There was a time when majority of Americans were preoccupied with religion. Well, it can also be argued that even in the 21st century most Americans are still into religion but nothing compares to the sincere devotion and strict adherence to religious precepts by those who lived a century ago. They were sometimes called Puritans or Quakers or simply devout Christians.
And the atmosphere of religious zeal influenced every fabric of society and as a result literary figures in that era and even those who rose to prominence in the early part of the 20th century could not help but write about God, his saints, and the consequences of righteousness or sin. As far as literature is concerned everything turn out for the good for in the same age classical works flowed from the pens of great writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shirley Jackson. Two of their respective works will be analyzed in this study.
This paper will take a closer look at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown and try to understand it using basic rules of characterization. The proponent of this paper will also try to figure out what Hawthorne was trying to say to his generation and the implications of such insights in today’s world. Moreover, another classical work will be examined, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson as it is also one of great works out there with religious undertones and yet complicated enough to challenge even the most wary of readers. Characterization
It is a fact that it is much easier to describe what happened to the characters in the story rather than to describe the characters as in doing a characterization. Arp, Johnson and Perrine were able to put it succinctly when they made the following remarks: Analyzing characterization is more difficult than describing plot, for human character is infinitely complex, variable, and ambiguous. Anyone can summarize what a person in a story has done, but a writer needs considerable skill and insight into human beings to describe convincingly who a person is.
Even the most complicated plot in a detective story puts far less strain on our understanding than does human nature (2006). To aid in the understanding of the characters in the two short stories, British novelist E. M. Forster pointed out that there are two types of characters: 1) flat and 2) round ( see Arp, Johnson and Perrine, 2006). Flat characters were never developed by the author for a reason and one reason is to allow the reader to focus on the protagonist of the story.
Round characters on the other hand are described more in detail and the author allowed more space to describe the development of this particular character because in most cases they are the main characters. It is interesting to note that while a typical story requires the presence of both flat and round characters there are others that can still be as effective even if the story is populated with only “flat” characters. This is the case with Jackson’s The Lottery according to Arp, Johnson and Perrine (2006).
And indeed it is interesting as to how Jackson was able to get away with, presenting the reader with only two dimensional characters lacking depth and juicier details that would have satisfied the curiosity of the reading public. But Jackson was not deterred and it added to the power of the narrative about a small town agog about a game of chance with lethal consequences. The Lottery Now, there may be some who will disagree with the idea that Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece has religious undertones.
Well, that is understandable because there is no mention of any deity in the story. In fact the only major landmark that the author pointed out was the post office and the bank in the middle of the town, suggesting that it is a typical small town during that time. On the other hand it is very clear that Shirley Jackson was trying to economize in her use of words and she omitted the obvious knowing fully well that the audience are well aware that America during this period are very used to another major landmark aside from the two already mentioned.
The fact that Jackson did not mention the Church building speaks loudly about her assumptions – the audience already knew the people in the narrative were religious, if not deeply religious. But there is also another reason why one can deduce religious undercurrents and it is the usage of stoning a person to death – or simply stoning her to cause extreme amounts of pain as no one knows if the character died or not – as a ritual to satisfy a religious command.
Again, others may counter that Hutchinson was stoned not because it was a religious edict but simply because the people were irritated by her complaints. But there are other evidences that will point to the contrary first of all the stones were already prepared beforehand. The instrument of death was conveniently located where the people can have access to it – piled near the square. Secondly, the word lottery has nothing to do with its modern connotations of grand prizes and multi-millionaire winners. No, on the contrary it was a mechanism to single out a person from a group.
And one is reminded of Biblical story where Achan a soldier in the Israelite army refuses to confess his sins, a “drawing of lots” had to be done to figure out who among the multitudes was guilty of a despicable sin. In the Biblical narrative the offending party had to be narrowed down by first finding out what clan and then what family and finally the lot fell to Achan. Now, there is just so much similarity. In Jackson’s tale it was narrowed down to the Hutchinson family and then finally it was narrowed down to the mother, Tessie Hutchinson.
