Rhetoric and Ritual

Discourses of Sacrifice and Violence in America

Of Hawthorne’s stories, “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” stand out as particularly dark and twisted examples of his craft. Concerned with the inherent violence of humanity, each text centers around a specifically tumultuous point in the history of America. Roughly thirty years after they were published, Hawthorne would explore the tumult of his own day in an article for The Atlantic. In it, he is repeatedly censored for his scandalous remarks about the war and his criticism of the rhetoric used by politicians to justify the brutality of the conflict. President Bush would unwittingly employ similar language to address the still reeling nation in the aftermath of the devastating attack on the World Trade Center, praising the “eloquent acts of sacrifice” that normal Americans had made, and denouncing the terrorists as “enemies of human freedom” (Bush). Little did he know the lasting impact his words would have on the face of the world, let alone the profound resonance they would share with his country’s troubled past. America is a nation built on ritualized violence, a reality Hawthorne knew all too well. Through an engagement with his writing we can begin to see how the history of the United States is entirely coloured by the blood of patriots and those they fought against, and why the matter of violence in America is just as relevant today as it was one hundred and fifty years ago.

Although the events of “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” occur at uniquely different moments in the history of America, Hawthorne constructs the narratives of each around a ritual. Considered by Catherine Bell as the “means by which individual perception and behaviour are socially appropriated or conditioned” (20), rituals are present in every culture, consciously and unconsciously, arising at points of change or conflict in a community. The mirroring of narrative progression in “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” emphasizes these stress points. Goodman Brown and Robin both set out in the late evening in search of something, Brown with an explicitly “evil purpose” (387) and Robin for his kinsman, the Major. Brown’s “narrow path” (387) through the woods mirrors the “succession of crooked and narrow streets” (1278), which Robin finds himself lost in. As he goes his way, Brown encounters a man “in grave and decent attire,” who “had an indescribable air of one who knew the world” (387). Likewise, Robin meets a “gentleman in his prime, of ... altogether prepossessing countenance” (1284). Brown’s companion is revealed to be the devil, and though the reader never discovers the identity of the gentleman in “My Kinsman,” his words and countenance echo that of his infernal doppelganger. Brown and Robin are both sidetracked, but are ultimately returned to the center of action by sound: Brown follows an “indistinct” noise (391) that becomes a “tempest ... pealing in awful harmony” in his ears (392); Robin the “dull, dreamy sound ... of [the] sleeping town” (1283) that builds to an “uproar” (1285). Brown thinks he hears his wife scream and is driven to madness, challenging the wind to “hear which will laugh loudest” of the two of them (392). Seeing his kinsman in “tar-and-feathery” (1287), Robin is swept up in the chaos, his laugh “the loudest there” (1288). Both “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” feature a naïve young man blundering in the dark who, through subtle prompting from a respectable figure, is led to madness and evil. It matters little that the two stories happen almost a hundred years a part, or that Brown and Robin are genuinely unsettled by their experiences: they cannot escape the social power of ritual.

In her study Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Catherine Bell cites the work of Clifford Geertz, emphasizing the distinction between “worldview” and “ethos” in the ritual process (26). Geertz defines “worldview” as the “most comprehensive ideas of order” that a society holds, and ethos as the “moral and aesthetic style and mood” with which a society engages the world (89). Bell and Geertz agree that ritual is simultaneously the function and product of the integration of these effectually distinct but complementary ideas (Bell 26, Geertz 90). For the people involved in the ritual, it provides “enactments, materializations, [and] realizations” of their worldview, taking an internally held belief and externalizing it in a public performance (Bell 28). But for both scholars, ritual is not important insofar as it provides meaning for its participants, but as a “window” into a culture for the outside observer (Bell 3). In order for a community’s worldview and ethos to be synthesized, they must be brought together in a ritual; in order for a ritual to affect its full power on a community, however, an outsider must be present to witness it.

Both Brown and Robin, then, are enablers of ritual in their stories simply by watching them unfold. In the process, they are inducted into the new community that emerges out of the experience. For Brown, his initial worldview, that appropriate for “honest men and good Christians” (388) is supplanted by the devil’s claim that “Evil is the nature of mankind” (394). The pagan “congregation” in the “shadow of the trees” makes it clear to him (393). For Hawthorne, Brown’s refusal to participate is irrelevant: he has been “undeceived” once and for all (394). The hatred and distrust with which Brown holds the rest of his village does the devil’s work for him, by dividing the community and allowing for a new system of ritual and belief to take hold. Brown is made a member of the new order by watching a performance of it. Similarly, in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Hawthorne sets up the worldview/ethos dichotomy right at the beginning, mentioning how the colonists “looked with most jealous scrutiny to the exercise of power” by their overlords, and the “slender gratitude” with which they repaid them (1276). Their worldview, their idea of order, is one of unlawful oppression, their ethos the moral imperative of revolution. They overthrow this system of social belief in favor of a self-deterministic future. Robin is coopted by the mob and watches as his kinsman passes by, “majestic still in his agony” (1288). The troubling thing is that Robin, unlike Brown, cannot fully comprehend what has happened. Brown knows what he set out to do, recognizes his “loathful brotherhood” with the devil’s congregation (393), and though the reader is never certain if he truly did see what he saw, Brown is convinced: “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tomb-stone; for his dying hour was gloom” (395). Robin, on the other hand, is not entirely certain of what he saw, and remains in Boston at the behest of the gentleman (1288). He does not even put up a fight. Hawthorne clearly likens the “fiends” of “My Kinsman” (1288) to the “fiend-worshippers” of “Young Goodman Brown” (394), but of this, Robin is painfully unaware. In both stories a new system of rituals replaces an old one, but by the time of pre-revolutionary America Hawthorne is concerned that the people involved do not understand that this is happening.

