Linda Brent And Nathaniel Hawthorne Essay, Research Paper
Understanding History for Hawthorne and Brent
Knowing and understanding social, political, and cultural history is extremely important when reading many novels, especially Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda Brent and any short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both of these authors had many extinuating circumstances surrounding their writings that should be noted before reading their works. Without knowing what was happening both in the outside world and in the respected author’s life, one cannot truly grasp what the author is trying to say or what the author truly means by what he or she is saying. In this paper, I will show how important it is for the reader to understand the social, political, and cultural happenings in the writer’s lives and in the world surrounding them during the times that their works were written.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an incredible example for what I am trying to show. This book was written during a time of extreme racial segregation and the hatred and cruelty shown, in general, towards blacks from whites is extremely important to understand before reading the story. This book tells the story of the life of a young, black, female slave in the south and focuses on trying to explain the trials, tribulations, and emotional and physical suffering that she, and many others like her, endured while being involuntary members of the institution of slavery. Brent, like every other victim of the atrocity we call slavery, wished those in north would do more to put a stop to this destructive practice. As she stated, slavery is de-constructive to all who surround it. It tears apart families; not just families raised in slavery, but the master’s family as well. How could the free men and women of the north remain silent while such a great atrocity is still in practice? Brent confronts her reader one on one in order to reemphasize her point. She uses the family and sentiment to appeal to and challenge the 19th century white women reader in order to effectively gain their support in the movement for abolition.
Understanding what was going on in our nation, in the southern states, and in the northern states is incredibly important when reading this story. Slaves were nothing more than property and, in many cases, were treated with less respect than the family dog. Nonetheless, most northerners did not know this. When white northerners would come down to see how the slaves were being treated, the plantation owners would put on a show (the plantation myth) for the northerners, pretending that the slaves were treated well, not beaten, and were living good lives. For the most part, Brent wrote this book to try and show northern whites what was really happening to the slaves in the south and to convince them that slavery was wrong and that something should be done to end this horrid institution. She was looking for northern women that would recognize that they have a duty and an obligation to put a stop to slavery in the south, the trading of slaves in the north, and the recapture of runaway slaves in the north. She not only wanted them to recognize this fact but she wanted them to act upon it and to take into their own hands the duty of putting a stop to the demoralizing, destructive way of life known as slavery. This way of life tainted all who took part in it with the horrid stench of evil. This evil stench of slavery was found both on the involuntary members of slavery and, most of all, the voluntary proprietors of the barbaric ritual known as slavery.
“O, what days and nights of fear and sorrow that man caused me!
Reader, it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully
what I suffered in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your
hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered.”
As represented above, Brent deemed it necessary to gain emotional support from her reader. She did this by writing in a way that allowed the reader to be drawn into acquiring a feeling of sympathy for both her and, as she states, her sisters in bondage. She tries to kindle in her readers a flame of passion that will be forever lit and slowly spread throughout the north. This flame that Brent wished to enlighten in the north, in accordance to her wishes, would put an end to the demoralizing institution of slavery. Without understanding the background and history of this time period, one cannot expect to draw nearly as much out of this story as someone else who knows the social, political, and cultural history that enveloped the world of slavery during this time.
A great example as to how important it is to know the social, political, and cultural history when understanding the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne can be seen by looking at the beliefs of Hawthorne, and many others, during the time his stories were written. Hawthorne was a transcendentalist for much of his life, though much of the rest of his ancestors were Puritan. Understanding these beliefs and ways of life makes it possible to understand where Hawthorne is coming from. Being a transcendentalist, Hawthorne believed in nature, the oversoul, self- reliance and non- conformity, intuition, social reform and in being idealistic and optimistic. However, his writing style does not really show this.
Hawthorne wrote in the same time period as Linda Brent, but his writing style was tremendously different and more individual, while showing an extreme preoccupation with secrets, guilt, and sin. No one is really sure as to why he wrote with such supernatural and dark imagination but some say that it had to do with his feelings towards his ancestors. This is another place where knowledge and understanding of Hawthorne’s past could help the reader understand what he was really trying to say. Many of Hawthorne’s ancestors were Puritans and much of his writing contains obvious Puritan beliefs. His grandfather was a judge who presided over the Salem Witch Trials and Hawthorne felt extremely guilty for what his grandfather had done. He felt so guilty and was so ashamed that he changed his last name, which was formerly Hathorne, by adding a “w”. A good example of the ancestoral guilt Hawthorne had can be seen in his short story, “Young Goodman Brown”.
In this work, through diverse symbolism, Hawthorne writes of a man who, in his coming of age, learns that there is darkness in everyone. Upon this coming of knowledge he is forever changed. Hawthorne describes Goodman Brown as a good Puritan who is devoted to his wife, Faith- a name Brown uses to shelter his soul from evil. Through Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorne writes of himself and how, when growing up, he learned of the darkness and wrongdoings of his ancestry.
Hawthorne utilizes symbolism to write a story that is purposely open and ambiguous to interpretation. It is rectified for one to perceive that Brown’s tribulations are directly related to Hawthorne himself. After taking the staff from the devil, Hawthorne remarks about the instinct guiding mortal man to evil rather than good. This is a direct statement from the author that he believes that man’s natural instinct is to lean towards evil rather than good. There are also numerous occasions in the story when Hawthorne questions his faith through Brown’s questioning his faith by listing the examples of religious infractions of his peers. It is wondrous how Hawthorne displayed his ancestral guilt through Young Goodman Brown and, without previous knowledge of his history and background, a novice reader would have never made this connection.
When reading Hawthorne, the reader should have an extensive knowledge and understanding of the ways of transcendentalists and of the background of Hawthorne’s life, as these two historical aspects are only a small piece of the history that allows the reader to probe into the deeper meaning of many of his stories. When reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, it is imperative to understand the history of slavery, what slaves went through, and how they fought, with every ounce of their being, to end the horrible atrocity known as slavery. As I have shown, reading any work by either one of these authors is, almost, a waste of time without knowledge of history, as the true, deep meaning of the stories cannot be revealed to the reader until he or she knows and understands the social, political, and cultural history of the authors, their respective groups, and of the time period in general.
Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1973. New York, NY. Harcourt Brace.
Hawthorne, Nathanial. Hawthorne’s Short Stories. 1946. New York, NY. Random House.