The Perfect Evil: Th e Theme of Evil in the Writing of Hawthorne and Melville

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Thomas J. Tobin

The Sacred and the Profane

Atlanta, Georgia

October 18, 1995

“The Perfect Evil: The Theme of Evil in the Writing of Hawthorne and Melville


In the fiction of the contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, we may trace certain themes throughout these men’s literary careers. The portrayal of the theme of evil is, in the cases of both Hawthorne and Melville, a good indicator of the literary maturity, the sense of style, which each writer had attained in the writing of any one work. Since Hawthorne got his start in fiction writing relatively late in life--and Melville rather early--it is interesting to note how the development of the theme of evil in both their ouvres runs parallel. The maturation of Hawthorne as a writer is recapitulated by Melville; each author follows a pattern which begins with a style heavily reliant upon explication, and ends up with a highly subtle, implication-driven prose style. To see how this recapitulation takes place, I wish to focus on one early and one later work from both authors. From Hawthorne, I have chosen the short story “Young Goodman Brown,” then his later The House of the Seven Gables. I will then turn to Melville’s early work Typee, and wrap up with a discussion of Billy Budd: Sailor. The study of the theme of evil in these four works, whose subjects, on the surface of things, vastly differ, will show how Melville’s career shadowed that of his friend and predecessor Hawthorne.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The manner in which Hawthorne puts forth the signs by which his readers may identify evil progresses from his early straightforward explication and symbol in “Young Goodman Brown” to the more implied, metaphor-laden passages about Judge Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables. I wish to trace both the explicatory and implicatory strategies, with respect to the theme of evil, in both of these works in order to show Hawthorne’s shift from the former to the latter as he matured as a writer.

Young Goodman Brown

Written in 1835 for Hawthorne’s collection of short stories tentatively entitled “The Story-Teller,” “Young Goodman Brown” is filled with straightforward images of evil and deception. An image which serves to shed light on the explicatory nature of the evil doings in the story is the running color metaphor of Faith’s pink ribbons and the Devil’s black staff.

The explicatory material in “Young Goodman Brown” is especially heavy-handed. Hawthorne, it seems, does not want his reader to miss his symbols, so he puts them in the foreground of the action of the story, drawing them large and repeating them often. The contrast between the pink hair ribbons of Goodman Brown’s wife and the black staff of the devil is an especially easy-to-spot pair of symbols which Hawthorne includes, over and over, to illustrate his theme of the perception of evil. Indeed, these two images are by far the most-often-mentioned ones in the story; Faith’s pink ribbons come floating down at Goodman Brown six times during the course of the action, and the devil’s staff is mentioned in five instances (Wagenknecht 60). Richard Fogle calls these two symbols evidence of the story’s “ambiguity of meaning and clarity of technique” (24). Faith’s pink ribbons serve as a visual reminder of Goodman Brown’s “old” manner of thinking, his trust in the essential goodness of human beings (Hawthorne, Sketches 141). If Faith’s pink ribbons are the outward symbol of Goodman Brown’s erstwhile beliefs, than the black staff of the devil, “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost to be seen as to twist and wriggle itself, like a living serpent” (135) is their counterpart, showing, through the outward image of the writhing serpent, Goodman Brown’s now-subjective morality.
The House of the Seven Gables

In contrast to the more concrete and more explicitly depicted “Young Goodman Brown” is Hawthorne’s later romance, The House of the Seven Gables. By 1850, he had already come to define his purpose in writing:

to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of today, and thus to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualize the burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters, with which I was now conversant.(Hawthorne in Wagenknecht 97)

The words to pay attention to in this passage are “diffuse” and “hidden.” The underlying structure, the psychological drama, has become the ultimate aim of his romances, and it shows in the increasing amount of implied thematic material in The House of the Seven Gables.

There is a much greater portion of implied action and authorial pontificating than in “Young Goodman Brown.” While that earlier work relied heavily on its concrete details and its imagery to give the reader an inroad toward a final meaning, in The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne implies the nature of the narrative: Holgrave tells his history of Alice Pyncheon as a narrative-within-a-narrative meta-commentary. This switch from relying heavily upon explication to the more subtle device of implied theme shows Hawthorne’s maturation as a writer.