Chronologically, then, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” highlights a disturbing trend in the history of American ritual. It is a well-known fact that Hawthorne was distressed by the actions committed by his ancestors in the name of faith and piety, a concern that makes its way into the text of “Young Goodman Brown” (388). Looking at his own family history and the history of his country, Hawthorne sees how fear and hatred lead to violence, and how people had rationalized their actions through the lens of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. But by the time of the Revolution, America has become preoccupied with violence. The “sepulchral hems” of the old man Robin meets are like “a thought of the cold grave obtruding among wrathful passions” (1277), and there is “hostility in every countenance” at the tavern Robin enters (1279). People make threats and brandish weapons with an almost flippant disregard for the gravity of their actions (1276, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 86). And as already mentioned, the climax of the tale is a scene of utter barbarism (1287). Hawthorne mirrors the shift in ritual through his character’s actions and experiences. In “Young Goodman Brown” the foreboding atmosphere comes from the uncanny presence of the supernatural, and the obvious evil of the devil’s communion scene. But in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” the supernatural does not show itself—the only character who looks remotely evil is the two-faced man who, despite his terrifying appearance, is still decidedly human. Yet the procession in all its “counterfeited pomp,” “senseless uproar,” and “frenzied merriment” is just as, or even more terrifying than the “hell-kindled torches” of the devil’s communion. The evil of his countrymen repulses Hawthorne more than any devil.

The tarring-and-feathering of Major Molineux is just one expression of the evil of humans that has been repeated over and over again in the ritual of the “scapegoat” since antiquity, which several scholars identify as the driving force behind the text (Hoffman; Bronowski; Neumann). In Form and Fable in American Fiction, Daniel Hoffman discusses the “Scapegoat King ... a ritual role invested with two functions, the expulsion of evil and the sacrificial death of the divine ruler whose declining potency is renewed in his young successor” (118). In murdering Major Molineux, the people of Boston have symbolically “dethroned Order and rejected Tradition while under the aegis of the Lord of Misrule” (122-23). By overthrowing the colonial authority, the mob consecrates a new worldview of American independence, and instates the necessary ethos of violence to defend it. But Bronowski argues that, in establishing order, society sins against the “natural chaos” of the world and must make a sacrifice to appease it (37). Since the “guilt of society is that it is a society ... the guilty are those whose authority imposes order” (37). Thus we see the scapegoat king arising as a figure in a huge number of cultures, including America. Hawthorne’s use of such a classical motif, which he would have no doubt encountered in the literature of ancient Greece or Rome (www.anb.org), only intensifies the presence of the ritual in the text. Rather than moving forward, the American Revolution was, to Hawthorne, the reenactment of a primal human ritual on a grand scale.

Erich Neumann takes the scapegoat one step further, arguing that the communal representation of the figure is created in response to a personal, psychological anxiety with the “shadow,” which he considers to be “that part of our personality which is ‘alien’ to the ego, our own unconscious counter-position, which is subversive of our conscious attitude and security” (45). In “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne clearly lays out Brown’s conflict with the shadow—“all that was wicked in his heart” (393)—for the reader to see, but in “My Kinsman” the shadow is “exteriorized and subsequently destroyed” (Neumann 45) in the person of Major Molineux. The scapegoat arises in all cultures in some form or other, but the danger of the function, which Hawthorne understands implicitly, is that the “unconscious shadow element from which the collective is attempting to liberate itself ... has its fling once again in the very cruelty which accompanies the sacrifice of the scapegoat” (Neumann 47). For Hawthorne, the scapegoat ritual is in no way positive. Bronowski considers the scapegoating of the ruler to be the same “sequence at the inquisition against heresy and trials for witchcraft” (42). “To recant, to be abject, and yet to suffer”—this is the scapegoat’s duty (Bronowski 42). The murder of Major Molineux is the “gleam of a darker vision” (Bronowski 42), a vision with which Hawthorne contends in his writing.

