself as he describes the brother, Leonard.
Leonard describes his close relationship with his sister,
Alice. “The young man spoke of the closeness of the tie which
united him and Alice, the consecrated fervor of their affection
from childhood upwards, their sense of lonely sufficiency to
each other” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 559). Without

71
altering a detail, this could certainly describe Nathaniel
Hawthorne‟s relationship with his sister, Elizabeth.
When Alice begins to take interest in a stranger named
Walter Brome, Leonard became enraged with jealousy.
Wrestling with his overwhelming feelings, Leonard finally
found a rationale to explain why Alice could come to love
someone other than himself. “For he (Brome) was my very
counterpart!… There was a resemblance from which I shrunk
with sickness, and loathing, and horror, as if my own features
had come and stared upon me in a solitary place” (Hawthorne
Complete Short Stories 559). Leonard looked upon Walter
Brome and found himself, and what he saw of himself filled
him with self-loathing. “Here was a man whom Alice might
love with all the strength of sisterly affection, added to that
impure passion which alone engrosses all the heart.” Alas for
Leonard! All of his sister‟s love that should have come to him
was now directed at another.
Leonard‟s insane hatred of Walter Brome was mutual.
“The similarity of their dispositions made them like joint
possessors of an individual nature, which could not become
wholly the property of one, unless by the extinction of the
other” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 560). When Walter
taunted Leonard with “indubitable proofs of the shame of
Alice,” Leonard murdered Walter Brome in a fit of rage. Only
upon the death of Brome did Leonard see the family
resemblance, and begin to suspect that he had just killed his
twin brother.
Just like Hawthorne, Leonard‟s feelings are enormously
conflicted. “Tortured by the idea of his sister‟s guilt, yet
sometimes yielding to a conviction of her purity; stung with

72
remorse for the death of Walter Brome, and shuddering with a
deeper sense of some unutterable crime,” Leonard sought the
assistance of a mysterious wizard (Hawthorne Complete Short
Stories 560). The wizard directed the brother and sister to the
graveyard where their newly discovered and recently murdered
brother lay buried. By some unexplained supernatural
mechanism, each grave in the cemetery “had given up its
inhabitants,” filling the graveyard with spirits (Hawthorne
Complete Short Stories 561). From the gray ancestors and
earliest defenders of the “infant colony,” to the recently
departed, spirits of all the departed rose and crowded the
tombstones. However, these weren‟t truly the ghosts of the
honored dead. “None but souls accursed were there, and fiends
counterfeiting the likeness of departed saints.” The Puritans
didn‟t believe that the souls of the dead could return to haunt
the living. Hawthorne apparently shares this belief. There
were only two possible destinations for a departed soul, either
sinner or saint. Accordingly, all the phantasms that appear to
Leonard and Alice are either cursed souls or fiends.
This “company of devils and condemned souls” had
come to gloat over the wicked crime that had been committed,
“as foul a one as ever was imagined in their dreadful abode.”
Hawthorne then swiftly condenses the plot to explain how the
evil wizard had caused Walter Brome “to tempt his unknown
sister to guilt and shame,” only to later die at the hand of his
unknown twin brother (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
562). As though Hawthorne is eager to dispense with this
portion of the tale, he eschews the ornate descriptive details he
typically favors and summarizes the end of the story abruptly.
“The story concluded with the Appeal of Alice to the spectre of

73
Walter Brome; his reply, absolving her from every stain; and
the trembling awe with which ghost and devil fled, as from the
sinless presence of an angel” (Hawthorne Complete Short
Stories 562). This last bit of plot is surprising, for Hawthorne
seems to accept the possibility that a fiend or accursed soul has
the power to absolve sin. The title of the story indicates how
important this appeal for absolution is to Hawthorne.
According to Hawthorne‟s internalized beliefs and values,
there would have been no point in this appeal. Yet the
possibility of absolution is so appealing to Hawthorne that he
chooses to believe in its power, even though granted by a fallen
spirit. Alice is once again restored to sinless purity in the eyes
of Leonard, and even the ghosts and devils flee from her with
awe.
Hawthorne quickly rushes the reader past this piece of
the narrative, quickly resuming his autobiographical recounting
of his day on Gallows Hill. His manuscript now read, he
returns his listeners to the horrors visited upon the accused
witches at Gallows Hill. His vivid imagination summons each
one of the accused, in fear and dignity, as they ascend the hill
to their deaths.
With this grim reality thus established, Hawthorne
concludes his sketch by stating his desire for some sort of
monument to commemorate these tragic events, one that would
recall “the errors of an earlier race, and not to be cast down,
while the human heart has one infirmity that may result in
crime” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 564). To which
crime is Hawthorne now alluding? The crimes that were the
focus of Gallows Hill, or the crime of incest recently told upon
it? There can be many parallels drawn between Nathaniel

