Earth Science BY CHEFKDOGG Hawthorne’s Black Man: Image of Social Evil It is a commonly accepted interpretation, in the study of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter , that all references to the Devil, Satan, or the Black Man are sim- ply images of a psychological evil, and not intended to suggest the existence of a realm of good and evil beyond the human. Nina Baym, for instance, author of an introduction to the novel, declares that Hawthorne wrote psychological fiction “before the field of psychology had developed and before fictional tech- niques had been developed to eflect this new knowledge” (10).
She suggests that he used the fantastical world of Puritan belief as a metaphor to describe the inner world of the soul. Neal Frank Doubleday makes a similar suggestion when he states that “Hawthorne uses witchcraft as a symbol of the will to evil” (256). John Stubbs points out that “Chillingworth, the human actor, appears to those in contact with him and to himself to take on a supernatural role” (1443). In other words, the author himself does not believe in the Puritan world view which sees supernatural, non-human agents of good and evil at work in the world, nfluencing the wills of human beings.
Nor does he expect his audience to do so; but he uses the vocabulary and the system of belief as a symbol for the evil which he does firmly believe exists in the human heart. He writes in such a way that a believer in the system would find nothing out of place, but a more skeptical reader can nonetheless accept the story on a psychological level and take it seriously. A careful study of the novel will show that the interpretations of several generations of critics have not been mistaken.
However, rather than attempting to prove what has lready been more skillfully treated, one can turn to the task of deepening this critical insight into Hawthorne’s understanding of human evil. It is one thing to say that he uses the metaphors of a Puritan world to portray a psychological reality; it is another to understand those metaphors as he uses them in reference to a social reality. Nina Baym points out that Hawthorne is writing psychological fiction, but his interest is not merely taken up by the struggle in the characters’ souls, although this is a main focus of the novel.
He is constantly referring them to the context of a society nd a world in which they take part and to which they are inescapably related. It does not seem far-fetched to declare that Hawthorne uses the symbols of Puritan religion to express the evil that inevitably exists in any society. The main image of this evil that threatens a whole community can be found in the mysterious figure of the Black Man. Hawthorne, as the author, never makes a statement as to his existence; all references to him exist simply in the mouths of the characters.
From them one can gather that he lives in the forest, outside of the city, nd that he carries a book and an iron pen which he offers to those whom he meets. If they inscribe their names, in blood, he places his mark on their bosoms. The Black Man cannot be identified with any one of the principal 274 characters, in spite of John Stubbs’s attempt to equate him with Chillingworth (1442); she has met him, she says that the scarlet letter is his mark; and one can only interpret this as a reference to her relationship with Dimmesdale and her act of adultery.
Chillingworth becomes like the Black Man as the story progresses, yet it eems that the original image keeps its integrity and refuses to be subsumed into the character. This is mainly because Hawthorne inserts, at various key points in the narrative, the scenes with Mistress Hibbins, the witch, in which she invariably speaks of the Black Man. Mistress Hibbins is unrelated to the main action of the story, to the psychological struggle of the four principal characters, but she remains an important fgure because she is the living instance of the social evil that is represented in the image of the Black Man.
She is, for Hawthorne, the link between the psychological and the social levels of his novel. Every time that she appears, it becomes clear that the characters to whom she speaks is in danger of losing whatever sense of communal goodness might still remain to them. What is the danger of the Black Man? He is the man who lives outside the community, incapable of entering. Those who meet him are those who have left the city and ventured into the wilderness of nature, where, as is abundantly clear, good and evil exist, but not in reference to the human person.
The person who ventures into that ilderness risks losing his connection to humanity, and the symbol of this is the blood that must be shed to sign the Black Man’s book. Something dies in the human being who ventures outside of the community, something is lost for ever, and the brand on the bosom is another image of this. Something in the heart is sealed away; and it is the ability to sacrifice oneself for the good of others.
This can be seen quite clearly in the person of Mistress Hibbins, whose only relationship to the people about her is one of constant temptation to similar evil, or of scandal to those who are pure. As Chillingworth grows more like the Black Man in appearance, he too becomes incapable of giv- ing anything but harm, even though he had at one time been a good doctor and a scientist who wished to benefit mankind.
The mark of the Black Man, which both Hester and Dimmesdale wear in their different ways, is the sign of disas- sociation from community, the sin which they committed in violating the laws of their society, and which they commit again in the desire to make themselves happy at the expense of everyone around them. The Black Man cannot enter the community, but e has his agents who live within it and poison it, breaking down its structure and making the people within it incapable of living well.
Hawthorne clearly understands the inability of the human being to live without the mutual support of others like itself. Psychological evil either results from, or is a cause of, evil within the larger sphere of society, which in turn goes on to cause even more evil in the souls of individuals. To those who would condone Hester’s sin, on the grounds that she knew love, Hawthorne presents the painful reality of the evil that arises from breaking the laws of the society. 275