This implied tone surfaces in the allegory of Alice Pyncheon. Hawthorne writes this segment as issuing from the mouth of Holgrave, which serves as a meta-commentary on the “hidden” theme of the entire book. The story of Alice Pyncheon is at once both the problem of the romance and its solution, in an allegorical form. Matthew Maule hypnotized Alice Pyncheon for his own gains; Holgrave mesmerizes Phoebe unintentionally. Matthew was searching for the deeds to the land held by the Pyncheons in Maine; Holgrave finds them. Matthew Maule decides to use his hypnotic power to continue the feud between the families; by deciding not to use his, Holgrave “breaks the chain” of the Maule’s curse. Nowhere in the course of his narrative on Alice does Holgrave explicitly state the theme of revenge as a cyclical occurrence. Nowhere in the ending of the book does Hawthorne explicitly state this theme either.

How, then, can we finally evaluate the manner in which Hawthorne seems to have matured as a writer? It is tempting to say that his style changed between the “Young Goodman Brown” of 1835 and The House of the Seven Gables of 1850. Such a view is tempting because of the shift in focus from the explicatory to the implicatory in his writing. It might be more correct to say “addition” than “shift.” The elements of explication so plentiful in “Young Goodman Brown” are still there in The House of the Seven Gables, but they are overshadowed by Hawthorne’s mastery of the subtler techniques of implication. This progression from explication to implication can also be seen in the way in which Herman Melville matures as a writer.
Herman Melville

Melville's opinions about the morality of the actions taken by his characters are nearly always expressed in his writing, often as an aside from the author to his readers. As a signifier by which to watch the development of Melville’s style, the theme of evil is a very consistent indicator of the maturity with which Melville writes. The way in which Melville’s writing career progresses is most evident in a comparison of the external, xenocentric, explicatory criticism of the eponymous race of savages in Typee and the more introspective, personal, implied narrative of Billy Budd. Melville uses both implication and explication to develop his themes in both of these works, but the earlier Typee uses far more explication, just as his last work, Billy Budd, relies most heavily on an implicatory strategy to posit its thematic meaning.


Typee was written in 1846, a first effort from a twenty-five-year-old salt who was fresh from the four years in which he inhabited a cannibal island, manned a whaler, and served aboard a U.S. frigate. This tale from the South Seas was only incidentally wrought: a friend of Melville suggested that he write down his large collection of verbal yarns (Melville, Typee 310). Typee is filled with very literal images and passages of description, as befitted the “sailor-ly” tone of the book. Consequently, the images of evil are very straightforward. When the narrator of the story suspects something or someone of wicked intentions, the reader is immediately made aware. This explicatory structure made for rather interesting reading in Melville’s day (Arvin 55), whereas the story is today considered weaker than, say, Moby Dick, because of this very abundance of surface detail.

One explicatory “evil” passage which stands out in Typee, wherein the narrator finally realizes the cannibalistic tendencies of the Typee.

Chapter 32 contains the most striking example of Melville’s baldly explicatory prose style: the narrator realizes that the Typee are indeed cannibals. Follow the series of straightforward statements in this passage, whose running head reads simply “Apprehensions of Evil”:

One of the three [packages] I distinctly saw. It was in a state of perfect preservation, and from the slight glimpse I had of it, seemed to have been subjected to some smoking operation which had reduced it to the dry, hard, and mummylike appearance it presented. . . . Two of the three were heads of islanders; but the third, to my horror, was that of a white man. . . . Gracious God! what dreadful thoughts entered my mind! In solving this mystery perhaps I had solved another, and the fate of my lost companion might be revealed in the shocking spectacle I had just witnessed. (258-9)

This passage leaves no doubt as to the evil nature of the Typee. They are cannibals; they are foreign; they are evil. The appearance of the shrunken head of a white man in the hut of the narrator’s host, coupled with a lost friend who has been gone more than a month, are enough for the narrator to draw a connection. That his suspicions turn out to be unfounded is of little import. That the evil of the islanders is pronounced loudly, large, in bold declarations and accusations--this is the style which characterizes Melville’s early works.

The evil of the Typee is that of the ignorant: they do not know that they are evil, until the whites come in to comment on it. That is, however, another paper entirely. This comment, whether it is couched in the explicit statements characteristic of Typee, or in the more subtle tones that Melville adopts at times, is continued and refined in Melville’s last work, Billy Budd.