74
Hawthorne and the characters within “Alice Doane‟s Appeal.”
In the context of his other works, it‟s not difficult to imagine
that Hawthorne bears a similar burden of guilt within his heart.

75
“Young Goodman Brown”
Nathaniel Hawthorne‟s ambiguous and conflicted
relationship with his puritanical past can also be clearly seen in
the well known story “Young Goodman Brown.” In this tale,
the title character is as conflicted and confused as Hawthorne
himself appears so often to be. Goodman Brown initially sets
off into the wilderness with the intent of joining the devil, but
along the way he has second thoughts. After witnessing a
devilish gathering attended by most of his neighbors, both the
low-born as well as the powerful, Brown becomes
disillusioned about the nature of sin and the possibility of
salvation. Through the character of Young Goodman Brown,
we can see Hawthorne the author likewise struggling with
these same issues.
When Brown first leaves his home to set off on his
errand into the wilderness, his young wife, symbolically named
“Faith,” begs him not to go. Hawthorne‟s penchant for
allegory and parable lead the reader to conclude that Browne‟s
wife is intended to represent just what her name implies: faith,
and its role in saving a person from damnation. Yet, with the
pink ribbons she wears, a forbidden sign of frivolity to
Puritans, we can see that this is a faith already tainted by the
suggestion of sin. When Brown ignores Faith‟s pleas to stay
home, we can see that faith has little power to overcome a
person determined to sin.
And yet, Brown hopes to return to Faith when his
errand of wickedness is done. He optimistically thinks, “after
this one night I‟ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven”

76
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 247). He sees her ribbons
as the adornments of an angel, and sets his hopes of salvation
in her uncertain hands. In spite of his “excellent resolve for the
future,” Browne goes forth and hastens on to his “present evil
purpose.” He has a clear sense of what evil is, and yet he
knowingly chooses to pursue it.
Browne enters the wilderness, an ambiguous and
ominous domain. Those who enter rarely return unchanged.
To the Puritans of the time, the wilderness was the ultimate
unknown. It was the realm of the Devil, filled with
unimaginable fears and sinful temptations. The wilderness was
dangerous, a realm to be avoided or civilized, but not a place
entered without grave concern. It was the ultimate symbol of
dark mystery and evil. And yet, for all of its negative
connotations, the wilderness is also the frontier of freedom and
independence. Entering the wilderness requires great courage
and strength. It is the realm of explorers and adventurers, the
place where heroes are formed. Venturing forth into the
wilderness is a process of self-definition. It tests personal
boundaries, challenges beliefs, and explores limits. In this dual
context of temptation and freedom, the wilderness can be seen
as a vast realm of ambiguity and conflicted tensions. By
testing himself against the dangers of the wilderness, Goodman
Brown might find his way toward truth.
So what truths are explored through this morality tale?
Naturally, Hawthorne‟s writing arises from his own
internalized beliefs, and the conflicts and ambiguities that
those beliefs generate. Young Goodman Brown, like
Hawthorne, is a man tempted by sin. He is torn between
embracing and rejecting wickedness. Though he futilely

