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On the treatment of evil and sin
in three American literary classics 


The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a thoroughly dismal tale about evil and sin in the eyes of the puritan society of 17th century New England. Religious fanatics, who wielded all local political power, saw it as their God-given duty to severely punish and persecute violators of laws based upon their very own, especially strict interpretation of Christianity, laws which often ran counter to those of nature. We learn from the story that what is sinful according to man is very often innocent according to nature.

Hester Prynne, sent off to Boston by her husband, has committed the sin of adultery and had a child with, of all people, a young minister of the church by the name of Arthur Dimmesdale. As a humiliating punishment, the religious authorities compel her to wear the letter "A" on the breast of her gown; in the eyes of the world she is marked for life as a shameful adulteress. Hester's burden of "sin", being so openly displayed, proves in time to be far lighter than that of the father of her child, who simply does not dare own up to his own "guilt" for the sake of his good office and his impeccable reputation as a man of God. Instead, the terrible suffering he endures locked away within himself creates a unique sense of understanding for the weaknesses of man; no fiery preacher can reach deeper into the hearts of the masses than he. And Hester will not betray him because that would mean betraying her inner self. Officially she repents and does all she can to make amends for what she has done and, defying the original intentions of the Church to make her stand out as evil, her beautifully embroidered scarlet letter "A" takes on the entirely new meaning of "Angel of Mercy" as a result of her many good deeds in the community.

The elderly and rather unsympathetic husband returns from England, and under the name of Roger Chillingworth he manages to trace Hester's lover. He secretly seeks out Dimmesdale and moves in with him in the guise of a helpful doctor. Acting like a psychopath he sets about slowly tormenting the minister to death. It is this sin which proves to be the greatest evil of all. Chillingworth "violates, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart". 

Billy Bud, Sailor

In Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville we are presented with the concept of goodness and evil existing side by side. Goodness and innocence are represented by the strong and handsome young sailor of H.M.S. Bellipotent, Billy Budd, who has been impressed into service from a homebound merchant ship, Rights-of-Man. In spite of his seizure and the brutal privation of his freedom, he sets about his new career with the Royal Navy to the best of his ability — a show of character which does not go unnoticed by the commanding officer, Captain Edward Fairfax Vere.

Pure evil, on the other hand, is embodied in the figure of the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart, who has wheedled his way up to his present rank through "an ingratiating deference to superiors" and a stance of "austere patriotism". In blind envy of the young newcomer, who is physically attractive and has won the kind of respect among the crew which he wants for himself, he plots to implicate Billy in a planned mutiny attempt. When confronted with the accusation before Captain Vere, pure shock and a speech impediment prevent Billy from making any verbal retort. Instead he deals Claggart a spontaneous blow which turns out to be fatal.

This story is all about Captain Vere's dilemma in dealing with this tricky situation, and whether or not the individual should intervene to redress the balance between good and evil if it is in his power to do so. Vere recognises that Billy is the victim of another man's wickedness, yet he consents to the boy's execution to establish law and order in the best Old Testament tradition of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". He goes against his own conscience, but he must suffer for this decision for the rest of his days as the bad conscience haunts him.

The question Melville puts to us is clear: Are we answerable only to society for our deeds and misdeeds, or are we individually accountable to our very own awareness of goodness and evil?

Daisy Miller

Henry James's character Daisy Miller apparently knows no evil. She is the innocent and naive American girl in sophisticated19th-century Europe, seemingly oblivious to the rules of etiquette prevalent there at the time. Appearances mean everything, so when she allows herself the company and attentions of several different men at once ("regular Roman fortune-hunters") it is regarded as sinful and creates something of an outrage. Because she herself has no bad intentions whatsoever, she dismisses the objections as laughable. This attitude leads to her and her indulgent mother becoming frozen out of respectable circles. Just as in The Scarlet Letter, we here see an example of someone who has violated no law of nature but merely another law of society.

Even her American expatriate admirer, Frederick Winterbourne, who has become detached from his homeland, fails to comprehend this new style of American girl. This lack of empathy further contributes to her general feeling of isolation.

Symbolically, Daisy Miller falls ill and dies after a late-night visit to an empty Colosseum, the scene of so much evil in the long-distant past. At her funeral the Italian wooer Giovanelli vouches for the young girl's absolute innocence, and Winterbourne stands staring at a "raw protuberance among the April daisies". In the alien soil of European society this radiantly beautiful American Daisy could but wither away.