Research Paper: Compare and Contrast John Steinbeck's View of Humanity Versus Nathaniel Hawthorne's Views

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Steinbeck vs. Hawthorne

John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is a satirical and comical examination of human complexity and foibles. Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter also examines human complexity and foibles but relies heavily on established religious notions of sin, guilt, alienation and redemption. Consequently, while both authors are highly skilled and believe in the complexity of humanity, their works are quite different in mood and message.

Compare and Contrast John Steinbeck's (Cannery Row) view of humanity vs. Nathaniel Hawthorne's (the Scarlet Letter) views.

John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter show at least one similar view of humanity but other widely differing views of humanity. Both authors use paradox to describe their characters, giving their views of humanity's complexity. As Brian Railsback wrote, "[Cannery Row's] humor, its satire, and even its tragedy derive from paradox, and most of the characters are defined by paradox" (Railsback 228). Steinbeck's main characters of Doc, Mac and Nora are all drawn in paradox. Doc is a complex character who has conflicting traits on multiple levels: he "can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure" (Steinbeck 25); he will "listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom" (Steinbeck 26); he is a very intelligent, resourceful Biological Scientist who is popular on Cannery Row because he has helped many people through the kindness and pureness of his heart, yet he is twice-divorced, cannot maintain a relationship and is deeply lonely. Mac is also a complex individual described through paradox: Jones says, "I bet Mack could have been president of the U.S. If he wanted" (Steinbeck 76), yet "What could he do with it if he had it?' Jones asked. 'There wouldn't be no fun in that'" (Steinbeck 76); Mac is like complex human beings, who can be intelligent, charming, resourceful, irresponsible bums. Dora also reveals Steinbeck's belief in human complexity, as a brothel madam who "has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind. And by the same token she is hated..." (Steinbeck 3).

Hawthorne also uses paradox to flesh out his characters, showing his belief in the complexity of human beings. Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter has the main characters of Hester Prynne, Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth, who are all shown to be complex in various ways, some of which are mentioned here. Hester Prynne, the beautiful adulteress who bears a child and a scarlet letter "A" for adultery, shows complexity, for example, in her shame and defiance:

"[I]t seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours" (Hawthorne 37).

Pearl, Hester's illegitimate daughter, is also a complex character who is a "demon offspring" (Hawthorne 68) and "a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants" (Hawthorne 64). Simultaneously, Pearl was a "lovely and immortal flower" (Hawthorne 61) who eventually helped Reverend Dimmesdale repent by publicly displaying his own scarlet letter on the scaffold (Hawthorne 174) and breaks the spell of sinfulness, alienation and sorrow (Hawthorne 175). Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the equally complex adulterer who was secretly quite sinful in his affair with Hester, yet "The young divine, whose scholar-like renown still lived in Oxford, was considered by his more fervent admirers as little less than a heavenly ordained apostle" (Hawthorne 82) who, "with characteristic humility, avowed his belief that if Providence should see fit to remove him, it would be because of his own unworthiness to perform its humblest mission here on earth (Hawthorne 82). Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne's betrayed husband, also shows the complexity of humanity by, for example, as "a man, elderly, travel-worn, who, just emerging from the perilous wilderness" (Hawthorne 80), yet who passed himself off as a completely different man, a physician and "a brilliant acquisition. He soon manifested his familiarity with the ponderous and imposing machinery of antique physic" and with "knowledge of the properties of native herbs and roots" (Hawthorne 81), a healer who ironically acted as Dimmesdale's doctor in order to torture and slowly kill him. Consequently, both Steinbeck and Hawthorne use paradox in their character descriptions to show their view of humanity's complexity.

Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter widely differ in that Hawthorne views humanity through the eyes of a strict, divinely-controlled universe in which humans are sinful, guilt-ridden, alienated by sin but can be redeemed, while Steinbeck does not. The authors' different outlooks are probably due to their different backgrounds. Steinbeck was a 20th Century Californian, raised as an Episcopalian (Benson 188) and eventually becoming an agnostic (Benson 248), living chiefly in various areas of California and holding several types of jobs (Benson 57). The only times Steinbeck mentions God in this book is for an occasional "God damn" or "By God" casually mentioned by the characters. In sharp contrast to Hawthorne, Steinbeck's outlook on humanity is lighter, satirical and humorous, full of human foibles and complexities but without the heavy Puritan notions of sinfulness, guilt and alienation. (This should be somewhat qualified about Steinbeck himself, as Steinbeck does consider divinity, sin, guilt, alienation and redemption in East of Eden, with the empowering "thou mayest rule over sin," but that must be left to another paper.) Hawthorne, on the other hand, was a 19th Century Puritan from Salem, Massachusetts (Miller 39), living essentially as a recluse (Miller 87) in a community made notorious by its oppressive Puritan views of humanity/divinity and its witch trials a little over a century earlier (Miller 22). This oppressive, overriding religious view comes through loud and strong in the considerably darker the Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne states in the Scarlet Letter, "[I]n the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike" (Hawthorne 177). The darker, oppressive sinfulness described through all four main characters in the Scarlet Letter is stunning and practically oppressive. Hawthorne's book is soaked with sinfully sinning through sinfulness: in the eyes of the stricter members of the Puritan community, Hester Prynne is "a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone" (Hawthorne 44); Pearl was "the sin-born infant" (Hawthorne 44); Dimmesdale, the adulterous Reverend, is a sinner; Chillingworth, who resolved to secretly torture and ultimately kill Dimmesdale, is a sinner. As a result of sin, all characters are guilty and alienated: Hester Prynne lived away from others and alone with Pearl in a concealed cottage (Hawthorne 55); Pearl was alienated from others due to her born sinfulness and knew it: "Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness: the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her: the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children" (Hawthorne 64); Dimmesdale, though dealing with the community as a pastor, was nevertheless secretly alienated and believed Providence might remove him from the world at an early age because of his unworthiness (Hawthorne 82); Chillingworth, at least partly due to Hester's public sinfulness, "chose to withdraw his name from the roll of mankind, and, as regarded his former ties and interest, to vanish out of life as completely as if he indeed lay at the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Compare and Contrast John Steinbeck's View of Humanity Versus Nathaniel Hawthorne's Views."  Essaytown.com.  May 5, 2013.  Accessed July 18, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/compare-contrast-john-steinbeck-view/7708786.