Autor: C. Rummel
Kurs: American Shortstories
Dozent: C. Rosenthal
Datum: 25.07.1996
Universität Konstanz
Semester: WS 95/96



I will try to show patterns of Puritan Religion, life and ideology in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories "Young Goodman Brown" and The Birthmark", that are included in the course-reader. In addition I will try to find connect these elements with Hawthorne's life and his attitude towards Puritanism.

First, I will give a short description of the development of Puritanism, followed by the philosophical aspects of Puritan life. Then, I will write about are the Puritan roots and pivots of Hawthorne's life. Finally I will take the above mentioned short stories as an example for the points showed in the other paragraphs.

History and Development

Puritanism in his earliest form has developed basing on the works of William Tyndale (1495-1536) and John Hooper (d. 1555), who estimated the pace of the English reformation as too slow. The main time Puritanism developed in, until it had the form of that time Hawthorne's stories are set in, is between 1558, the reign of Elizabeth I., and the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658. During that time, influenced by two other Puritan philosophers, Cartwright (1535-1603) and Perkins (1558-1602), the main difference between Puritanism and the Anglican Church began to form out. What the Puritans aimed for was a reformation of the Anglican Church and the wish to make religious worship as simple as possible in form and ceremony.

The Puritans had success with their reform of England and its church, but maybe a little bit too fast so the tide turned against Puritanism. In 1603 the situation began to get difficult so the Puritans had to unite with the parliamentary opposition to the royal court. They opened warfare against Charles I. in 1640.

With Cromwell's death and the return of Charles II. to England in 1660 they finally lost their power and influence. The once successfull reformatory movement of the Puritans was now in a position of nonconformity. Like Republicans, Presbyterians and Quakerians they were persecuted. Puritan church-services were prohibited and Puritans themselves weren't allowed to visit universities any longer. In 1567 for the first time about 100 people attending a Puritan service were seized and about 15 of of them were sent to prison. By 1573 nonconformity with the Anglican church was punished with imprisonment, banishment and even death.

Puritans began to leave England. Having failed to reform England, they decided to build a model Puritan community. And the place that was chosen was New England. What followed is called the Great Migration. In 1620 a group of Puritan extremists headed for Plymouth. In 1629 a big group of Puritans emigrated to Massachusetts and settled in Salem and Boston. Over the next decade more than 20,000 emigrants came to Massachusetts and built a society in strict accordance to their Puritan ideals.

Puritans and Quakers, which had begun to migrate, too, settled in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North- and South-Carolina, Virginia and in Georgia. The number of Puritans in some states was higher than the number of Catholics. Considering the high number of all these settlers, their wide distribution and their strong faith, religious life in the new American colonies was of mainly Puritan colour.

Here in America the Puritans succeeded in forming a society in the way they had tried to reform England but did not succeed in. They were able to realize the separation of church and government and to live following their ideas and ideologies.

Life and Ideology

In this paragraph I will try to outline the Puritan theology, after which the Puritans designed their lives.

The Puritans believed in the majesty, righteousness and sovereignty of God. They saw him as omniscient and omnipotent. In contrast all human beings were depraved sinners. They believed that God had predestined some of these fallen creatures for the gift of salvation. This status of elected or non-elected signified God's choosing of those to whom the grace of salvation was to be offered. The Puritans took the scripture, the sacraments and the sermons as Gods own words, which they interpreted, following the works of the French Peter Ramus1, in the most accurate way, and expected all Puritans to live strictly following these parameters. But that did not mean that sinners could save themselves, but the elect could improve their souls. Two of the main points of Puritan theology are the covenants of grace and work. The covenant of grace required a faith in God, that God himself gave the elect to grasp. The covenant of work, on the contrary, depended only on human action. Although the Puritans believed in predetermination they did not await their God-given fate. They spent their whole life trying to find out their destiny, whether it might be heaven or hell. Work, even if it did not guarantee salvation, was their way to express their faith and to show their hope for heaven. Morality and a good life were interpreted to be a sign of God's will. For these reasons Puritans worked for all their life and they were appalled by everybody who did not work. This is also the reason why many Puritans were wealthy, if not rich. But wealth did not make them stop working. Rich Puritans just kept on working, just like their poor neighbours. In fact there was no difference between poor Puritans and Puritans who were well off. This does not mean that their society was not subdivided into different classes. In fact the Puritan's idea of society structures was quite conventional; as long as there was no monarchy.2

Another important part of Puritan life was education. The Puritans thought that only who is able to read [the Bible] will find religious truth. Like mentioned before the Bible was read interpreted very accurate and strict. And this truth, that was to be found by accurate interpretation, was synonymous with a good life. To reach this aim, the Puritans founded schools all over the country which led to a good and equal level of education through the whole Puritan and Non-Puritan society. It is a fact that, for this reason, the majority of all Americans in the 18th century was literate. Not only this, it also evened out another traditional difference between upper and lower classes. In colonial times almost every American town had its own newspaper so the Americans were generally well informed about politics and elections. This is the foundation stone and the realization of the American Dream, the equality of all men, 'everything is possible' and 'from rags to riches'.