77
resists, all of his cherished beliefs about sin and salvation are
stripped away to reveal the essential sinfulness of humanity.
A core Puritan belief is the assumed status of
damnation for most souls. This is the central truth so harshly
revealed to Goodman Brown. In writing this story, it reveals
an author who operates on this assumed premise. It is this
unforgiving Puritan view about damnation that is learned by
Brown on his errand into the wilderness.
When Brown ventures into the forest and meets with
the Devil, an apparent deal made in advance, Brown at first
tries to resist the errand that has brought him this far. Calling
the Devil his “friend,” he then proclaims, “it is my purpose
now to return whence I came. I have scruples touching the
matter thou wot‟st of” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
248). Brown‟s conflicted nature is clear. As powerfully as he
is drawn into the wilderness, his faith creates a tension within
him that causes him to continually doubt his chosen course. As
soon as he confronts the reason for his journey, he begins to
resist.
Brown judges himself and his intentions harshly when
thinking of his family lineage brings second thoughts. That
young Goodman Brown is intended to be an autobiographical
character of Hawthorne can be seen in Brown‟s attempt to
reverse course and leave his errand unfulfilled. “My father
never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father
before him. We have been a race of honest men and good
Christians since the days of the martyrs; and I shall be the first
of the name of Brown that ever took this path.” Hawthorne
seems to be making a direct reference to his own ancestors,
who of course share a likewise history. But to confirm the

78
symbolic link between Hawthorne and Brown, the devil
confirms the details that prove the point. He replies to Brown,
“I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a
one among the Puritans; and that‟s no trifle to say. I helped
your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker
woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I
that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own
hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip‟s war”
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 248-9). These are clear
references to William Hathorne, the patriarch and founding
father of Hawthorne‟s own family line. Local histories reveal
that it was William who punished the Quaker woman with a
public lashing in the streets of Salem, and he and his son were
also leaders in campaigns against the local native inhabitants.
Given Hawthorne‟s conflicted attitudes toward his stern,
unforgiving patriarchs, it isn‟t surprising that he would
fictionally place his ancestors firmly in league with the Devil.
This devilish confirmation is the beginning of Brown‟s
disillusionment, and yet he clings to the illusion of himself and
the respectability of his family. “We are a people of prayer,
and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness”
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 249).
Without the myth of a saintly lineage to sustain him,
Brown is further disillusioned when the devil henceforth
informs Brown that he has many followers among the church
and civil leadership, up to and including the governor, and
Brown‟s own local minister. To further prove how widespread
is the Devil‟s influence, a number of prominent people begin to
appear on the forest path, all hastening toward the secret
meeting in the wilderness. The first is Goody Cloyse who

79
taught Brown “his catechism in youth, and was still his moral
and spiritual adviser” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
249). Brown is aghast as he observes her from the shelter of
the forest. If his spiritual advisor is in league with the Devil, to
whom can Brown turn for guidance?
This confrontation with disillusionment prompts Brown
to have a crisis of faith. He stops his journey into the forest
and refuses to go any further. “Not another step will I budge
on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go
to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that
any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?”
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 250)
Brown‟s decision to go no further brings him some
relief. He was “applauding himself greatly, and thinking with
how clear a conscience he should meet the minister in his
morning walk, nor shrink from the eye of good old Deacon
Gookin.” Just as Brown is congratulating himself for resisting
the devil, he witnesses more travelers in the forest, and they
were none other than the minister and deacon. This revelation
deals a severe blow to Brown, who was then “overburdened
with the heavy sickness of his heart” (Hawthorne Complete
Short Stories 251). If even his own minister is in league with
the Devil, what then is his hope for salvation? If even the most
Godly among them were corrupt, how could he hope to do
better? He now had cause to doubt heaven itself. Truly, the
very foundations of his faith were shaken. And yet, he still
struggles against this crushing despair. “With heaven above
and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!”
(Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 251)

80
With all the weight of predictable doom, his illusions
about his dear wife Faith are next stripped from him.
Gathering above the forest, a dark cloud swept toward him.
From within the cloud, Brown could indistinctly hear the
voices of the towns-people, “men and women, both pious and
ungodly.” And then, most horrifying of all, Brown catches the
sound of his new young wife‟s voice, “uttering lamentations,
yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor,
which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain; and all the
unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage
her onward” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 252).
Brown‟s core beliefs are assaulted by the consequences
of these revelations. Just like his wife‟s “uncertain sorrow,”
there is an enormous amount of conflicted ambiguity to these
new insights. If everyone, sinner and saint alike, participates
in wickedness, then what happens to the distinctions between
sinner and saint? What if salvation is a meaningless goal? If
faith itself is corrupt, how shall we then define and weigh sin?
If everyone is stained by damnable sin, is heaven even a goal
worth striving for? In anguish, Brown calls out, “My Faith is
gone! There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come,
devil; for to thee is this world given.” Brown capitulates and
yields to the inevitable.
He arrives at a clearing in the woods where the devil
has called his gathering. Once there, all of Brown‟s worst
fears are confirmed when he sees the faces of the powerful and
pious in attendance. When a figure resembling “some grave
divine of the New England churches” stands at a pulpit and
exhorts the crowd to “Bring forth the converts!” Brown
willingly steps forward. He has accepted his sinful nature. As

