Hawthorne O'Connor - Literature Essay Example

                                               Theme of Evil in Hawthorne and O’ Connor

            In the quest to grapple with issues of human morality and human religious perception, two American writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Flannery O’ Connor,  although from vastly different historical backgrounds, utilized the technique of literary allegory in order to articulate startling and enduring narrative visions.  Hawthorne’s narrative vision is generally understood by literary scholars and historians to reflect his own personal and familial association with Puritanism, whereas O’ Connor’s  widely lauded short-fiction is assumed, by literary scholars and historians, to reflect a Roman Catholic philosophical and religious perspective.  In either case, the allegorical structure of specific works by each of these writers reveals a concentrated effort to both identify adn articulate understandings of human nature and human religious belief.  key among these themes is the idea of “evil.”

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            A struggle between spiritual faith and evil temptation comprises a central theme in Hawthorne’s, “Young Goodman Brown.” This struggle is represented allegorically in the story by a careful employment of symbolism, character development, and plotting. By investing these traditional elements of storytelling with deeper, more symbolically complex meanings, Hawthorne achieved an idiom which is both moralistic and confessional in nature. Although the “moral” of the story is not explicit, and there is an intentional ambiguity to the story’s denouement which indicates, rather than a failure to resolve the various schisms aesthetically, an embracing of ambiguity as resolution. This acceptance of ambiguity is therefore a symbolic rejection of Puritan surety and dogma.  Lacking an established literary idiom which was wide enough to directly confront the duality of his own ambiguous feelings toward Puritanism and human morality, Hawthorne developed an intricate set of symbols and allegorical references in “Young Goodman Brown” which simultaneously conceal and explicate the confessional elements of the story.

             Individual objects, characters, and elements of the story thus function in “dual” roles, providing, so to speak, overt and covert information. In constructing a self-sustaining iconography within the confines of a short story, Hawthorne was obliged to lean somewhat on the commonly accepted symbolism of certain objects, places, and characteristics.   The story proffers its symbolic association from the very beginning. The setting of the Salem Village recalls the center of the witchcraft trials, in 1692, ushering in the components of a spiritual trial and a backdrop of fierce and judgmental religious faith. Similarly, Goodman Brown’s wife is named “faith,” indicating an allegorical efficiency, wherein the reader is coaxed to recognize the elements of everyday life in a more dramatic, more spiritually profound cast.

            Other common objects are harvested for allegorical resonance. In the forest setting, Hawthorne emphasizes the split between the rational mind and the unconscious by moving Brown away from the town toward the woods as he pursues his baser desires and impulses. The further he moves into the woods, the more he absorbs his ‘evil’ side; in effect, confronting his “impure” sexual and spiritual desires. The escalation of this self-confrontation, expressed through the story’s allegorical technique, is meant to pull the reader into similar inward observation, providing a catalyst for self-realization. The allegorical method, by articulating thematic ideas which challenge “cut and dried” explanations of such profound realities as faith, morality, innocence, and the nature of good and evil, allowed Hawthorne to delve into issues of the utmost personal profundity, but to express them within a language and symbolic structure that anyone could understand. Whether it is the revelation of “omnipresent sin lurking behind virtue that is given to the title character of “Young Goodman Brown” or Hawthorne’s expressed ambivalence toward his family’s past, his work demonstrates a consistent dialogue with the notion that identification (and the attendant avoidance) of evil is ultimately possible” as is reconciliation through creative expression of the psychological and spiritual dichotomies that can be regarded as both universal and universally problematic.  (Maus 76).

            Similarly, O’ Connor, in her celebrated short-story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” makes use of “misdirection” and ambiguity, as well as an allegorical scaffolding in order to deliver a story with multiple layers of meaning.  In the case of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” it is obvious, even to a casual reader, that O’ Connor intends to probe themes and ideas of a rather profound or “deep” nature: “The title alone, with its resonances of multiple levels of meaning and its evocation of problems of an existential and religious nature, was enough to suggest that here was no ordinary potpourri of “adult” bedtime reading.” (Browning 40).  The allegorical structure of the story allows Connor, like Hawthorne, to invest so-called ordinary experience with a level of mythic or spiritual intensity.  In the course of the story, multiple murders take place, but these murders by  “The Misfit” are mostly “off-stage” and the events as presented in the story, proper, could be seen as trivial.  What O Connor is suggesting about the nature of “evil” in her story is very much in line with the suggestion about “evil” which was made by Hawthorne in “Young Goodman Brown” adn that is the notion that “evil” is something which permeates the entirety of human perception and existence, but is something which emerges from human existence. As in te case of Hawthorne, O’ Connor tends to view evil as ubiqutous and as a sort of universal and a natural reaction to or fallout from human hubris: “Those who believe they know themselves best discover that they have been living with a stranger. Those who appear to be innocent and friendly strangers as often as not turn out to be avatars of the devil.” (Browning 41).  The conclusion is obvious when comparing the allegorical methods of Hawthorne and O’ Connor: that the theme of evil is revealed through their literary vision as something much more formidable and much more preternatural than the mere idea of “sin” which religious institutions have traditionally adhered to, and in doing so, embraced a level of blinding hypocrisy which is, itself, an outcome of  the (endemic) evil of human pride.

                                                                       Works Cited

Maus, Derek. “The Devils in the Details: The Role of Evil in the Short Fiction of Nikolai

                         Vasilievich Gogol and Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Papers on Language & Literature                        38.1 (2002): 76.

Browning, Preston M. Flannery O’Connor. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.

 

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