Although the Puritans have been very strict in religious way, on the other hand they could be quite tolerant. The grade of tolerance was dependent from the extent of the appropriate thing. For example they condemned the drunkard, but not the consumption of alcohol itself. And they did not taboo sexuality, as long it was sexuality between husband and wife and not extramarital sexuality.3

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Attitude towards Puritanism

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born into a family that was of Puritan belief since generations. But different from his ancestors, he had a feeling to some extents of Puritanism as being intolerant and cruel.4 He found a good example for this cruelty with his own ancestors, William and John Hathorne, who emigrated to America between 1630 and 1633. They both were involved in the persecution of Quakers and alleged witches.5 They used torture and even sentenced people to death. Hawthorne tried to find distance from this face of Puritanism and lived Puritan ideology and philosophy in his own way.

He knew his Bible very well and went to church frequently. As a boy he went to the East Salem Church, that was described as "on the verge of Unitarism". Later, when he served as a Consul in England, he attended services at a Unitarian church in Liverpool. But, it could not be more typical for a Puritan, he could not get along with the religious rituals and ceremonies, like, for example, funerals. He simply had these Puritan aversions that already caused the Puritans to split from the Anglican Church. Things that were really important to him were to live in harmony with nature and human life. He simply wanted to have a small regular income, that would allow him to forget everything, that was not important to him.6

Back to his attitude towards the Puritanism of his ancestors. When Hawthorne read the accounts about his first American ancestors, he was reported to have read them with fascination and horror. Although he was appalled by the Puritan injustice, he was convinced, that there was both good and evil in Puritanism. He thought a lot about the conflict of God as omniscient and omnipotent on one hand, and vengeful and cruel on the other. He saw that religion was able to produce evil. The fact that things like the witchtrials, where innocent people had to die, could happen in his Puritan hometown of Salem led him to the opinion that the fusion of religious dogma and political authority was the worst evil. His ancestors and all the other Puritans maybe thought to have found the devil when prosecuting witches, but Hawthorne was of a different opinion. Whose side was the devil on? Hawthorne's answer was the evil in everybody. It makes people blind so they are not able to recognize the evil in themselves.7 Of course Hawthorne's point of view is that of the 19th century, not that of the 17th century, where his short stories are settled. He is aware of his roots and history, but he questions these roots and history from his modern point of view.

But after all, although his short stories and romances often describe religious experiences, Hawthorne never recommended any particular religious opinion.8

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Short-Stories under a Puritan View

"Young Goodman Brown"

I am not interested in the question, whether Brown's night in the woods was a dream or reality. As the the main interest of this work is concentrated on the Puritan elements and Hawthorne's attitude towards these elements.

Right at the begin of the story, Brown kisses his wife Faith good-bye. When he comes back, he sees her "gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such a joy at sight of him, that she skipt along the street, and almost kissed her husband before the whole village."9 This time she does not kiss him, but the way Hawthorne describes this situation implements a certain grade of prudishness. Although Brown was very happy to see his wife again, this behaviour does not match the way Puritans would have behaved. It was expected to behave in a decent way and not to attract any attention. After the experiences of last night, having found Faith safe at home and not baptized by the devil, Brown is still deeply impressed. He can not show his relief, because he is deeply disturbed. Brown has lost his faith in his neighbours, his religion and the whole society. When he met the devilish old man, the witches and participants on the witches' Sabbath, he recognized all these familiar faces of his village.10 He even saw his Faith on this witches' Sabbath. Like a good Puritan should, he does his work and insists on doing it - "My journey, [...] must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise." What he found out in that night, must have been incredibly shattering and complete, resulting in his disturbed state. What Brown had encountered is representing the Gothic idea of an irresistible and omnipresent evil.11 He took all his power out of his faith in the Puritan religion and community and founded his confidence on it. And that night his whole world broke apart. He saw his own wife, persons of trust like the deacon and the minister, and even that woman, who had taught him his catechism when he was a small boy, being in the service of the devil. Especially Goody Cloyse must have been the person who finally destroyed his faith in God. She was once taught him how to be a good Puritan and now seems to be no good Puritan herself. What could be more disappointing than that. But not enough. He also had to find out, that even his own father and grandfather belonged to the devil's community. Possibly Hawthorne wrote about his very own ancestors, which have prosecuted Quakers and witches. Hawthorne is condemning what they did and, and so does Goodman Brown. There are records of what Hawthorne thought of these prosecutions and the existence of the devil. To him the existence of the devil was nothing but an explanation for fear, that Puritans used to explain some of their fears and doubts. Compared with the persecution of witches in Germany, it was the same anxious agony that led some Puritans to cut their own throats or throw their babies down the well or to hang their neighbours if their cows fell sick.12 If something appeared to be strange, foreign, or somebody was envious, nothing was more simple than the devil was somehow connected with it. This dogmatic belief in the existence of the devil only enables the real demons of human nature to hold power in disguise. Hawthorne even relates the witch trials with sadism and sexual instinct. This power helped the Puritan judges to act out their destructive instincts by sacrificing their helpless victims. But the judges thought to be in the right so they were too blind to see the evil that they did. Hawthorne dares to describe the Puritan God of the 17th century as demanding for human sacrifices. This is of course meant in the way that the Puritans felt like having to sacrifice humans and to purify the land at the same time. He asked why should there be any God wanting to be sacrifices and punishment conducted in his name? Hawthorne was very convinced of his opinion and drives himself in rage when talking about it. He compares the Puritan God with a jealous parent not willing to suffer the independence of his offspring and goes further, naming different points about Puritanism he could not conform with. Self-assertion is crime, sexual knowledge is guilt, and life's only enjoyment is preparation for death. This expresses, how deeply appalled Hawthorne was by the negative force of Puritan morality.13 At least I want to mention, that the Puritan's general idea of evil was a very dreadful one. In his short stories Hawthorne dramatized this vision of evil to excess for this reason: to teach the reader the right point of view to bigotry, cruelty and hypocrisy.14

