Transcendentalism Hawthorne's the Minister's Black Veil Young Goodman Brown and the BirthmarkTerm Paper

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Hawthorne

Transcendentalism in Hawthorne's "Birthmark," "Veil," and "Goodman Brown"

Transcendence in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories is medieval in nature rather than modern. In "The Birthmark," for example, Hawthorne acknowledges the foolishness of worshipping that which is mortal -- or finite -- rather than that which is above nature -- or supernatural, infinite: and the reminder, of course, is the birthmark itself -- that one sign of imperfection that keeps Aylmer from finding fulfillment in his wife. The lesson, Hawthorne shows, is that fulfillment can only come by accepting our fallen nature as it is and yet striving to transcend above that nature through the grace of God as Young Goodman Brown is able to do. This paper will analyze "Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil" and "The Birthmark," and show how Hawthorne views transcendence as a spiritual component in the earthly battle to do good and avoid evil.

In "The Birthmark" Aylmer attempts to relieve Georgiana of her sign of corruption and thereby achieve perfection by the art of chemistry, by which he believes "the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base" (par. 36). Aylmer thus illustrates that the doctrine to which he ascribes is that of the alchemists, which was part of the modern world's scientific inquiry into the nature of things. Divorced from the doctrines of the medieval "age of faith," which taught believers in Christ that perfection was attained through Him alone, the students of the age of Romantic Enlightenment practiced a kind of self-reliance, which, in America, would be propagated by Emerson.

Georgiana, of course, understands that such pursuits are to pretend to make gods of men -- or devils -- and she herself states her abhorrence of what Aylmer sees as the way to happiness and the removal of the defect that so depresses him (which in turn wounds her): "It is terrible to possess such power, or even to dream of possessing it" (par. 37). Nonetheless, fearing that he will never look upon her with love again unless her defect (the birthmark) is removed from her face, she yields to his "scientific" aim to transcend the bitterness of his reality.

The birthmark itself is an interesting symbol. Hawthorne describes it as a small red-shaped hand on Georgiana's cheek -- as if she had been marked by birth by a fairy's handprint. To some it enhances Georgiana's beauty -- to others it throws a pall over all things: and such a one is Aylmer. Whereas he had once been able to observe only her beauty, now he is able only to notice her birthmark -- which becomes to him a symbol of all humankind's defects, sins, faults, and failings. Rooting it out by "science" becomes his obsession.

Georgiana, however, by confining herself to her husband's scientific journal falls under the same misplaced love (of which Augustine speaks is the cause of all sin (Duffy 598) -- love that should be placed in God but is placed elsewhere): she begins to worship him beyond reason, simply because he seeks to attain the purity of the Infinite. (They both are aware, however, that his attempts have all ended in failure).

Still, the potion he gives her to quaff erases the stain on her cheek but also steals her life -- for the birthmark "was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame" (par. last). The intimation is that transcendence is a spiritual pursuit: it is for the soul to strive upward toward perfection, while struggling with its faults and foibles -- not for the finite to circumnavigate "the race" as the Pauline scriptures describe it for a quicker and less painful finish (1 Co 9:24-27). Aylmer learns the lesson harshly: his Georgiana dies in the moment of perfection -- and her perfect soul departs the world of fallen human nature.

The story, as many of Hawthorne's are, is highly suggestive and symbolic -- and it appears to state that perfection and attainment of the Ideal are not possible in this world except by humbly accepting the faults with which we were born, reminding ourselves through them that we are imperfect creatures made -- as the medieval world believed -- in the image and likeness of God Himself -- of all that is Good and True and Beautiful. The age in which Hawthorne finds himself, however, is the age of Romantic/Enlightenment doctrine: a distinct separation from the Christian doctrine that preceded it and that saw the sustainment of Christendom for a millennium. Rejection of the Creed that unified Europe created the monster Frankenstein -- as Shelley's wife depicted: and that same horror is found in Aylmer, who cannot abide the thought of living with a fallen human nature -- or, more to the point, cannot fathom how good could be coupled with defect (or evil). This was the conundrum that Puritanism failed to face -- instead, attempting like Aylmer to convince itself that the soul was filled either with good or with evil -- not with both. As Hamlet learns, however, human beings are made of both good and bad elements -- and, for a thousand years, it was a mystery for which Christ alone was the answer.

In "Young Goodman Brown" Christ is still, indirectly, the answer -- or, rather, faith in Christ -- represented, of course, by Brown's wife Faith. Faith herself, however, is lured into the forest at midnight to dance with the devil along with the rest of the Puritan village -- as Brown discovers. But Faith -- not in Faith the wife -- but in a Higher Power is all that saves Brown from falling to the devil with the rest of the camp. Transcendence in "Young Goodman Brown" comes by way of trial. Brown passes the trial at the eleventh hour -- but he has also grown a shade darker, and he now views the rest of his village not by their outward appearance (which is good) but by their inward souls (which battle, just like his, between good and evil -- and, just like his, the people of Salem are tempted to dalliances with Satan).

Indeed, Goodman Brown's transcendent moment is spiritual in that he comes face-to-face with a falsehood at the heart of Protestant Salem: that they are all like Pharisees -- hypocrites, who believe that the elect know who they are and can be judged by the blessings they have received in life from God. Brown, however, sees that none of them are saved unless they, like he, turn away from the devil in the moment of temptation and cry out for heavenly assistance. This dark truth throws him into a gloom -- a gloom which appears threatening and circumspect to the Puritan faithful: it shows no sign of blessing or salvation (at least not outwardly) and when he is buried, "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom" (par. last).

The point Hawthorne makes is that transcendence toward the Good does not rest on assumptions and self-reliance. It does not grow with pride (for the preacher in Salem is proud of his preaching -- yet, he too dances with the devil in the forest). Rather, it is worked out, again, according to the Pauline scriptures, well-loved in medieval times, "through fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). Thus, Goodman Brown goes to his grave in a spirit of transcendence that is being worked out in fear and trembling -- but which his Protestant neighbors mistaken for mere gloom.

Likewise, "The Minister's Black Veil" is a parable that describes the importance of penance -- a mainstay of medieval theology -- an exercise in which one practiced abstinence, fasting, and self-denial in reparation for sins. The Minister in the story dons a veil that frightens everyone, not because he wishes to be "dark," but because he realizes something about himself: he comes to a moment of transcendental truth -- of higher vision: he comes to know himself and the extent to which his soul is stained with sin. Out of respect for this fact, he veils his countenance and dons the veil of those who mourn for the dead -- for he, aware of the state of his soul, dresses like one who is bereaved. Is his soul dead? On the contrary, by acknowledging the state of his soul, the Minister is able to effect a penance that he hopes will draw him nearer to God. The lesson is that there is more hope in the Minister for donning a black veil than in the he who dons none at all and appears before all (and even himself) as though he were assured of salvation -- and needed to do nothing to prepare himself.

As Hooper reveals to his betrothed, Elizabeth, the veil is an aspect of his humble desire to achieve a state of grace: "If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough…and if I cover it for secret sin,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Transcendentalism Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil Young Goodman Brown And The Birthmark."  Essaytown.com.  August 16, 2011.  Accessed September 24, 2018.
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