By the time Hawthorne is writing his article for The Atlantic, “Chiefly About War Matters,” the darker vision has been realized. Ritualized violence has reached such an extreme in America that it has produced a culture of war and divided the nation in half. “There is no remoteness of life and thought,” Hawthorne writes, “into which the disturbing influences of this war do not penetrate” (1). He recounts a story that he and his companions hear while visiting a prison about the vicious murder of a Union soldier at the hands of a Confederate “fiend” (5). Hawthorne is gripped by the awful situation, that “any creature in human shape, in the Christian land where they had so recently been brethren,” could kill another person so callously (5). Rather than spare the wounded soldier’s life, the Confederate man “absolutely trampled the soul out of his body, as he lay writhing beneath his feet” (5). Hawthorne wants his readers to feel the full weight of violence. As in “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” he uses the word “fiend” to describe an evil man, and is appalled by the “savage instincts” which the “scent of blood excites” in humans (5). The Union soldier is surprised by his enemy’s cruelty, but Hawthorne is only wearied by it. It is the same pattern repeated over and over again: “Set men face to face, with weapons in their hands and they are as ready to slaughter one another now, after playing at peace and good-will for so many years, as in the rudest ages” (3). In “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne confronts the infancy of ritualized violence in early America, which, by the time of the Revolution in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” has become inextricably connected to the American ethos. With the writing of “Chiefly About War Matters” Hawthorne’s worst fear has come true. Robin’s naivety, like the “contagion” of the ravening mob (1288), has infected the entire country. Ritualized violence is not going anywhere.

Kathryn McClymond argues that, in societies where violence intrudes upon day-to-day life, a rhetoric of sacrifice is used to “legitimize and valorize the loss of life, liberty, and honor ... as a way of investing loss with meaning” (1). Thus, it was essential for the leaders of the Revolution to embed such a mode of thought in the social consciousness so as to preserve the new and fragile order they were fighting to establish. So firmly rooted is the rhetoric of sacrifice in the American worldview that, by 1862 when Hawthorne is writing his article, “Military merit, or rather, since that is not so readily estimated, military notoriety” has become the “measure of all claims to civil distinction” (1). In Goodman Brown’s America, civil distinction is determined by prominence in the church. His worldview is shaken when those people he thought most pious prove to be completely not. In Robin’s America, civil distinction is based on a man’s station within the colonial order, and he repeatedly tries to levy his relationship to the major to that effect. But as with Brown, Robin’s worldview is undermined when the very authority he estimates so highly is brought low. In Hawthorne’s America, then, the repeated, violent overthrow of outdated ideals has made the violent overthrow of outdated ideals a value in itself. Young men posture as soldiers “merely because captain, in these days, is so good a traveling-name” (Hawthorne 7). The language of sacrifice makes violence a jacket to be put on or off at a whim, transforming a necessary evil into a necessary good.

In his post 9/11 address, George W. Bush called the American people to remember the “warm courage of national unity” that Franklin Roosevelt spoke of years before, a “kinship of grief and steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.” Today, tired and cynical toward the war on terror, people look back on President Bush’s term with disdain, calling the military action in the Middle East reactionary, panic driven, a capitalist crusade. Critics forget that Bush was doing everything in his power to keep the people of his country from being reduced to cowering children by the shock of the most horrifying national catastrophe the country had ever experienced. As McClymond argues, the rhetoric of sacrifice is what enables authority figures to give meaning to loss, and call people to something greater than themselves. “They have attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender,” Bush says, “And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.” He is a appealing to a long tradition of American valor, the fighting spirit that has characterized the country, for good and for ill, since the beginning. There is little question that, if Hawthorne were alive today, he would have been among the former President’s most vocal critics, but the question still remains, was what Bush did completely wrong? As above, in moments of extreme cultural tension, the world over, rituals are produced spontaneously—they are an integral part of human existence. Hawthorne would have a hard time with the idea of violence as a “necessary good” but would the alternative be any better? We cannot say for certain what would have happened if Bush avoided the rhetoric of sacrifice, had refused to embrace the ritualization of violence, but in stepping back we are given a fuller picture of the debate than if we only ever listened to one viewpoint or the other. In Hawthorne we have the darkest, most terrifying examples of the human potential for evil, those “wrathful passions” (1277) that have produced so much suffering and bloodshed throughout history. But in Bush’s speech we have a brighter perspective, a positive view, and the hope of his closing statement: “God bless America.”

Works Cited

Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press. 1992. Print.

Bronowski, Jacob. “The Scapegoat King.” The Scapegoat: Ritual and Literature. Eds. John B. Vickery and J’nan M. Sellery, 1972. 36-42. Print.

Bush, George W. “Remarks at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service.” National Cathedral, Washington DC. 14 Sept. 2001. The American Presidency Project. Web.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 1973. Print.

Gollin, Rita K. “Hawthorne, Nathaniel.” American National Biography Online. 2000. Web.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Chiefly About War Matters.” The Atlantic. 1 July 1862. Web.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. B. Ed. Nina Baym. 7^th^ ed. New York: Norton. 2007. 1272 – 1288. Print.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. B. Ed. Nina Baym. 8^th^ ed. New York: Norton. 2011. 386-95. Print.

Hoffman, Daniel. Form and Fable in American Fiction. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia. 1994. Print.

McClymond, Kathryn. Beyond Sacred Violence. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. 2008. Print.

Neumann, Erich. “The Scapegoat Psychology.” The Scapegoat: Ritual and Literature. Eds. John B. Vickery and J’nan M. Sellery, 1972. 43-51. Print.

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