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Moral Ambiguity Manifested in Hawthorne’s Short Stories

The issue of moral ambiguity in written literature arises when moral issues are not depicted as black and white or do‘s and don’ts. For example, in characterization, moral ambiguity is illustrated when the protagonists are not entirely good-natured, which means they have flaws and imperfections as well, while the antagonists are portrayed with certain charms or emotional weaknesses which may evoke pity from the readers. Here, readers are challenged to think about the realities of human nature and whether human beings are innately good or innately sinful.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the classic literary writers who explored moral ambiguity in his characters. Through his works, the readers would be able to independently discern good and evil characters. Most of his works are inspired by Puritan New England, most especially their hypocrisy. He integrated historical facts in his literary masterpieces loaded with symbolisms and deep psychological themes that explore the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.

Meanwhile, the ambiguities of some of his works often create a bewildering array of conflicting interpretations. Hawthorne, in his works, highlights that “guilt, sin and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humanity” (Guerin 24) which oppose the Christians’ popular belief that men are innately good since they are created in His image and likeness. In the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne provided the readers with gray or morally ambiguous characters. Beatrice, Rappaccini’s daughter, became a willing victim of Mr.

Rappaccini’s pride. At the end of the story though, she revealed her willingness to redeem her soul through death in order to be liberated from her unfortunate circumstance: “Though my body be nourished with poison, my spirit is God’s creature, and craves love as its daily food… Yes; spurn me, tread upon me, kill me! ” (Hawthorne 313). She is an epitome of both good and evil. Though she was a victim of her father’s wickedness, she was also an ultimate threat to others especially to the main character, Giovanni.

Her touch and the fragrance of her breath were literally fatal as it can kill insects and plants and can harm human beings. This is a result of the intellectual pride of Mr. Rappaccini, who, with his corrupted sense of morality, used his own daughter as the unfortunate participant of his experiments. He unconsciously wanted to prove that man can be better than God who created nature and man itself. Thus, the evilness of Mr. Rappaccini is primarily manifested in how he distorted the natural order of nature and ultimately his disrespect towards Beatrice’s sense of humanity.

His doings made her a prison, stole her opportunity to discover the world, to live her life according to her own will, and ultimately, to love and be loved in return. “He cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment. He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge. ” (Hawthorne 292). However, the moral ambiguity of Mr.

Rappaccini is demonstrated at the end of the story, when he revealed that his intensions are also for his daughter’s own sake, though the sincerity of this remains questionable. The question is: can an action be totally evil when a part of the intension is good? Can human beings blame Mr. Rappaccini if his judgment of what is pleasing does not conform to the world’s moral standards? However, there is an ambiguity in his intensions since he apparently overlooked the consequences of his actions, especially towards his daughter.

His experiment led to the death of his daughter, just as how giving in evil’s temptations by Adam and Eve led to man’s downfall. Yet, in this short story, the readers may feel a sense of pity towards Mr. Rappaccini’s character. Although he was known in the world of medicine due to the success and peculiarities of his experiments, his intellectual superiority isolated him from the world. As a result, he wanted his daughter to be with him; perhaps, as a companion to appease his loneliness, or perhaps, in order to save her from the cruelties of the world. The question is: does Mr.

Hawthorne, the author of this story, completely want to illustrate Mr. Rappaccini as wholly bad individual? In response to this question, Mr. Rappaccini may be just another victim of how the world molds people intellectually—they are made to believe that human beings are in fact superior. Nevertheless, Mr. Rappaccini, despite the pitiful aspects of character, is dominantly portrayed as evil-natured. In the short story “The Minister’s Black Veil,” on the other hand, Hawthorne provides the readers with mystery and cynicism towards Reverend Hooper, the story’s main character.

Reverend Hooper was a well-respected minister in a strictly Puritan community until he started to wear a black veil that covers his eyes and nose. Reverend Hooper “had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the Word” (Hawthorne 146). However, when he started to wear the symbolic black veil, the Puritan townspeople felt frightened towards this man that they used to adore and trust.

In the Puritans’ imagination, the black veil “makes him ghostlike from head to foot […] that seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them” (Hawthorne 151). He became the center of gossip and of townspeople conversation. Many attempted to unleash the grotesque mystery in the horrible black veil including Elizabeth, his fiancee, but throughout the story, his reasons for wearing the black veil were obscure and unrevealed. In general, however, he seems to feel that the veil symbolizes sin, and he reminds the people that they too are wearing a veil of sorts: “I look around me, and, lo!

on every visage a Black Veil! ” (Hawthorne 157). The moral ambiguity of this story does not lie on Hawthorne’s way of characterization this time but on the mysterious meaning of black veil in relation to human nature. The black veil tells many things about human nature, especially their strong tendencies to be evil. Mr. Hooper seemed to conceal the significance of the black veil or the lessons he meant to impart to the community. This may be because he wanted them to see and to reflect on it themselves, and that way, they may also see a part of themselves. However, Mr.

Hooper’s intention behind his refusal to offer an explanation about the importance of black veil illustrates his selfish human nature. He wholly accumulated the peace that perhaps he found in wearing the black veil, and he never completely shared the knowledge he acquired about the relationship of the black veil towards humanity. Instead, he isolated himself from the religious community whom he should minister with affection and concern. He allowed the people to mock and avoid him. He also allowed women to show no pity, and he allowed children to scream and flee because of horror towards his black veil.