81
he approaches the congregation, he feels a “loathful
brotherhood” with them “by the sympathy of all that was
wicked in his heart.” The dark figure welcomes Brown “to the
communion of your race. Ye have found thus young your
nature and your destiny” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
254). Brown has learned that his nature is sinful and his
destiny is damnation, and realizes that this is true even for
those who masquerade as pious saints.
The final blow to his former beliefs befalls him when
Faith steps forth and they behold one another before the unholy
altar. The devil makes their positions perfectly clear. “There
ye stand, depending upon one another‟s hearts, ye had still
hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye
undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your
only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the
communion of your race” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories
254). In one final, desperate attempt to salvage something of
his faith, Brown urges his wife to “look up to heaven, and
resist the wicked one.”
But with that last act of resistance, the scene changes
abruptly. Goodman Brown finds himself standing alone in the
dark forest, with no evidence of the gathering in sight. Was it
a dream? Did he imagine it? What is the truth?
The next day, young Goodman Brown walks down the
street of Salem village and sees once again the faces that he
had last seen in the firelight of the forest. He sees the minister,
who offers Brown a blessing as he passes. The deacon could
be overheard in prayer, and Goody Cloyse was seen teaching
the catechism to a little girl. Brown is disillusioned and
insecure. He sees his young wife, Faith, still wearing her pink

82
ribbons, burst into joy at the sight of him. But Brown is too
conflicted to respond to her with his previous delight. He
“looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without
a greeting” (Hawthorne Complete Short Stories 255). Truly,
Brown has returned from his errand into the wilderness a
changed man.
The changes run deep, and seem to mirror the man
Nathaniel Hawthorne became. The story concludes by
observing, “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 Complete Short Stories 255). By
all accounts, this would be an equally good description of
Hawthorne himself. He was known to be a stern and
melancholy man who went to great lengths to preserve his
privacy. Perhaps he, too, was motivated by irrefutable
knowledge of his own damnation, creating a desperate and
irresolvable conflict within him.

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The Scarlet Letter
The themes of secret sin, guilt, and unholy love are
again featured in The Scarlet Letter. Yet again, Hawthorne can
be seen struggling with the consequences of sin. By setting his
novel in Salem during the early Puritan years, Hawthorne was
drawing on the local history he was so thoroughly familiar
with. The Scarlet Letter can be seen as a refinement and
development of themes that recur in many of his stories.
“The Custom House” sketch that introduces the novel is
replete with seemingly unrelated autobiographical information.
However, when seen through the lens of an author examining
his personal puritanical history, the “Custom House” material
provides the perfect backdrop to what follows. The Custom
House, a real location in Boston where Hawthorne once
worked, is the bridge between Hawthorne‟s present reality and
his conflicted relationship with the past. It represents the
liminal state between sleeping and waking that he alluded to in
“The Haunted Mind” and explored in so many of his short
stories. Like in “Alice Doane‟s Appeal,” the autobiographical
nature of the narration also bridges Hawthorne‟s outer reality
with the inner realms explored in his fiction.
In order to establish the semblance of credibility to the
tale that he spins, Hawthorne identifies the Custom House as
the inspiration for the story of Hester Prynne. Hawthorne
imagines finding a packet of old papers supposedly composed
by a former Custom House Surveyor, one Jonathan Pue. These
papers record the “sufferings of this singular woman.”
Enwrapped in these papers was found the tattered remains of a

