Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Hawthorne, "Wakefield" and "Young Goodman Brown"

In the Preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Nathaniel Hawthorne notes that the romance form is governed by its own laws, not the laws of facts or external reality; like the gothic-bound tales of Poe, the stories of Hawthorne follow the laws of their own conventions; thus, their rhetoric gives rise to their events rather than the other way around.  However, Hawthorne lamented in the preface to The Blithdale Romance (1852) that in America there is no "Faery Land" with its own rules to govern it so that it can be placed alongside nature as an equal.  What Hawthorne wanted was a realm of reality so much like the real world in its truth and laws that in its "atmosphere of strange enchantment," the inhabitants have a "propriety of their own." 
Without such an atmosphere, Hawthorne complained, the characters of the imagination must "show themselves in the same category as actually living mortals."  Hawthorne's understanding of the tension created when unreal characters must reside in the world of everyday reality is but the flip side of Walpole's realization of the ambiguous effect created when real people are placed in unreal circumstances.
Hyatt Waggoner once said that we have no name for Hawthorne's type of story--not quite allegorical, not quite symbolic, but somewhere in between.  The reason for this undecideability is that Hawthorne's type of story is the result of the merging of the conventions of allegory with the conventions of realism.  Thus, his stories seem to be motivated both by the characters within them, as if they were real, and at the same time determined by the received conventions of the story, of which the characters are only functions.  This tension tends to make Hawthorne's stories, and thus many stories in the nineteenth century, more aware of their own artifice and illusion than the novel, therefore more aware of their own fictional processes. 
A particularly clear example of the self-consciousness created by the combination of generic conventions is Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil," a mixture of the conventions of parable and realism.  Although the minister has a psychological self and much of the story focuses on his suffering, his awareness transforms the veil into a symbolic object and his story into a parable in the root sense of the word, that is, a story that probes essential mystery, as Frank Kermode has suggested about the underlying secret of story and Northrop Frye has argued is the originating source of romance. 
The minister does not hide his face because of some secret past sin, as he might in a realistic story, but rather to objectify his metaphysical awareness that the meaning of sin is separation.  Hawthorne suggests that the moral implication of this awareness is that life must be lived with the realization of separation so that the individual will understand the need to project the self into the other, to penetrate the social veil that everyone wears.  The minster's veil is like Bartleby's wall, for the "madness" of both Bartleby and the minister is that they treat a simple object as if it were its metaphysical meaning.  Such a metaphoric "mistake" is the inevitable result of the combination of realistic conventions with allegorical ones, for significant objects must be, as Mircea Eliade says of the Sacred, both objects in the world and their significance at the same time.
Hawthorne's "Wakefield" is a classic example of how the nineteenth century short story moves from mysterious event motivated by folk-tale wish-fulfillment, as it was in "Rip Van Winkle," to mysterious event motivated by psychologically-inexplicable obsessive behavior.  "Wakefield" is presented as journalistic truth found in a newspaper article.  However, although such an incident is "news" in the Boccaccio sense, a striking and novel event worth telling, Hawthorne is not merely interested in the strangeness of the event, but rather in the puzzle of its motivation.   Typical of the essayistic rumination grafted onto the short story by Irving, Hawthorne's narrator says the story of Wakefield has always excited wonder to his contemplation, and then asks the reader to join him in meditating on the event, "trusting that there will be a pervading spirit and a moral, even should we fail to find them, done up neatly, and condensed into the final sentence."
The usual method for trying to understand the motivation for such an event as Wakefield's departure would be to examine the character of the perpetrator.  However, the character exists only in the brief newspaper report which provides no practical explanations for his behavior.  Although the narrator hypothesizes that someone who would commit such an act must be characterized by a certain sluggishness of intellect, a lack of imagination, and a quiet selfishness, he is no more interested in a practical explanation for Wakefield's escapade than Poe is in a practical explanation for his characters' perverse behavior in such stories as "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Imp of the Perverse."  Like the narrator of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," who ignores a practical explanation for Ichabod Crane's disappearance (his mysterious conversation with Katrina at the end of the party) when a fantastically ambiguous explanation is waiting in the fictional wings, the narrator of "Wakefield" is not interested in practical explanations.  He does not pursue the kind of practical explanations for which the narrator in Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" frantically searches to account for Bartleby's perverse preferences.
In the narrator's reverie, Wakefield is no more, and no less, real than Lamb's dream children.  Thus, practical explanations such as anger at his wife, desire for another woman, or financial problems are not relevant.  The only motivation that the narrator can safely assume is that of impulse, a inexplicable momentary caprice to do something for the perverse pleasure of doing it.  Just as the narrator of "Bartleby" says he would need a folio to write about the class known as scriveners, the narrator says he wishes he had a folio to write instead of a brief article, for then he might "exemplify how an influence beyond our control lays its strong hand on every deed which we do and weaves its consequences into an iron tissue of necessity.  Wakefield is spell-bound."  Indeed, in the fiction that the narrator weaves around the strange and striking "real" event he has read in the newspaper, an act unmotivated by practical or psychologically explicable reasons, Wakefield makes a gesture that freezes him in time much the way Rip's desire to escape freezes him and Ambrose Bierce's character Peyton Farquhar's desire to escape freezes him.
Although "Young Goodman Brown" derives from the allegorical tradition, the tale is not pure allegory, for the event that dominates it--Brown's journey into the forest--seems to be both realistically motivated and story motivated at once.  The discourse is thus a compromise between these two kinds of motivation.  Moreover, Brown himself seems to be both a character typical of allegory, that is, a psychologized archetype, as well as an "as if" character who has his own psychological make up.  The compromise is established when Brown says he must go into the forest this one night of all nights in the year. Since there is no realistic motivation for Brown's journey into the forest, no indication that it is a social custom for everyone to make this journey in his turn, the "cause" of the journey must be  ritual or legend; the journey must be motivated by the nature of the underlying allegorical "story" from which this particular discourse derives.          However, Brown does not act like an allegorical figure, for indeed he "has scruples" about his "present evil purpose" in the forest and even considers turning back  An allegorical figure cannot challenge the code-bound structure of the allegory itself; he can only follow its preestablished demands. Moreover, the fact that the devil resembles Brown and that his words seem to spring from Brown himself suggest Goodman Brown is a realistic figure able to create mental projections, not an allegorical projection himself.
The allegory/realism compromise primarily turns on the most emphatic allegorical reference in the story--the name of Faith.  Although the narrator tells us that she is "aptly named," which might suggest the quality of being faithful rather than an allegorical embodiment of Brown's own Faith, each time her name is invoked in the story, it is a crucial turning point in the story's status as either allegory or realism, or both.  When Brown cries out, "With heaven above and Faith below, I will stand firm against the devil," he hears Faith's voice in the forest. When he cries out, "Faith!" and the forest echoes him, the ribbon comes floating down.  When he cries, "My Faith is gone. . . . There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name," he begins his mad dash through the forest.  
Finally, however, when he speaks to Faith directly, telling her to look up to heaven and resist the wicked one, the allegorical realm of the story is terminated, and Brown is once more back in everyday reality--prompting the narrator to ask the self-reflexive  question, "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?" Just as Ichabod Crane enters into a realm of story to become a fictional character, so too does Goodman Brown enter into an allegorical realm, which transforms him into the archetypal Puritan.

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