Thursday, October 21, 2010

Short Stories and Social Commentary

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville wrote stories that had deeper meanings in relation to the societies that they were a part of. Specifically, "Young Goodman Brown" and "Bartleby, the Scrivener" have interesting social commentaries. Both of those stories also share relations to other authors, such as Franklin, Irving, and Edwards.

Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown" is a story of a man who's curiosity takes him to strange depths, inadvertently stripping him of his religious faith. He intends to merely take a small part in a clandestine meeting in the woods with unsavory characters. On the way, he sees more than just unsavory characters taking part in the meeting; the deacon of the church and even his wife are at the meeting over which presumably a demon resides. Upon the cessation of the meeting, Brown is not sure if the meeting was real or if it was only a dream. Either way, he is a deeply shaken and cynical man for the remainder of his life, never getting over his meeting the woods with the devil. Part of the social commentary made in this story would be a loss of innocence. Brown was sure of the morality of the people he cared for and respected, most importantly his wife, but he did not know what to think when confronted with their 'other' side, "There is no good on Earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given," (McMichael & Leonard, 2011). As a devout Puritan, the concept of black, white, and grey was beyond Brown; for him, there was only black and white. After his enlightenment in the woods about the duality of human nature, Brown saw only black.

Hawthorne's story has similar tones to the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Both stories have a dark, ominous tone that creates a sense with the reader that there is no happy ending to be had, only a series of interesting (if unfortunate) events.

In Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener", the narrator tells the story of 'the oddest man he's ever met'. The narrator hires Bartleby out of necessity, but is soon very sorry that he ever did so. Bartleby is by nature a depressed individual, but his work ethic is not in question until the day he utters the line "I would prefer not to". That becomes his mantra whenever any task is asked of him, until the day comes that he ceases to do anything at all. Even after his laziness hits its peak, he does not leave. Eventually, the narrator chooses to move his business rather than throw Bartleby out. Even with new tenants in the building, Bartleby does not leave.

He is jailed for his incessant loitering, later dying in jail because he 'preferred not to' eat the food that is offered. In reflection, Bartleby's choices may have not been the right ones because they led to his death, but from an objective point of view, Bartleby was able to do whatever he wanted. He could shun his boss, friends (not that he had any), and his jailers in favor of maintaining his free will. Jonathan Edwards wrote a story with a similar note about free will, "Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will", (Emery, 1976, p. 170). However, Melville's story could also be highlighting the fact that slovenly behavior could lead to a dire end.

Emery, A., M. (1976). The alternatives of melville's bartleby. Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Retrieved on October 21, 2010, from the JSTOR Database.

McMichael, G. & Leonard, J. S. (2011). Concise anthology of american literature. (Eds.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

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