84
highly embroidered letter „A.‟ As Hawthorne explains to his
readers, “My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet
letter, and would not be turned aside” (Hawthorne The Scarlet
Letter 28). Although this account is itself fiction, by including
this information in an admittedly autobiographical piece,
Hawthorne attempts to assert its authenticity. For Hawthorne,
at least, there is something very real about the story he relates.
Just as the Custom House sketch forms a threshold
between the outer and inner realms, the story contained within
The Scarlet Letter also begins with a clear reference to
thresholds and boundaries. Outside a prison door, “rooted
almost at the threshold,” grows a wild rose bush, symbol of the
freedom and the “fragile beauty” that awaits beyond the
confines of the prison. The transcendentalist influence is seen
in the description of the rose that blooms “in token that the
deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to [prisoners]”
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 41). The Puritans‟ might not
tolerate transgressions, but to Hawthorne, solace might be
found through the more forgiving Nature.
Hester Prynne stands outside this prison door with a
baby in her arms, the proof of an adulterous liaison.
Condemned by the village Puritan authorities, Hester is made
to stand upon the scaffold in the village square, subject to
public ridicule and shame. Hawthorne does not make it clear
whether Hester is to by scorned or sympathized with. On the
one hand, Hester is reminiscent of “Divine Maternity – that
sacred image of sinless motherhood” (Hawthorne The Scarlet
Letter 48), and yet, this image is marred with the “taint of
deepest sin.”

85
To help contradict the image of Hester as the Madonna,
Hawthorne has Hester hurt her baby without realizing it. “She
pressed her infant to her bosom, with so convulsive a force that
the poor babe uttered another cry of pain. But the mother did
not seem to hear it” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 52). By
this early example we see that Hester is capable of causing
harm, even if it is unintentional. These conflicted views of
Hester continue throughout the novel, as it appears that
Hawthorne both admires her willingness to defy the religious
standards of the time, while simultaneously rejecting her
participation in sin.
But if Hawthorne does not wish his readers to entirely
embrace Hester, he does not intend her to be totally
unsympathetic, either. Hester responds to her public shaming
and ostracism from village life by fatalistically accepting her
status. She could choose to move to another place and have a
fresh start free from the condemning eyes of the public, but she
moves with her daughter Pearl to a cottage at the threshold of
the wilderness. Just as she lives on the outer edges of the
village, so she likewise operates in the limited boundaries
allowed to her by the residents, and earns her way through her
creative and elaborate needlework. She uses her skill with the
needle to create an elaborate design of the red letter „A‟ she is
sentenced to wear as a sign of her shame. Thus the badge of
her shame also transforms into a symbol of her skill and pride.
She spends the rest of her life in Salem village quietly
performing good deeds without drawing attention to herself.
These ambiguities leave the reader with mixed emotions about
such a complex character. Despite her “sin,” there is

86
something admirable in Hester‟s willingness to live with the
consequences of her actions.
Hester‟s sin is clear, and her daughter Pearl is the daily
proof. By the Puritan standards of the time, Hester‟s status
among the damned would have been equally certain. Once,
when Pearl asked Hester about the scarlet letter that her mother
wears, Hester responds that it is the mark of the devil
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 154). Although Hester clearly
rebelled against the strict rules of puritanical society, she did
not reject the implications of their judgments. Like Goodman
Brown eventually did, Hester accepts the inevitability of her
fate as a sinner.
The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester‟s lover and
the father of her child, however, does not accept the
consequences of his sin as easily. He hides his role in Hester‟s
unfortunate circumstances, and attempts to live with the guilt
of his secret sin which festers within him. According to
Puritan doctrine, there is no forgiveness of sin, just
confirmation of damnation. Therefore, there is nothing to be
gained from public confession nor from private torment.
Dimmesdale‟s life as a minister would be over were he to
confess. He would share Hester‟s shame, and they would both
still go to hell. His awareness that confession was a losing
proposition kept him silent. Since there is no absolution for his
sin, he chose to hide it as best he can. Unfortunately, the moral
consequences of his hypocrisy eventually become his downfall.
After many years of attempting to keep up the pretense of
purity, Dimmesdale is described as “conscience-stricken”
when he finally meets with Hester once again in the forest.

