Fiction often clarifies our thinking about moral quandaries, distilling muddy waters into clear ones and dissecting our common human experience. The stories of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne do just this.

In the scope of American literature, Melville and Hawthorne reflect both the reasoning of the Enlightenment and the emotional and spiritual influence of the British Romantics. Many Romantics felt that the power of the emotions, spiritual intuition, and even biblical belief could not be ignored. A belief in God and the belief that man is born sinful were essential elements of their thought. This understanding of an imperfect and fallen man weighs heavily in Melville’s and Hawthorne’s writings. Each author’s work reflects a keen and discerning sense of morality, as is reflected in their masterpieces, Billy Budd and The Scarlet Letter.

One of the many ways in which this morality is expressed is in the use of language itself, specifically as characters are described. In Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, for instance, the narrator paints Billy as a good man, one gifted with influence and physical beauty. Before Billy even serves on the Indomitable, the lieutenant of The Rights of Man declares that “virtue went out of” Billy and “sugared” his crew.[1] He further emphasizes that the inherent goodness of Billy is enough to change the negative environment in his ship’s foretop. As the story progresses, the narrator adds to Billy’s physical description. Billy is quickly called “Baby Budd” because of his apparent youthfulness.[2] Claggart and the Dansker, too, call him “Baby.”[3] And he’s described as “welkin-eyed,” implying that his gaze and eyes are practically heavenly in their blue tone.[4] “He was young… and had a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face, all but feminine in purity.”[5] His skin is described as “lily” white with a suggestion of a rose blooming beneath the surface when he flushed.[6] The very adjectives of smooth, purity, lily, and rose hint at ideals of physical perfection. Melville even goes so far as to epitomize Billy as a Greek sculpture, a masculine beauty, the Handsome Sailor,[7] attributing a physical and even spiritual sense of goodness.

Melville also suggests that Billy exudes a natural grace, “another pervasive quality.”[8] There is “something in the mobile expression and every chance attitude and movement, something suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces.”[9] Thus Melville further intimates that Billy was born of nobility out of wedlock, attributing his naturally elegant mannerisms and physical beauty to his possible bloodline. Melville’s descriptions of Billy’s mannerisms in combination with those of his appearance magnify the reader’s awareness of his innocent nature. He appears as an ideal, representing the good in man.

In much the same way Nathaniel Hawthorne creates a fellow protagonist in The Scarlet Letter who appears good and even holy by his physical mannerisms. Hawthorne portrays Arthur Dimmesdale as a devout Puritan minister as he’s first called “godly Master Dimmesdale” and a “godly youth” known for “eloquence and religious fervor.”[10] “He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow” and “large, brown melancholy eyes.”[11] He “kept himself simple and childlike,” and when occasion called for him to speak, Dimmesdale possessed “a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought.”[12] These mannerisms affected the people as if he were an angel. Hawthorne declares that he shares a “brilliant popularity” and rising “fame,” for the Puritans “fancied him the mouth-piece of Heaven’s messages.”[13]

As Hawthorne’s description continues, it is evident that much of the good in Dimmesdale is revealed when he speaks. For example, when he publicly addresses Hester at the beginning of the novel, even his voice is “tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken,” evoking a sympathy within the audience of townspeople. Later, at the Governor’s house, Hester knows to appeal to him to defend her and Pearl, for once again, as Dimmesdale addresses his fellow leaders, his voice is “sweet, tremulous, but powerful.”[14] However, this evidence of goodness is sparse in comparison to the description of numerous frailties within Dimmesdale. We soon discover that underneath his appearance of goodness lies blatant sin.

With both of Melville and Hawthorne’s seemingly innocent characters, the reader soon becomes aware of the realistic flaws within Billy Budd and Arthur Dimmesdale. For Billy, the reader first realizes he’s not a stereotype of perfection when Melville describes Billy’s inclination to defend himself when the sailor of the Red Whiskers literally digs at his ribs. Billy immediately reacts with a blow and proceeds to “give the fool a terrible drubbing.”[15] The reader now knows that Billy does have a temper, and even skill to fight when needed, yet Red Whiskers and the other sailors now love and respect him. Ironically, the lieutenant recounting the tale terms Billy “a fighting peacemaker.”[16]

For Dimmesdale though, the appearance of weakness is not as concrete, but more comprehensive. Hawthorne does not identify a set flaw but instead recounts a physical change. By the time Dimmesdale is seen at the Governor’s house, Hawthorne describes him as “pale, holding his hand over his heart… in agitation… more careworn with emaciated large eyes with a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth,” for his health had begun to fail.[17] His voice, too, now has “a melancholy prophecy of decay.”[18] Every week, Dimmesdale is “paler and thinner” and “voice more tremulous.”[19] In a similar vein, another notable flaw in Billy Budd is his speech impediment, which Melville terms “a vocal defect.”[20] Melville intentionally describes it for the reader before the reader ever witnesses it. It’s as if Melville wants the reader to see Billy’s humanity, to sway the reader’s judgment as he presents him as the imperfect, and thus tragic, hero. Dimmesdale, too, shares a physical deformity, for his inner struggle is illustrated by a mark or brand upon his breast, first witnessed secretly by Roger Chillingworth then later in public at the final scaffold scene.[21] These contrasts further magnify the sense of good in Billy and Dimmesdale. As both stories unfold, however, our characters also awaken to evil, because evil must be present to evince the strength of the good.

