Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hawthorne and the Irony of Religious Hypocrisy

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I love reading Hawthorne in the fall. I think it's because he makes me feel smart---and fall means the beginning of school--which also makes me feel smart! Whatever the reason, Hawthorne is great in any season.

I've been reading through an anthology of some of his best short stories called, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, and have been making all kinds of notes. So, you'll probably be hearing about him more than once over the next few months!

Something I find over and over again in much of Hawthorne's writing is what commentator Q. D. Leavis calls "a symbolic recurring struggle" between two groups of former Englishmen in early America: those living the Puritan lifestyle and those not. I enjoy reading these stories because I appreciate how well he noted the ironic hypocrisy of the religious person---usually represented by the Puritan characters. I also see an innocence and naiveté in the non-Puritan people that seems to recur and makes me believe that this is the side with which he personally sympathizes. With Puritans in his family line---some of whom made life and death decisions during the Salem Witch Trials---I've always thought Hawthorne wanted to use his writing as an apology of sorts. While these elements of duplicity are evident in almost everything I read of his, the story lines in both The May Pole of Merry Mount and Feathertop epitomize this conflict.

One theme that really strikes me is the way in which characters act rashly out of fear and end up misrepresenting the goodness they claim to possess. In May Pole, as in much of what we read about Puritan history, the Puritans were so afraid of incurring the wrath of God that they made condemning judgments on those who wouldn't conform to what they believed was right. I find it sad that the heathen people had more obvious joy than the Puritans who claimed to be full of the joy of the Lord. Unfortunately, the first Puritan-like act of the "May-couple" is the act of them conforming out of fear because of all that they have lost. They have nothing left and so must now follow "the Puritan leader, their only guide." That same sort of fear is found in Feathertop's Master Gookin, who gives his daughter freedom to socialize with someone he knows to be associated with the witch Mother Rigby out of fear of the consequences she would curse him with. Not only does he welcome Feathertop into his home, but he treats him as a higher-up, calling him "my Lord Feathertop" and instructing his daughter to pay him reverence and honor.

Another thing I found in my reading is that Hawthorne was really good at pointing out those things in the religious man that make the non-religious man shun religion! Mother Rigby's threat to Feathertop that she would, "hurl thee where that red coal came from" if he didn't continue to puff away at the cursed pipe is like the threat that Endicott faced in Maypole if he were to back down on the pagan couple's punishment. Feathertop's curious puffings became more intense as his purpose changed. Where once he was obeying the witch's commands in order to "show (himself) a man," the fear she incites in him causes him to puff harder to avoid punishment. In this same way, I got the impression that Endicott saw a young and, in his opinion, confused couple who just needed some guidance. However, he had the voice of Peter Palfrey nudging him to courser actions. Not only did Endicott have to answer to God if he let them continue with their heathen practices, he would also be branded a heathen by all the other Puritans. His actions against the merrymakers weren't based on a desire to do right but rather on an over-inflated fear of doing wrong. This hypocrisy and fear are probably what turned the May Pole people off from religion to begin with!

Hawthorne's writings are such an interesting source of historical interpretations of the time of the Puritans. I always come away with heart-humbling ideas to mull over. It's interesting to see that there really is nothing new under the sun and that each of us struggle, just as the Puritans did, to keep fear from ruling our decisions and characters.

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