The Calamitous Characteristics of Romantic Corruption

In modern society, “corruption” connotes financial bribery, dishonest proceedings, or underhanded deals in business or politics. The perpetrators might waste others’ money and will supposedly suffer emotionally, but Romantic literature points out the more dangerous effects of internal corruption. For example, “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne each shed light on the paths of corruption undertaken by the main characters. On the surface, the Narrator of “The Black Cat” and Goodman Brown lead comfortable lives filled with goodness and love; their wives represent these positive ways of living. As each plot uncoils, the characters experience corruption through temptation, thereby causing them to internally change and view the world with a more sinister frame of mind. They both attempt to resist the corruption, but ultimately both submit to the dark force. Although the moral journeys of the two characters appear to mirror each other, in fact, the causes of their corruption and the changes they experience differ remarkably between. Their different ordeals ultimately cause each character to shun others’ love for different reasons. While each author pens a unique story of his character’s demise, Hawthorne and Poe both demonstrate how a primitive human desire can be the ultimate root of temptation and corruption and how its fulfillment may effect adverse consequences.From the beginning, the Narrator and Goodman Brown hold a similar outlook on life. They both hold strongly to certain innate characteristics: the Narrator dearly loves animals and Goodman Brown respects pious people. These characteristics go so far as to be held by their own wives. The Narrator mentions his joy at “[finding] in my wife a disposition with my own” love for domestic pets of all sorts (Poe). Similarly, Brown’s wife, symbolically named Faith, is a “blessed angel on earth” who Brown will follow to heaven (Hawthorne). Both wives equally love their husbands as much as the husbands love the objects of their own affection. In addition, both main characters share a similar contentment with life: the Narrator announces that “never was [he] so happy as when fondling or caressing” animals (Poe) much like Brown states that he will “cling to [Faith’s] skirts” after his evil purpose tonight (Hawthorne). However, as the Narrator and Brown fall into their respective pits of corruption, they both lose their once integral traits. Each goes through an ordeal which changes his perspective on life. No longer are they the innocent all-loving men, for temptation has corrupted them so as to cause each man to suffer traumatically. The Narrator of “The Black Cat” goes through a transformation in which his “general temperament and character… experience[s] a radical change for the worse” (Poe), and on a similar level, Brown doubles back on his previous faith in God and renounces his soul to the devil by shouting “come, devil; for to thee is this world given” (Hawthorne). Both of these changes occur inside of the characters as a result of submitting to temptation. Nothing outside of their own moral beliefs has changed. The characters themselves experience a change in how they view the world, which reworks their beliefs and alters their actions. Eventually, they both come to a state of self-destruction. As a final similarity, neither of the characters silently acquiesces to corruption. Each character resists in some way from continuing down the slippery slope he has started on. Once corruption eggs on the Narrator to mistreat those beings around him, he attempts to “[retain] sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating” his favorite cat, Pluto (Poe). Over time, the corruption takes over as the “feeble remnant of the good within [the Narrator] succumb[s].” Corruption has defeated the Narrator, and at this point he holds no control over his actions; the Narrator functions as a mindless zombie completely at the fingertips of temptation, which in his case flourishes with his consumption of alcohol. Goodman Brown puts up a much more successful resistance against succumbing to evil. He announces that “with heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (Hawthorne). Only after Brown realizes the ubiquitousness of corruption, does he resign himself to the devil. Most unfortunately, Brown and the Narrator cannot turn back from their resignations. The effects of internal corruption continue to have disastrous effects indefinitely.Perhaps the greatest distinction between the corruption of the Narrator and of Goodman Brown is its origin. The so-called “Fiend Intemperance” plays to the Narrator’s “primitive [impulse] of the human heart… perverseness” and serves to free him from any preexisting moral standards prohibiting spousal or animal abuse (Poe). Through alcohol, the Narrator submits to the temptation of unrestrained freedom. He acts this out on his wife by freely using “intemperate language… [and even offering] her personal violence” (Poe). The Narrator acts the same way with his animals by frequently neglecting or abusing them. The Narrator has submitted completely to the temptation of freedom from morals; thus, he is able to maintain complete level-headedness and objective views of his surroundings. He notices that others attempt to love him, but he allows himself to be sucked into further rage. The Narrator has waded into the great debate of freedom versus stability, and under the influence of alcohol, he selects to live with complete freedom of action without the moral limits set by one’s own conscience. Even though he had no intention, he injures those whom he loves most as he states that:

It was this unfathomable longing of the sol to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only — that urged me to continue and finally consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. (Poe)
By hurting others, the Narrator ultimately destroys himself solely because he can — and because he shouldn’t. In “Young Goodman Brown”, on the other hand, Brown has always possessed the desire to be a part of his “present evil purpose” of becoming a cohort of the devil and partaker in wickedness (Hawthorne). Numerous times he attempts to justify his actions by reminding himself of his good wife and the goodness of his upbringing, but he continues on forward in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Unfortunately, the knowledge that Brown gains undermines his lifelong view of the perfection of Puritan society. He sees the venerable Goody Cloys recognize the devil and utters, “‘That old woman taught me my catechism’… and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment’” (Hawthorne). Brown’s world turns upside-down bit by bit as he finally grasps the pervasiveness of evil, and it passes the tipping point when he sees that the “good [shrink] not from the wicked, nor [are] the sinners abashed by the saint” because everyone possesses the same sinful inner-spirit (Hawthorne). This commingling was unheard of in Puritan times, and its existence opens up Brown’s eyes to the hypocrisy of Puritan wisdom. From then on, Brown holds a despising outlook on life, for though he does not act out his change in viewpoint, he was now “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” repulsed by the dark truth of Puritan duplicity (Hawthorne). Brown learns the truth, but the truth is too painful to bear. As the narratives come to a close, both of the main characters shun others’ love. The Narrator, for example, despises those who love him in part because he feels that he is not worthy of such love. While he may or may not be worthy of such affection, such displays continue to vex him deeply. After killing Pluto, the Narrator obtains a new cat that showers him with devotion. Although he believes he will love the new cat forevermore, the Narrator quickly forges a similar path starting with love, moving to dislike, then to annoyance, to disgust, to avoidance, and finally to hatred. The Narrator does not want to kill the beast, “for although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was withheld from doing so, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly… by absolute dread of the beast” (Poe). This statement holds great importance, for the Narrator does not fear that the cat will turn him in to the police for a previous crime of animal cruelty; rather the cat holds symbolic power. The cat, and the cat alone, can curtail the Narrator’s new freedom. The cat represents a projection of the Narrator’s conscience into reality — the last portion of himself to put up resistance to free will. As such, any love derived from the cat serves as an obstacle to the Narrator’s ultimate goal of total, unrestrained, immoral freedom. As for Goodman Brown, upon seeing the deception present in the Puritan community, he renounces all forms of love. He loses interest in all areas of life which he once appreciated. Brown’s marital life now lacks love, which he shows by “often waking suddenly at midnight, he [shrinks] from the bosom of Faith” (Hawthorne). Brown’s spiritual life also lacks nourishment, as “when the minster spoke from the pulpit… then [does] Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer.” Brown cannot accept any love because he recognizes that he receives tainted love. Brown reacts to the trauma he suffers in searching for truth, but in doing so, he exposes the inner vice held by those who superficially lead lives of purity.To reiterate, Poe and Hawthorne penned two examples of Romantic literature in which the characters suffer from internal corruption; both authors display the myriad of ways corruption can begin, take over, and affect both an individual, and those around him. More importantly, Poe and Hawthorne invalidate a popular notion that man can always better himself by searching inwardly for a final goal — for example, freedom, truth, or knowledge. These two narratives depict how doing so may have disastrous effects.

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