Ironically, the black veil, which supposedly symbolizes his “secret sin,” comes to represent Hooper’s own sin of pride and conceals the very thing it was meant to expose (Hawthorne 146). Though his dying words motivated the townspeople to reexamine their conscience, before arriving on his deathbed, his black veil became the symbol of doubt and eventually of sin in the Puritan community which he completely tolerated. Hawthorne used Mr. Hooper’s pride to subtly depict that he somehow deserves to be hated because of his tolerance. Though Mr. Hooper is all but a good-natured man, Hawthorne effectively incorporated Mr.

Hooper’s pride to highlight that evil is but a part of human nature. The black veil, instead of creating a good influence, became a symbol of sin since it intensified the dark side of the Puritan’s community. His community became uncanny and judgmental because of the different and conflicting interpretations they created about what the black veil really means. The black veil, which is merely an object, became a dark symbol that tells so much about humanity, especially with the Puritan New England setting. Puritan community in the story reflects people’s routines and devotion to their religion.

They strictly conformed to their routinary obligations to the Church. However, Hawthorne used the black veil as a symbol to illustrate the spiritual veils that all humans wear. The Puritans might be devout Christian, and they might be perceived like saints during Sunday masses, but their actions outside the Church were entirely different. This suggests that the Black veil symbolically means hypocrisy. Hence, the sense of ambiguity in this short story is effectively demonstrated by Hawthorne by letting the readers think or to ponder on the veil’s truest meaning. Is it morally influential or does it motivate further sins?

However, the writer never gave a hint as to whether the minister’s actions created good implications to the community. “Young Goodman Brown” is a short story about how a young Puritan man who discovered an unexpected revelation of the Puritan’s dark side of human nature. Goodman, the main protagonists, was drawn into a covenant with the Devil in the forest. Along the way, he discovered how his fellow townspeople together with his wife whom he regarded “a blessed angel” with considerable “innocence,” who were all known for being devout and religious, are attending a Black mass or ritual (Hawthorne 111).

In Goodman’s journey to the forest, he saw his forefathers, the religious authorities, and some people in the past that he personally encountered and who greatly influenced his religious perspective, “just like his very pious and exemplary dame who had taught him his catechism,” condensed into one figure: that of the devil (Hawthorne 114). Goodman discovered that all of his good Christian forefathers and the religious authority figures whom he witnessed as devil worshippers are thus hypocrites.

Though he contemplated on whether the experience really happened in reality or whether it was just a product of a dream or illusion, the experience nonetheless affected him negatively. Goodman’s experience doomed him into a life of gloom and cynicism about the human nature. “Young Goodman Brown is not only initiated into an awareness but is also doomed to an spiritual death [… because] through his experience, he learns that men and women of high esteem turn out to be sorcerers and witches in attendance of the devil himself” (Kallay 84).

Nevertheless, at the climax of the journey, Goodman chose not to conform to his community. Goodman refused to be initiated into the “grave and dark-clad company” (Hawthorne 120). He chose to rebel, which eventually excluded him from the community. Goodman’s application of his individual freedom allowed him to establish his own identity. Nonetheless, his soul was dominated more by sadness in his realization that human beings can be extremely hypocrite. Goodman seemed to generalize the extreme evil tendencies of every human being that he eventually became unable to trust anyone.

Thus, the character of Goodman opens the readers to the reality that the world and people are not all pure and sinless, even though they take part in an austere religious standard. The character of Goodman is a perfect representation of a corrupted innocence. When Goodman discovered that the people he truly respected spiritually are part of a Devil Mass, he became trapped in an ambiguous moral choice. It seems that the moral standard he set for himself all his life suddenly became confusing since those people who influenced his moral judgment were willing participants in an activity of what he perceived as wrong.

Hence, in this short story, Hawthorne illustrates the inconsistencies of human beings in what they say and in how they act upon it. Goodman’s confusion and immediate inability to recognize his own participation in an evil mass affirm his emotional immaturity and limited view towards the world and human nature. Even though at the end of the story, Goodman decided not to join the black mass, his spiritual isolation after that experience suggests that Goodman experienced moral ambiguity. His confusion is unresolved since until the end, his experience in the forest would continually haunt him which resulted in mistrust and isolation.

In these three short stories, Hawthorne did not directly mention what makes a person good and what makes a person bad. Instead, he riddled the readers with more questions than answers, challenging all their assumptions. He provided ambiguous and ironic characters that were depicted with both good and bad qualities, except Mr. Rappuccini who was portrayed as dominantly evil. Moreover, Hawthorne entrapped his characters in moral dilemmas that can make the readers reflect deeply on human nature. His characters can be pitied or hated that can make the readers morally skeptic.

He used the Puritan community as his main setting to attest that evil is real. In history, it is generally known that Salem, Massachusetts during 17th and 18th century was a community of gullibility and superstition with an austere value system of do‘s and don’ts in terms of religion. In the literature of the distant past Salem, Massachusetts is always associated with witch trials, strong hypocrisy, and vulnerability of human nature against evil, which Nathaniel Hawthorne effectively integrated in his short stories through the various elements of fictional literature.Through these short stories, he sought to expose the hypocrisy in Puritan doctrine and the hypocrisy of those members as a whole.

Works Cited Guerin, Wilfred, Earle Labor, Lee Morgan, Jeanne C. Reesman, John R. Willingham, and John Willingham. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 4th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter. ” Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales. Ed. Harding Brian. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1999.

285-315. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil. ” Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales. Ed. Harding Brian. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1999. 144-158. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown. ” Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales. Ed. Harding Brian. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1999. 111-123. Kallay, Katalin G. Going Home Through Seven Paths to Nowhere: Reading Short Stories by Hawthorne, Poe, Melville and James. Budapest, Hungary: Akademiai Kiado, 2003.

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