Perhaps the strongest instance in which Billy becomes aware of the evil in man is when Claggart directly accuses him of mutiny before Vere. When Billy is first summoned to Vere’s cabin, he is described as one of an “immature nature,” for he did not have the ability to discern Claggart’s intent at that moment.[22] Upon hearing Claggart’s words, Billy’s normally pleasant countenance is transformed into a pall of “white leprosy.”[23] Melville adds another simile and compares him to “one impaled and gagged.”[24] Here, Billy’s mute response and physical agitation imply that the very accusation coupled with his acute but belated understanding of Claggart flaunt his innocent nature against the present evil. For the reader, Melville’s contrast of this dark moment illuminates the trusting innocence of Billy more than any physical description could. Melville has not only chosen words to characterize Billy, but he has also literally shown the reader Billy’s very nature.

Like Billy, Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale eventually becomes fully aware of the evil working against him. From the beginning, before the truth of Chillingworth’s relationship is ever revealed, Hawthorne employs the arcane use of the title “leech” for Dimmesdale’s physician, intimating the desperate, clinging nature of the evil now attached to Dimmesdale.[25] Unknown to Dimmesdale, Chillingworth pointedly displays a “quiet depth of malice” and plots an “intimate revenge.”[26] Chillingworth further describes his intentions as torture, declaring that Dimmesdale will be “forever on the rack” all to exact a revenge for Hester’s adultery with Dimmesdale. Apparently, the combination of Chillingworth’s insidious behavior and Dimmesdale’s internal remorse literally lead to Dimmesdale’ mental breakdown.[27] Yet, Dimmesdale only suspects that Satan is working through Chillingworth. His internal guilt is so great that he assumes Chillingworth’s inquisitions are divinely meant to compound his turmoil.

By novel’s end, only when Hester reveals her true relationship with Chillingworth does Dimmesdale know the truth and is overcome by “a dark transfiguration.”[28] Like Billy, Dimmesdale is shocked into an acute knowledge of the evil that has been working against him for a period of years. This revelation is more damaging than Billy’s awakening though. Billy had been stunned into immediate and uncharacteristic action with a violent blow and a consequential death sentence, but Dimmesdale doesn’t act on this revelation at all. Though he is persuaded by and agrees to Hester’s plan of escape, Dimmesdale is already damaged by years of Chillingworth’s psychological abuse. Hester says that the continual presence of Chillingworth had kept “the sufferer’s conscience in an irritated state… which disorganized and corrupted his spiritual being.” The result “could hardly fail to be insanity, and hereafter, that eternal alienation from the Good and True.”[29] Thus, with an eternal consequence, Hawthorne clearly exposes the final import of good and evil.

This theme of good and evil is essential to understanding Melville and Hawthorne’s sense of morality both in their novels and in their characters. Goodness or innocence is never defined as perfectly attainable. Dimmesdale even says, “As concerns the good which I may appear to do, I have no faith in it. It must needs be an allusion,”[30] though he had briefly held hope and possible redemption in a future with Hester and Pearl.

The nature of goodness, then, is that it can exist in imperfection, and yet it can also produce the fruit of further goodness from such an impure and sinful source as man.

For our authors, evil clearly works against the nature of goodness in man and society, whether on a ship or in a Puritan village, and evil is most evidently embodied in the form of man. Claggart and Chillingworth represent the persistent and gnawing presence of evil in society, always hounding their prey in a systematic manner. But, Melville and Hawthorne do intimate that at one point in their lives, these villainous characters were once other men, men worthy of and capable of good. Regardless of their actions and the degree of their imperfect natures, Claggart, Chillingworth, Billy, and Dimmesdale share this capability.

It is this aspect of morality that validates a hope shared by Melville and Hawthorne, a premise that all men are worthy of redemption, even if they don’t seek it. For instance, Melville juxtaposes Billy and Claggart in conversation, depicting Claggart’s fascination with Billy’s innocent nature, for he would “fain have shared it.”[31] In spite of his evil intent, Claggart, too, is inexplicably drawn to goodness. He will not acknowledge it, however, and this hidden nature predicts a possibility that Claggart could change, could be redeemed. Likewise, Hawthorne portrays Chillingworth’s humble nature early in his narrative when he claims fault for Hester’s moral failure. Chillingworth proclaims, “It was my folly!” and “Mine was the first wrong.”[32] Chillingworth is not yet and never does become wholly evil, for though he is partly responsible for Dimmesdale’s destruction, he does bequeath monies and property to Pearl, one not of his own blood, upon his death.[33] These hints of humility and generosity suggest Chillingworth still has good within him.

Both authors plainly portray antagonists who retain elements of goodness, who never fully embrace evil, yet at the same time, never turn to a life of righteousness and goodness. Thus Claggart and Chillingworth symbolize the highly imperfect and fallen condition of man—those who are capable of good, even hunger for it, but never attain a redeemed or forgiven state.

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[1] Herman Melville, Billy Budd & Other Stories (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Classics, 1998), 232.

[2] 230.

[3] 251.

[4] 230.

[5] 235.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 235, 237, 253.

[8] 235.

[9] 235-236.

[10] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005), 53, 56, 57.

[11] 57.

[12] Ibid.

[13] 117, 118.

[14] 94.

[15] Melville, 232.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hawthorne, 94, 97.

[18] 97.

[19] 101.

[20] Melville, 237.

[21] Hawthorne, 114, 209.

[22] Melville, 272.

[23] 273.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Hawthorne, 106.

[26] 116.

[27] 128.

[28] 161.

[29] 115.

[30] 158.

[31] Melville, 257.

[32] Hawthorne, 63.

[33] 213.

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