DEPRAVITY AND DISTRUST
A Thematical Analysis on Baldwin and Hawthorne’s Stories
Literature reflects the society with which it was created. It is an interwoven account of relevant issues hounding or abounding in a specific place and time which not only describe the present but also embody the future.
Short story, as a form of literature, vividly captures and broadens a single yet significant event into a meaningful whole. It is bombarded with age-old wisdom compounded on ideas and daily human undertakings. Theme/s, as one of short story’s essential elements, help show and amplify the meaning – messages – engraved – whether consciously or unconsciously by the author – within.
Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues (1957) and Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835) are just two of America’s highly acclaimed literature to record. These two author’s lives and experiences clearly influenced the contents of their literary pieces. Baldwin, being an African American, wrote of his experiences as an African American living in the 50’s and Hawthorne, born during the 18th century was greatly enthused about the Puritan teaching thriving at the time. Although said to be written on different time and race, the aforementioned stories, in its diversified approach, clearly communicate the theme on faith and deliverance.
Understanding the Text and Context
To what extent does society determines a person’s future and thinking? Sonny’s Blues was written in an era where drug and violence abound in the African-American society. The action of the story occurs prior to the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, during the dark days of segregation and supposedly “separate but equal” accommodations in public institutions.
The story unfolds to a scene of the narrator reading in the paper about his younger brother’s arrest and the subsequent jailing due to drug use and addiction. All the while, the narrator bout with his own guilt at his brother’s fate, and after more than a year of estrangement, the brothers reunited. Back in the predominately black and poor neighborhood of Harlem where the siblings grew up, they were forced to confront the fears which shaped their actions and attitudes specially that of the younger brother. As their deceased father had said, “there is no place where they (the siblings) could be safe”, they too had blindly accepted the fate their limiting society thrusts at them. Refusing to acknowledge reality and living off a life like in a movie – as the narrator said – both siblings exhibited the culture of depravity and distrust nurtured in them by the society they belong to. It was depravity that leads the younger brother to use drugs and live a lowly life and it was distrust that the older brother refuses to reconcile with his younger brother. It was distrust and depravity that caused the brothers to drift apart. Blues, a genre of music, and faith helped put the siblings back in track, with the younger brother successfully communicating his life’s story through fulfilling his life’s passion to his audience and the older brother finally enlightened to his younger brother’s plight.
Young Goodman Brown on the other hand, is a story about a young man named Goodman who embarked on a journey to the heart of wickedness – communing in Cult Worship. The character at this point shows no indication of corruption that his plight to darkness was furthered instead by the twist he witnessed in the face of Christianity. While still on the journey accompanied by the disguised devil himself, Goodman hesitated so many times held by the thought of the Christian foundations he’d had as well as his young wife’s promise of heaven. His resolve died away as he realized that his wife was taken by the congregation and as the rituals beyond the forest began, he found himself one with congregation. Unmasked before him were the faces of his Christian teachers, pious neighbors, and religious priest and amidst the throng of devout Christians was his wife.
Hawthorne’s piece wittingly mocks the Puritan view of Christian faith – a doctrine which taught that all men are totally depraved and require constant self-examination to see that they are sinners and unworthy of God’s grace and the believers dutifully recognized the negative aspects of their humanity rather than the gifts they possessed. Goodman’s witness to the extremity of men’s surrender to sin clearly illuminates this Puritan view, underscoring as well, the reality of the onslaught of cult worship during this era. Moreover, the piece generally highlights and uses this shadow of distrust regarding Christianity. Whether the main character dreamed the cult encounter or not, it managed to taint his faith and he scorned and mistrusted everyone, thereby living in a life of depravity and distrust until the end.
Hawthorne and Baldwin both represented their theme with the use of light and darkness, though on diverging aspects. For Hawthorne night or darkness exposed all that which is wicked in men and light became the mask that hides it. Baldwin on the one hand regarded night or darkness as essential in understanding darkness itself, thereby reconciling with it. Light, to Baldwin exposes men’s farce, making his characters sorting for solace in darkness. Both authors accentuated the undeniable role of the society in the essential formation of man’s character and thoughts, yet, by giving darkness a new function, Baldwin is able to bring about his characters’ deliverance. Moreover, he demonstrated the greatness of brotherhood and faith in fellow men despite their shortcomings, being fully aware of their own shortcomings.