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The Different Manifestations of Evil in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Short Stories ("the Minister's Black Veil," "Young Goodman Brown," and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux")
Nathaniel Hawthorne, American writer of 19th century American literature, has become well-known for his thought-provoking stories about the lives of Americans during its early history, at the time where there exists a rigid and conservative society motivated by the teachings of Christianity. With his acclaimed novel, "The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne is also given credit for his literary expertise in writing short stories, which will become the focus of this paper.
Discussing the works of Hawthorne, namely, "The Minister's Black Veil," "Young Goodman Brown," and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," there emerges a dominant theme among these literary works. Each story carries with a message that talks about humanity's fight against evil in pursuit of goodness. However, what differs these stories from each other is the way he portrayed humanity's evil as it continuously pursues the conscience, psyche, and behavior of the individual (usually the protagonist of the story) (Maus, 2002).
Following this line of argument, this paper posits that in these three short stories, Hawthorne have adopted various manifestations of evil, each evoking different meanings of fear, as comprehended by the story's protagonist. What follow is an in-depth discussion of this main theme and a comparative analysis of the three stories, identifying the similarities and differences each story has over the other.
The first short story to be discussed is "The Minister's Black Veil." The story centers on Reverend Hooper's mystical use of the black veil that is eternally hanging in front of his face, covering it from the townspeople. In the story, Hawthorne maintains an air of mystery and fear by allowing neither the characters of the story nor the reader know the real reason for the Reverend's decision to cover his face with a black veil. This is supported by an effective passage from the story: "Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them."
Indeed, fear is developed in the story because of the unknown mystery of the black veil. Had the townspeople known about the Reverend's motive for using the veil, the fear and terrible feeling of guilt that they felt whenever they see it will not be elicited. Indeed, the black veil served as a symbol of the evil that lurks not only behind the Reverend's face, but also among the townspeople's hearts as well. As they and the readers have discovered later in the story, Reverend Hooper's revelation offers a profound revelation about the nature of people in general: that each person has a "black veil" in their hearts, a manifestation of their own evils that they try to conceal from other people and from their own selves as well. Indeed, Rev. Hooper's exclamation and confession before his death speaks of the horror of human evil: "Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful?...when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin ... I look around me, and, lo! On every visage a Black Veil!"
This story opens to the readers the first manifestation of evil that Hawthorne uses, symbolized appropriately by the black veil. The black veil, as a religious costume for women during mass, has become a symbol of fear among the townspeople. The use of the black veil as the symbol for the evils of humanity takes its root from the fact that people often 'hide' behind the comforts of their religion to ignore or consider themselves 'excused' from the evils and wrongdoings that people do against others.
The second story, "Young Goodman Brown," is similar to the first story when the level of mystery and fear that resides within the protagonist is to be gauged. However, one difference that "Young" has over the "Black Veil" is voice of the narrator used for each: "Black Veil" used a third person point-of-view with more emphasis on the townspeople (reminiscent of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"), while "Young" adopted a third person point-of-view with a focus on Goodman Brown himself.
Once again, Hawthorne exploits his ability to maintain an air of mystery in the story mainly because he evokes feelings of anxiety brought about by the uncertainty of not knowing. The story begins with Goodman leaving the comforts of his home and his wife Faith in order to embark in a mysterious "journey" accompanied by the elder members of his community. As to the nature of the said journey, Goodman was unsure. It is this uncertainty that has become the catalyst that triggered his innermost fears -- that is, the realization that he is confronted by the Devil during the course of his journey, realizing that he is vulnerable to the slightest temptation that the Devil may present to him.
It is interesting to note that in "Young," there is no concrete form in which the evil manifests itself. Readers are left to decide whether evil resides within Goodman or the people of Salem Village, or both. This story is distinguished from "Black Veil" in that the former uses confusion in order to create profound streams of thought for the readers: was the evil that Goodman witnessed in the forest his own evils, fears of guilt, of being a sinful person? Or was the evil the Salem Village's members, whose rigid and conservative belief in their religion may be considered as a cause for attitudes and behavior of intolerance to people who do not share the same beliefs as theirs? These are the dilemmas that Hawthorne presents to his reader, making us aware that the evil can be manifested and represented in different ways. One thing is constant, though: evil is formed within out hearts, just as soon as our actions commit us to do it. Horror is also evident in the story, making Goodman a man who had been plagued with uncertainty and guilt over the Devil he encountered in the forest for the rest of his life.
The third short story presents a different view of evil, since the main theme it presents is actually the dichotomy between the traditional and urban societies that began to develop in the 19th century. Entitled, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," Hawthorne's tale centers on the protagonist Robin's journey to finding his distant relative, Major Molineux, as he searched for a better life away from poverty. Somewhat similar to Goodman's journey with the Salem villagers in "Young," Robin's pursuit in "My Kinsman" is a direct confrontation to the evil that awaits him in the said town. However, as the story progresses, it becomes evident that the 'evil' is not the sinfulness of humanity, as it was initially depicted in "Black Veil" and "Young." Instead, evil is manifested through the traditional and urban society, where the former is represented by Major Molineux. The story shows the evil's triumph -- that is, traditional society's death with the death of Major Molineux, and urban society's emergence, which also signifies the rebirth of evil, this time, under a different guise or form. This is illustrated effectively in the unceremonious procession of his death, witnessed by Robin in the middle of the night in a strange, urban town: " ... Robin seemed to hear the voices of the barbers, of the guests of the inn, and of all who had made sport of him that night. The contagion was spreading among the multitude,…[continue]
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