The Women of Young Goodman Brown, The Birthmark, and Rappaccini’s Daughter
In his short stories, "Young Goodman Brown," "The Birthmark," and "Rappacciniâs Daughter," Nathaniel Hawthorne uses his female characters to illustrate the folly of demanding perfection in the flawed world of humanity. Although Hawthorneâs women appear to have dangerous aspects, they are true of heart, and thus, they cannot be fully possessed by the corrupt men who seek to control them.
Hawthorne endows each of his heroines with both light and dark elements. Although each one is inherently pure, none of these women are entirely free from the accusations leveled by the men in their lives. In "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne presents Faith as the ideal new bride. Trusting and childlike, she begs her husband not to leave her home alone. He admonishes her for doubting him. There is no reason to conclude that Faith has anything but perfect trust in Goodman Brown. Any such idea that he may have is merely a projection of his own feelings of guilt and shame (Colacurcio 390). Hawthorne never describes Faith in anything other than tender and glowing terms. She is all that Goodman Brown could hope for in a wife. He himself refers to her as "a blessed angel on earth" (Hawthorne, "Young" 65). However, Hawthorne allows both Goodman Brown and his readers to develop feelings of doubt about Mrs. Brown, introducing a darker aspect to her character. He casually, yet obviously, drops Faithâs pink hair ribbons into the story. The color pink seems to suggest that Faith is occupying some middle ground between white, which is "completely pure," and red, which is "brazenly sinful" (McFarland 37). The pink ribbon mysteriously appears deep in the forest, where Goodman Brown is conducting his meeting with the devil. The "spectral ribbons" are enough to convince the new husband that his bride, his Faith, is lost (Colacurcio 396). Finally, Goodman Brown arrives at the initiation ceremony only to be confronted by the image of his wife at the unholy altar. Although Hawthorne never offers any true evidence that Goodman Brownâs experience in the woods was anything more than a dream or hallucination, the Puritan passes judgment on Faith, and forever doubts her goodness. By allowing his audience to internally assess Faithâs guilt or innocence, Hawthorne forces his reader into a role of complicity with Goodman Brown (McFarland 37). Thus, Hawthorne has created a troubling character with both light and dark facets.
Hawthorne achieves this same task in the character of Georgiana in "The Birthmark." Georgiana, too, is presented as an ideal specimen of womanhood. She is beautiful, intelligent, and devoted to her husband, the alchemist, Aylmer. She would be absolute perfection, except for one flaw: a birthmark in the shape of a fairy-sized handprint on her left cheek. While those who love Georgiana attest that the mark is a symbol of the "magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all...