Another thing that Hawthorne used to present the omnipresent evil in mankind is the pink ribbons. I would like to mention William V. Davis' theory that I found quite plausible. He concentrates on the colour of the ribbons, pink, a colour made out of red and white. White could represent Faith's innocence, and red her guilt, lust, evil in general. It is again not the sexual aspect of the woman as object of man's sexual desire, who in his turn is projecting his lust as a stain on the woman. Besides Faith is Browns wife. The Puritan condemning of sexuality concentrates on extramarital sex. It is the combination of guilt and innocence, of good and bad. Hawthorne shows that one is not possible without the other, that there is always good and evil in man. It is a stain like Georgiana's birthmark or Beatrice Rappaccini's poisoned body. This makes Faith the tainted innocence, the spiritual imperfection of mankind, in contrary to the ideal of the elected Puritan.15

"The Birthmark"

This short-story of Hawthorne has a historic background. Alfred S. Reid brought it in connection with a Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1664), who had killed his wife in an operation very similar to Aylmer's on Georgiana.

First of all it has to be mentioned, that Hawthorne always mistrusted science and scientist like he did not like politicians. In the late eighteenth century, that is where the story is set, science was still somehow connected with magic. And Aylmer's 'science', at least from today's point of view, could be called alchemy, which is somewhere between science and magic. At that time many people were almost enthusiastic about the possibilities that science promised. Some scientists even were able to achieve a kind of God-like arrogance. This presumption of godliness definitely is a sin in the eyes of a Puritan.

I already mentioned Georgiana's birthmark in connection with Faith's pink ribbons as a sign of physical imperfection and the personification of the omnipresent evil. Hawthorne's opinion of the evil was already treated in the "Young Goodman Brown" paragraph. In this paragraph I will concentrate on sin and science as a religion.

When Aylmer tries to correct Georgiana's fault to make her perfect, he is playing God. Georgiana, who was happy the way she was and thought, that she was attractive, took over her husbands opinion. She felt imperfect and lived in fear, that she was not any longer attractive for her husband. Georgiana wanted to proof her love to Aylmer and gave her agreement to the operation. Still on her dying bed she she is supporting Aylmer morally:16

"You have aimed loftily! - you have done nobly! Da not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer."17

The only positive thing about Aylmer, morally and under a Puritan view, is the ambition and power he is doing his work and experiments with. The time he needed to bring his 'cure' for Georgiana's stain to perfection was certainly more than a week, if not months of everyday work. Such an endurance definitely is a Puritan virtue but probably not of Hawthorne's interest. He used to be the one to criticize.

