Separation of the individual in Hawthorn’s writing

April 6, 2008 by aaron

Through the short stories “The Man of Adamant”, “The Birthmark” and “The Minister’s Black Veil”, Hawthorne’s presents three ways that people control the external forces — society, nature, and the public self — that affect the internal self and illustrates the totality of an individual’s attempt to place themselves above or beyond the reach of others, but in doing so, it warns that the individual also separates themselves from the intrinsic parts of being human. Each of these three stories illustrates the destructive effects of a particular form of separation: “The Man of Adamant” focuses on the separation of the self from society, “The Birthmark” focuses the separation of science and nature, and “The Minister’s Black Veil” separates the inner and external self.

The flaws portrayed by Aylmer in “The Birthmark” and Digby in “The Man of Adamant” are fairly straightforward, but Hooper, in “The Minister’s Black Veil”, portrays one central theme with an infinite number of explanations which, by comparison, makes Aylmer and Digby seem rather simplistic and one dimensional in their behavior. Hooper’s black veil symbolizes the separation of the internal from the external, but the cause or reasoning behind the veil is nearly impossible to determine because it lends itself to so many different interpretations— the veil could just as easily be interpreted to allude to a secret sin on the part of Hooper, a symbol of the private lives people attempt to live, or a symbol of the separation an individual feels from society, but the most basic explanation is that Hooper’s veil represents the barrier that individuals creates to separate the internal and external world. Regardless of the reasoning for the separation, Hooper, like Aylmer and Digby, places himself outside the control of society, and the veil symbolizes his attempt to transcend the reach of mere mortals just as Aylmer’s science allowed him to transcend nature and Digby’s cave allowed him to transcend religion. These attempts at separation are not the works of learned men, but the work of the mean egotism which has griped these men allowing them to believe in their own innate superiority.

The egotism that Hooper, Aylmer and Digby display is excessive, but through their egotism, they vividly display the flaws that lead them to their excessive behavior and show the reader the fetters to achieving perfection. Digby attempts to gain perfection by secluding himself from the world with only his religion as company, but ends up dead unable to even commune with his god because this separation was one of mind, body and spirit. Similarly, Aylmer’s attempts to separate himself from nature resulted in the destruction of the perfection he was trying to achieve. Hooper, however, in trying to separate the internal and external world demonstrates the inability of such a separated individual to fully function in society, but while Hooper’s separation of the internal and external self met with mostly negative results, Hopper, unlike Digby and Aylmer, was able to achieve some good through his separation from society: in separating himself physically and emotionally from his peers, he caused them to examine their own perceptions of the internal self, but he also allowed them to ignore what they found and focus on the perception of his internal and external persona. Thus, to some extent, he was able to achieve a sort of perfection, in that no one was able to perceive his true inner self.

The struggle for a form of perfection is part of the intrinsic nature of these three protagonists, but for each they are unable to achieve the perfection they seek because of their own flawed nature. The flaws in their personal nature twists their sense of perfection, but their innate human nature makes it impossible for them to even achieve this flawed perfection, so although they believe they are entitled, through intellect or God, to move beyond the average person, they are unable to because the egotism that drives them is also their greatest flaw.

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