Hawthorne's writings serve as a social commentary on the inherent dangers in blind acceptance of religious teachings.
There is ample scope to interpret all three stories of "Young Goodman Brown," "The Birthmark," and "Ethan Brand," as Hawthorne's commentary on the consequences of allowing religion to mar true recognition of goodness and beauty. All three stories highlight the fact that human kindness and faith are more important than obsession with religious teachings.
Although Hawthorne's writings have often been interpreted as being influenced by the author's Puritan heritage, there is equally a wide acknowledgement that Hawthorne left the interpretation of any moral lesson in his tales to the reader.
Hawthorne's contemporaries have, through their writings, shared several insights into Hawthorne's real-life personality and writings, which indicate that he was a keen observer of human nature and if anything, possessed a deep concern and compassion for the deeper psychology of human nature.
Hawthorne's Writings - A Social Commentary On The Inherent Dangers In Blind Acceptance Of Religious Teachings
The influence of Puritan religion is a common theme in Nathaniel Hawthorne's works. Perhaps, it is the overwhelming presence of this theme that has led to Hawthorne's writings being interpreted as morbid and full of Puritanical gloom. This interpretation is also encouraged by well-documented facts about Hawthorne's strong awareness of his Puritan ancestry and his sense of guilt over their participation in the famous Salem witch trials. However, there is a much stronger case in favor of the fact that Hawthorne's purpose was to actually use his writings as an indictment of Puritan society and indeed the folly of blind acceptance of religious teachings.
In each of the three stories of "Young Goodman Brown," "The Birthmark," and "Ethan Brand," Hawthorne uses the central characters of Brown, Aylmer and Brand to demonstrate the consequences of allowing mental conditioning by religious belief to overrule the judgement of the intellect and the heart.
In "Young Goodman Brown," Brown is so conditioned by his catechism that he sees evil in people that he had so far perceived as good and 'godly.' Though Faith is all that Goodman Brown can hope for in a wife and acknowledges her as "a blessed angel on earth" (Hawthorne 65), it takes very little for him to start viewing the evil in her: "The spectral ribbons are enough to convince...his bride, his Faith is lost" (Colacurcio 396).
Brown's state of mind is clearly influenced by his own sense of guilt given his own nighttime embarkation to a possible liaison with the Devil. He believes in his own godliness but at the same time he is so strongly conditioned towards the doctrine of 'The Original Sin' that he very readily accepts the susceptibility of humankind to the dark forces: "Upon awakening, the hypocritical nature of his once admired neighbors and the realization of his own secret sin causes him to become terribly disillusioned" (Colacurcio 396).
It is his blind acceptance of his religion's teachings that lead him to disillusionment and finally to his isolating himself from society: "Hawthorne's claim is that this confusion is the only possible result of Puritan doctrine. To mistrust yourself, your neighbor, your teacher, and your very mind can not create faith." (American Literature Research and Analysis Web site) very similar theme is replayed in "The Birthmark." Here, too, Hawthorne leaves no room for doubt about the intrinsic goodness of Georgina's beauty and soul. Yet, Aylmer inspite of all his intellect as a reputed alchemist is swayed into mistaking Georgina's birthmark as a "bloody hand" that is symbolic of "his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death" (Hawthorne 119-20).
Thus, by allowing his religious beliefs to dominate his thinking, Aylmer rejects Georgina's flawless heart in order to correct, "what Nature left imperfect" (Hawthorne 121). Hawthorne ensures that the reader is made aware of the extent of his obsession through Aminadab, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark" (Hawthorne 123). Heilman aptly describes Aylmer's folly: "... blind to more serious flaws closer to home" (423).
In the case of "Ethan Brand," many critics agree that Brand's judgement of himself is the main message of the story. Brand spends many a year in search of the unpardonable sin, only to discover that the unpardonable sin is within him. He himself reminiscences with bitterness that he was filled with love and sympathy for mankind and how he used to view the heart of man as essentially divine before his search for the unpardonable sin turned him away from his better nature.
Leo Marx interprets the fire in the kiln as an obvious symbol of Satan, "a recurrent device in the work of Dante...a part of the Christian myth. Before the fall there was no need of technology" (435). Marx further interprets Hawthorne's allegory of the fire and the sun as symbolic of the difference between warmth and evil.
Though Marx also links Hawthorne's message as "the whole quasi-religious ideology... that Americans will subordinate...desire for knowledge, wealth...pursuit of rural happiness" (439), his observation on the fire-sun metaphor as the difference between evil and warmth lends credence to the theory that Hawthorne intended the unpardonable sin in "Ethan Brand" to be read as the tragedy of Brand isolating himself from the humanity within him because of his blind pursuit of religious belief.
There is evidence that Hawthorne intended to reinforce and spread the message of the inadvisability of blind adherence to social influence and the importance of a more benign view of human nature in his other tales as well. The character of Beatrice in "Rappaccini's Daughter," is depicted as "beautiful as the day" (Hawthorne 190). Though Beatrice is unquestionably pure, Giovanni allows suspicion to doubt her goodness and gets convinced that Baglioni is right in saying that she can wield "draughts as sweet as a maiden's breath; but woe to him that sips them!" (Hawthorne 203)
Again, Hawthorne demonstrates the consequences of not recognizing the goodness in people. Giovanni is so worried about her threat that he feels he has to "save her," and "the plot exposes him as terribly in error, for his attempt to cure Beatrice has the effect of killing her" (Baym 428).
It is also pertinent to note that both Georgina and Beatrice are also shown as allowing self-doubt to creep in. In Beatrice's case, no one is willing to accept the essential goodness of her inner self and slowly she allows the same question to plague her: Is she "angel or demon"? (Hawthorne 265). In "The Birthmark," Georgina begins to feel damaged as evidenced by her paling every time she sees Aylmer gazing at her defect. Thus, Hawthorne makes a point about how society takes what it observes or hears and does not look deeper.
The strongest evidence that Hawthorne intended his tales to his writings to serve as a social commentary perhaps lies in the fact that he leaves it to the reader to interpret the moral of the story: "Nor need you fix upon that blackness in him, if it suit you not. Nor, indeed, will all readers discern it, for it is, mostly, insinuated to those who may best undersand it, and account for it; it is not obtruded upon every one alike." (Melville 342)
Melville also remarks "Whereas, it is deep as Dante; nor can you finish it, without addressing the author in his own words -- "It is yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin." (348)
In "Young Goodman Brown" both Brown and the reader are left to decide whether Brown actually underwent a conversion or only dreamt the whole episode: "Hawthorne's skepticism helped to develop a writing technique in which a mixture of fact and imagination lets the reader make his own interpretations." (American Literature Research and Analysis Web site)
In "Early Writings," Henry James comments on Hawthorne's observation in the preface to "Twice Told Tales": "They are not the talk of a secluded man with his own mind and heart (had it been so they could hardly have failed to be more deeply and permanently valuable,) but his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an intercourse with the world." (351)
James also offers an insight into Hawthorne's own world view by sharing a passage from his Note-Books (1840): "for if I had sooner made my escape into the world, I should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with earthly dust, and my heart might have become callous by rude encounters with the multitude." (350) This is perhaps one of the clearest indicators that Hawthorne wished to start a debate on the need to keep an open mind and one's own counsel on the difference between good and evil.
The following remark by Melville would be an apt conclusion: "In one word, the world is mistaken in this Nathaniel Hawthorne. He himself must often have smiled at its absurd misconceptions of him. He is immeasurably deeper than the plummet of the mere critic." (341)