Billy Budd

In contrast to the more popular Typee, Melville’s last work, Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), was finished1 before Melville’s death in 1891, but not released to the public until it was published posthumously in 1924, and can be said to represent the terminus of his literary style, both literally and figuratively.

In Billy Budd, the instances of implied evil are numerous, but one passage exemplifies Melville’s care in the construction of a psychological, implied evil: the manner in which Captain Vere is described as mentally unsound.

Melville’ never directly uses description of Vere’s thoughts to illustrate this, but rather implies it, in such statements as these:

Captain Vere did not permit himself to be unduly disturbed by the general tenor of his subordinate’s report. (93),

--“It is the divine judgement on Ananias! Look! . . . But Captain Vere was now again motionless, standing absorbed in thought. Again starting, he vehemently exclaimed, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (100-1), and

--[The surgeon] recalled the unwonted agitation of Captain Vere and his excited exclamations, so at variance with his normal manner. (102)

Indeed, Budd’s drumhead-jury is all for acquitting him, yet Captain Vere convinces them to sentence Budd to death (110). These passages hint that Vere is slightly unhinged, both by the enormity of the situation at hand, and by the possible consequences of acquitting Billy, in light of the recent Nore mutiny (112). The implicatory stance of these passages can be summed up in the reference to Ananias. Readers familiar with the Bible may remember the verses in Acts:5 where Ananias dares God to strike him down, and God kills him with a bolt of lightning. This use of allusion and implication marks Melville as a more mature writer.


The manner in which both Hawthorne and Melville matured as writers strongly suggests an affinity between the two. Indeed, the two writers knew each other well, and Melville ofetn used sketches which Hawthorne had done as the bases for sections of his own longer works.2 There is ample evidence that the literary career of Herman Melville followed much the same path as did that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, though the two men came to writing from such different backgrounds. Both began as explicatory writers, moving slowly into the more subtle form of implied meaning. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Melville’s writing style does indeed recapitulate that of Hawthorne, and we can most easily see this progression through an examination of the theme of evil in the works of both men.

End Notes

Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. New York: Viking, 1950.
Baym, Nina. The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1976.
Brown, Nina Eliza. A Bibliography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Johnson, 1968.
Cady, Edwin H. & Budd, Louis J. On Hawthorne. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.
Chase, Richard. Herman Melville: A Critical Study. New York: MacMillan, 1949.
---, ed. Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Crews, Frederick C. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes. New York: Oxford UP, 1966.
Dauber, Kenneth. Rediscovering Hawthorne. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977.
Doubleday, Neil Frank. Hawthorne’s Early Tales: A Critical Study. Durham: Duke UP, 1972.
Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and the Dark. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1952.
---. Hawthorne’s Imagery: The Proper Light and Shadow in the Major Romances. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1969.
Gilman, William H. Melville’s Early Life and Redburn. New York: New York UP, 1951.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.
---. “Young Goodman Brown.” Selected Tales and Sketches. Introd. by Michael J. Colacurcio. New York: Penguin, 1987. 133-148.
Hayword, Harrison. Afterword. Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life During a Four Month’s Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas. New York: Signet, 1964.
Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. New Haven: College and University P, 1963.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). Eds. Harrison Hayword and Merton Sealts, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962.
---. The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 1971.
---. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life During a Four Month’s Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas. New York: Signet, 1964.
Milder, Robert. Critical Essays on Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
Minnigerode, Meade. Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville and a Bibliography. New York: Brick Row Bookshop, 1922.
Mumford, Lewis. Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision. Revised. New York: Harcourt, 1929.
Stewart, Randall. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1948.
Taylor, J. Golden. Hawthorne’s Ambivalence Toward Puritanism. Logan: Utah State UP, 1965.
Turner, Arlen. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.
Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne: A Critical Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1955.
---. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1962.
---. The Presence of Hawthorne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Man, His Tales and Romances. New York: Continuum, 1989.

1Whether Billy Budd was a finished product, or was interrupted in medias res by Melville’s death is a topic of some debate among scholars. I wish to set that argument aside here, and treat the definitive text published by Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts, Jr. as a completed work.

2See the Norton Critical Edition of Melville’s The Confidence Man for some examples of such borrowing. Especially relevant are the sections concerning Hawthorne’s description of a beggar (230) and a juvenile salesman (231), which Melville seems to have made directly into incarnations of the Confidence Man.

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