“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson Analysis

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Nineteenth century novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne had several approaches to express his views on nature. Nature is an element that is widely prominent in Hawthorne’s stories, and specifically for this essay, his short stories, “Young Goodman Brown,” where he analyzes the effects of human nature, and “The Birthmark,” where he speaks about the yearning to alter the natural to fit our standards of beauty, striving for perfection. However, nineteenth century transcendentalist and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would argue against Hawthorne’s beliefs in his essay “Self Reliance.” Emerson believed that everyone should follow their inner voice and avoid what is said to be true to find their truth within.

In the short story “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne unveils the weakness of public morality. In the Puritan society where the story is set, it is proved that even as holy as it may appear, there is still corruption that exists there. It’s important to note that Goodman Brown discovered the impurities in the forest. The forest is a representation of the “wild;” an unnatural world that is out there to be discovered. The Puritan world that Brown was accustomed to can be seen as a safe haven that he has been sheltered into. The church refused to enter the forest because the devil was associated with the forest, the enemy of any Christian worshiper. Nevertheless, when the reader follows Goodman Brown into the forsaken forest, we find that people who were considered to be religious and prominent leaders in the community, were in the forbidden forest. What Hawthorne is saying here is that there are two types of nature that we must be aware of, human nature and the natural. The village for him was a sanctuary of rectitude. The deeper he went into the forest, the closer he was to making a covenant with evil. Yet, we see a transformation on his perspective of evil when he recognizes the fellow townspeople. The Puritans are taught how evil can be found in nature, but after identifying people who Goodman Brown considered good, he epiphanized that the nature that he was being warned about wasn’t the one surrounding him, but the one from within.

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In Hawthorne’s other short story, “The Birthmark,” we see a conflict on the effects of altering nature with science. Aylmer’s wife Georgiana, is a picture of perfection in his eyes, except for the red birthmark on her cheek. Georgiana is described as an incredible beautiful woman, but the birthmark is naturally there to prevent her from achieving the unattainable, perfection. Aylmer’s fixation and vanity over her birthmark blinds him to realizing the dangers that lie between nature and science. Although religious words weren’t boldly used throughout the story, it was nonetheless very prominent throughout. God does not make mistakes when he creates nature. If you are attempting to change what God made natural, you are making an attempt to change the only thing that is actually perfect, God. Aylmer using science to strive to establish perfection in his wife, is ultimately what results in her death. Perfection isn’t something obtainable on Earth, only in Heaven. What Hawthorne is saying about nature through this short story is to appreciate the imperfections that occur in things that occur naturally, and if that is not followed, that nature around us and the natural in us, will be destroyed.

In “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he advises his readers to acknowledge that self-sufficiency is the key to gaining freedom to discover true self and independence. Emerson urges his readers to follow their individualism, rather than conforming to social expectations. For instance, towards the end of the essay, he elucidates how we should alter religious practices, stay at home, and develop our own culture to focus on the self rather than societal progress; conformity is death to a individual. Not only this, but Emerson emphasizes the need to be honest in relationships and follow one’s own voice, rather than the people around you, who might have the same thoughts as you.

It’s no surprise that Hawthorne and Emerson have opposing views when it comes to nature. Goodman Brown, who was portrayed as innocent and naive, was subject to malfeasance. When he makes the decision to go into the forest, he still hides when he hears the minister and sees people from the town. Brown was concerned about how his religion was viewed by society, rather than actually being involved with the Devil when the time came. Emerson would argue that Brown should not have hid in the first place. He made the conscious decision to go in the forest, going against the religion he was accustomed to, and was awakened to the “other.” Because Emerson believed that one should follow their own voice rather than an intermediary’s, he would not agree with Brown’s decision to not only hide, but to continue to satisfy societal norms and act as if nothing happened. According to Emerson, intuition is drawn from universal spirits, and because there is a duality in the spirit and person, he commands us to always follow it. On the other end, Hawthorne would not agree with Emerson’s statement because when he is talking about following your own instinct, he does not specify the type of instinct that you should follow. If that instinct is coming from a dark or demonic place, Emerson is telling us to follow it.

The spirit affiliated with infancy should be used as a template to be followed to cultivate autonomy. With a Transcendentalist perspective of nature, Emerson implies a linear way of perceiving nature, rather than Emerson’s idea of there being multiple. Infants follow their own direction in finding the world and what they believe to be true. If an infant touches a hot stove and it’s hot, they know not to touch it anymore. Still being new to the world, they tend to put things in their mouths and in their hands to have a feel of what they are and what they make it out to be. Emerson is urging us to be like infants when it comes to the world and nature, while Hawthorne is arguing the opposite. In his examination of nature, Hawthorne abandons Emerson’s Transcendentalist approach to Renaissance peaceful as the most efficient method for understanding the relations between self, nature, and the divine.

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