What Hawthorne is afraid of, is that humanity might get lost for the cost of cold, heartless science. The picture, he is painting with this short story is even more extensive. In context with Aylmer Hawthorne uses a terminology and imagery of religious origin. He uses words like"faith", votaries", "miracle", "holy", "to pray", "immortality" or "heavenly". 18It is clear that science has become a religion for Aylmer. And not only for Aylmer but for Georgiana , too. "[...]she prayed that, for a single moment, she might satisfy his highest and deepest conception. Hawthorne let Aylmer believe in the omnipotence of science, the persuasive faith of managability, so giving science the colour of religion. In Heilmann's and Hawthornes opinion they are mistaking science for religion. Only in the foreground the story is about man's relation with nature, further down the story again handles with man's conceptions of evil. Aylmer does not regard evil as real, he sees it as manageable and a subject to human control. He reverses the christian sense of the reality of evil, which should only be dealt with by divine grace. Trying to reach perfectibility, believing in the ability to deal with evil, he makes himself an earthly god. He is trying to create heaven on earth. But the birthmark is described as a "symbol of imperfection", "the spectral hand that wrote mortality", "the sole token of human imperfection" and "fatal flaw of humanity". All these expressions are implying the natural character of Georgiana's birthmark, as temporary and finite. The cost for laying and on them are toil and pain. Here lies Aylmers fault. He is not God. Maybe he is able to manage his science, he did succeed in removing the birthmark from Georgiana's cheek, but for what cost. He tries to make it better and ruins it entirely. It simply is not in his hands. He has not realized, that perfection is something never achieved on earth and in terms of mortality.19 Hawthorne is judging Aylmer's behaviour as a temptation of God. For Hawthorne Georgiana's moral imperfection is nothing but a mere physical imperfection. And if Aylmer can not accept that fact and can not stand something as small and ridiculous as a birthmark, he should live barren and celibate.20 Like Hawthorne has said, "great creative mother [...] is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets".


For the Puritan elements Hawthorne has put into his short stories, there are several to find. Certainly nobody would use his stories to learn something about Puritan lifestyle, but there is always a description in every story. Of the way people dressed, worked, how life was organized and what was of political and social interest. But as this is fiction it is always coloured by what the author is trying to say. As I have shown in the Hawthorne paragraph, his attitude towards Puritanism was split. There were things he was absolutely in favour of and things he condemned from the depth of his heart. I wrote that Hawthorne was a Puritan because of his Puritan origin. This certainly true. In his time and where he lived everybody was Puritan and, as time has proven, it was Puritanism that has led to today's American achievement orientated society. But Hawthorne described the Puritan society of the 17th century as narrow and relentless. The best example for this is "Young Goodman Brown". When he wrote about Puritanism, Calvinism or Transcendentalism, which are all close related together, he always wrote about bigotry, righteousness and cruelty. In that context he can not be called a Puritan but a bitter critic. He admitted, that "strong traits of their [i.e. his ancestors. C.R.] nature have intertwined themselves with mine." Hawthorne did not share the dogmas and delusions of the people he condemned, he had little interest and less belief in doctrines and theological debate. His imagination was repeatedly drawn the subjects of temptation, guilt and shame. He sought the depths of the human mind for these subjects. What he found with the skills of psychologist were human things like adultery, torment and masochistic and sadistic pleasure, not religious doctrine like the original sin. The Puritans were able to balance the doctrine of original sin with the hope of Christian atonement. They could hope to regain the Paradise, that Hawthorne knew to be lost. He explored the subtle passions of the human spirit without anticipating any divine redemption.

Hawthorne maybe was born into a Puritan world and was as relentless and anxious as the 17th century Puritans when writing about Puritanism, but he viewed his world and the one of his ancestors very critically and gained his own opinion and attitude.21


1 Wilder: The Inexhaustible Puritans.
2 Colacurcio: The Province of Piety.
3 Wilder: The Inexhaustible Puritans.
4 Stewart: American Literature & Christian Doctrine. p. 15.
5 Wagenknecht: Nathaniel Hawthorne. p. 1.
6 Wagenknecht: Nathaniel Hawthorne. p. 170.
7 Berryman: Wilderness to Wasteland. p. 131.
8 Berryman: Wilderness to Wasteland. p. 121.
9 Kursreader. S. 21, rechts unten.
10 Becker: Historical Allegory. p. 16.
11 Levy, Leo B.: The Problem of Faith. p. 120.
12 Abel: The Moral Picturesque. p. 137.
13 Berryman: Wilderness to Wasteland. p. 133
14 Levy, Leo B.: The Problem of Faith. p. 125.
15 Wagenknecht: Nathaniel Hawthorne. p. 62.
16 Wagenknecht: Nathaniel Hawthorne. p. 38-41.
17 Kursreader. S. 31, rechts unten.
18 Heilmann: Science as a Religion. p. 189.
19 Penn Warren: The Birthmark. p. 187.
20 Wagenknecht: Nathaniel Hawthorne. p. 38-41.
21 Berryman: Wilderness to Wasteland. p. 133.


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Berryman, Charles: From Wilderness To Wasteland. The Trial of the Puritan God in the American Imagination. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1979.
Colacurcio, Michael J.: The Province of Piety. Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Donohue, Agnes (ed.): A Casebook on the Hawthorne Question. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1963.
Doubleday, Neal: Hawthorne's Early Tales. A Critical Study. Durham: Duke University Press, 1972.
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R. B. Heilmann: Science as a Religion. In: Fogle, Richard H.: Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light & The Dark. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
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