And that explains the reason for concluding that religion is the basis for stoning the woman in the story. The attempt to get a good grasp of the story can sometimes become frustrating. And there is only one simple explanation, there is a scarcity of information or seen from another angle there is too much information but not enough to make any connections. For instance there is the Dunbar family which was placed in the narrative for a purpose but it is not obvious to the reader as to the exact reason why Jackson included them in the narrative.
But the simpler explanation is really the dearth of information that gives plenty of room for speculation and the possibility of getting lost in one’s thoughts as he or she tries to piece it all together. Very little is known about the characters in fact it is very hard to determine which one is the main character. Others would conclude that the heroine was Tessie Hutchinson because it can be argued that she was murdered unjustly as a result of a game of chance. But prior to the stoning there was nothing written to help the readers achieve a deeper understanding of Mrs. Hutchinson’s character.
When things began to make sense, the story was ended abruptly. Now, others praise the economy of words and infer that it must have been designed that way to create a modern day parable but even going this route does not satisfy because a basic study of parables does not leave a person wanting for more. In fact Biblical parables although much shorter than Jackson’s tale does not leave the audience guessing as to what was the moral of the story.
In the popular Sunday school parable of a The Foolish Builder – a man who decided to build on sand was rewarded with calamity as the shifting foundation could not hold up the recently completed structure. At the end of the story, those who are eager to listen were admonished to build on the rock which is more stable and much stronger than sand – and no one can miss that lesson. But in the lottery story what was the point of all that? Some critics find common ground in saying that the moral of the story is to resist the evil of herd mentality where the power of the mob rules over reason and also the stupidity of not questioning traditions.
Beach et al. explains this phenomenon, “The townspeople blindly adhere to community traditions regardless of their destructiveness; when some townspeople begin to question this practice, noting that a nearby town discontinued the lottery, an older man comments, ‘We’ve always had a lottery’, reflecting blind adherence to status quo community norms” (2006). This is an acceptable argument but there are still some unanswered questions, such as whether the stoning was part of the tradition or was it merely a violent reaction to Mrs. Hutchinson’s protest?
Young Goodman Brown Although Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work is arguably a byproduct of genius it can be said that this one is easier to understand than Jackson’s short story. In Young Goodman Brown the reader is taken to familiar territory. There is one round character and a host of flat characters whose interactions blends well to create a fictional world able to instruct the reader about the danger of falling away from their faith. Unlike the previous work of fiction there is a wealth of background information that can be used to fully understand Hawthorne’s work.
For instance Michael McCabe research allowed a glimpse into old world America where Puritans were a great influencer of society and McCabe wrote, “Puritan doctrine taught that all men are totally depraved and require constant self-examination to see that they are sinners and unworthy of God’s grace. Because man had broken the covenant of works when Adam had eaten from the tree … God offered a new covenant to Abraham’s people which held that election to Heaven was merely a possibility” (1998). This piece of information illuminates, it gives the reason as to why the story was told that way.
Goodman Brown was vexed with an almost schizophrenic existence always suspicious and imagining that everyone around him is not one hundred percent sincere with their motives and this is because he is merely reflecting the anguish he is feeling inside as a result of the legalistic pressure coming from the Puritan society. Conclusion Two works of fiction can be compared and contrasted by simply studying the characters. In Jackson’s masterpiece all the characters are flat characters and she did not allow one to develop more fully than the others. It was already late into the story when the reader realized the importance of Mrs.
Hutchinson and by that time the story was ended abruptly. This technique added to the popularity of the story as more and more people find it a challenge to interpret it correctly. On the other hand Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is very much interesting in two ways. The first one is due to its ability to bring the audience into a place where he can get a glimpse of what America was like a few centuries ago; the impact of religion constructive and destructive – able to build and at the same time destroy if paranoia and legalism are allowed to roam free.
Secondly, Hawthorne was able to demonstrate his genius by manipulating rules about characterization. It has been said that flat characters need no further description because the reader had enough stock knowledge about this type of character. For instance the Sheriff is tough and yet fair, a symbol of law and order. But in the story of Goodman Brown the flat characters did not stay true to the assigned roles. The minister did not stay pure but became the leader of the witch coven and that the pure young ladies in Church where actually guilty of abortion.