87
“The judgment of God is on me, it is too mighty for me to
struggle with!” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 163).
Hester suggests a solution that Hawthorne must surely
have yearned for himself; a path through the wilderness that
leads to freedom. “Doth the universe lie within the compass of
yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn
desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder
forest-track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes;
but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the
wilderness… There thou art free!” (Hawthorne The Scarlet
Letter 163) For Dimmesdale, like Hawthorne, freedom might
be found in escaping the narrow moral confinement of
puritanical Salem. A clear path through the wilderness of
ambiguities and conflicted desires might set him free.
This possibility of freeing himself from the strict moral
doom of his Puritan beliefs is more than Dimmesdale can bear.
He agrees to run away with Hester and Pearl. “Tempted by a
dream of happiness, he had yielded himself with deliberate
choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was
deadly sin” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 182). Morally
corrupted by years of harboring sin within the secret chambers
of his heart, yielding himself to it was more than he could
withstand. “The infectious poison of that sin had been thus
rapidly diffused throughout his moral system. It had stupefied
all blessed impulses, and awakened into vivid life the whole
brotherhood of bad ones” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 182).
Like good Parson Hooper, Dimmesdale became finely attuned
to sin, because of the secret sin he was so intimately acquainted
with.

88
He was now awakened to the full scope of his sinful
nature, and it changed him. Like young Goodman Brown,
Dimmesdale returned from his visit to the wilderness a
changed man. “Another man had returned out of the forest; a
wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden mysteries which the
simplicity of the former never could have reached. A bitter
kind of knowledge that!” (Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 183)
It is this knowledge that gives him the courage to proclaim his
guilt at the end of the novel. Feeling the end of his life upon
him, Dimmesdale calls for Hester and Pearl to join him upon
the scaffold to confess the sin and guilt that lies within his
heart. While taking his share of shame upon himself, he
reminds the crowd that all the while they scorned Hester,
Dimmesdale had passed among them unnoticed. Dimmesdale
reveals the same knowledge that Parson Hooper and Goodman
Brown learned; sin lives in the secret hearts of all men.
Like Hawthorne‟s other autobiographical protagonists,
Dimmesdale does not yield himself willingly to sin. He spends
his life rejecting the wicked impulses within him, and struggles
with the inevitable spiritual consequences of those impulses.
Although guilty of sin, he never surrenders himself to the devil,
and like Brown, resists further participation in sin. In fact,
Dimmesdale‟s dying words are dedicated to the glorification of
God. “Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!”
(Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 210) Perhaps these noble moral
goals are what Hawthorne also wishes for himself.
Through examination of the common themes that
weave through much of Hawthorne‟s work, a portrait of a
spiritually conflicted individual emerges. Hawthorne seems to
be a man who was struggling with a heart burdened with the

89
guilt of secret sin. His repeated allusions to his sister Elizabeth
provide a tempting hint at what Hawthorne‟s secret might have
been. Whether he imagined or committed incest, however, as
the inheritor of the full weight of a full-blooded Puritan
heritage, he also inherited all of the stern values and fatalistic
gloom of his patrimony. For a Puritan, the status of salvation
was always ambiguous. Hawthorne‟s secret sin stripped away
that ambiguity, confirming his damnation. By committing
himself to art, a frivolous act inspired by the devil, he chose,
like Dimmesdale and Hester, to follow a shameful path.
Unlike Hester, Hawthorne could not seem to
fatalistically accept this conclusion or the potentially
redemptive power of his art. He continued to struggle with
themes of sin and salvation throughout his life and writing
career. While outwardly rejecting the Puritan perspective, in
his most private self, he enacted it. This internal tension
created an unresolvable conflict for Hawthorne. He couldn‟t
absolve himself and hope for heaven, and he couldn‟t escape
his shameful awareness of sin. Just like he found it difficult to
separate himself from his birthplace of Salem, he also found it
difficult to separate himself from the internalized values and
beliefs that imprisoned him within his guilty heart. He spent
his life rebelling against the Puritan values that were his
birthright, yet he couldn‟t escape such an essential part of his
identity. Nathaniel Hawthorne‟s literary career traces his path
through the perilous and unknown wilderness of moral
ambiguity. His journey also helped to define American
literature at a time when Americans were still attempting to
define themselves. His concerns resonated with the common

90
moral issues of his day, and his struggle to reconcile his past
with the present still resonates today.
Was Hawthorne a Puritan or a rebel? Did he ever
answer that question for himself? The answer perhaps lies
deeper within the wilderness. There, thou art free!

91
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