Group 2–Hawthorne and Monomania

Why does Wakefield (or Reverend Hooper or Young Goodman Brown) act as he does? As the slides suggest, he bears traits of the “monomaniac,” but that’s hardly the end of the discussion. Is the character you’re looking at out of control of his actions? Deliberate? How do you know? Is the action reasonable in an any sense? Do they have a goal they mean to achieve by their behavior?

6 thoughts on “Group 2–Hawthorne and Monomania

  1. Annabella Twomey

    Wakefield seeks to break the mundaneity of his life and marriage and instead becomes obsessive and focused on his retreat from society and reluctant to resume normal life with his wife, instead becoming intriged by the idea of “perplex[ing] his good lady by a whole week’s absence,” (6) for the heck of it. Of course this week-long period becomes extended by years as Wakefield finds a way to continue his time without his wife unperturbed (which she also seems to be).

    To extend on Elizabeth’s point above ^, the narratorial style of the piece is interesting because it is told from an outsider’s view, also somewhat obsessively describing and commenting on Wakefield’s choices and lifestyle can take on a monomaniac approach itself. The story mentions other people, but consistently brings it back to Wakefield, saying “But our business is with the husband” (7). The outsider narrator style is a fixation within itself. While Wakefield’s actions seem odd and sporadic, he also seems to extend his time away and do everything with deliberation and thought as to how it would, in theory, affect his wife. He passes her by, watches her, touches her hand for a fleeting moment; he is watching her from afar and resisting, or not wanting to go home. This semblance of control is almost eerier, because it makes the monomaniac characteristics seem very calculated and planned, which can be interesting if one is the focus of the monomaniac.

  2. Colston Merrell

    Something that struck me about each of the three protagonists in these Hawthorne stories was the way in which their behaviors, despite being constantly contrasted with more traditionally rational ones, were made to seem predestined by Hawthorne in his narration of the stories. When we meet Young Goodman Brown, he has already left his home and his sweetheart, resolved to walk a path that he almost never seems to desire to be on, but that he almost floats through, accompanied by a guide whose very existence is questionable. Despite the deepest yearnings of his soul frequently expressing a desire to “resist the wicked one”, Brown finds himself at the center of a hell that feels personal, with no agency to stay or leave (9). Though Hawthorne gives us less of a clear look into the mind of Reverend Hooper, our first encounter with him similarly takes place after he has already resolved to don the black veil that will give plot to his story. Despite his clear revulsion to the image of the veil, which is frequently shown to conjure the same dread in the Reverend that it evokes in his townspeople, Hooper tells his wife that he is “bound to wear [it]”, seemingly unable to explain clearly something that feels beyond his control (5). The construction of the story of Wakefield is particularly unique in that Hawthorne begins it by laying out for us the foreordained facts of the case; we know that a man named Wakefield left his wife and then came back to her like it was nothing and that from his story we’re meant to glean some meaning. Then, as if with the eyes of God, the author reconstructs his protagonist’s life before us, speaking to him with an ironic omnipotence: “No mortal eye but mine has traced thee” (7). The effect of all this meta-narrative detachment is less illuminating than affecting; we’re still left with no idea as to why these characters are acting the way that they are or if their visions or obsessions are real or imagined. Still, we can helpless with them, adrift in a forest path or behind a veil or being watched by an all-seeing narrator God. He seems to know us, our sins, our desires, and our obsessions. And yet he doesn’t seem to care.

  3. Carl Langaker

    I think that Reverend Hooper believes it is his mission to enlighten the people of his town that they must atone for their sins. When talking to his fiancé, he says “I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil” (5) – this statement seems to communicate that he wears the veil due to deep-rooted sorrows or regrets. For me the veil feels symbolic of a crown of thorns, which the pastor almost proudly wears in order to show that he recognizes his sins and wants to punish himself. Furthermore, in his dying moments, he seems to bear an air of superiority with regards to his choice of wearing a veil, when he says “tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? (…) I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil” (8). It is as if the reverend does not acknowledge the implicit distance he creates between himself and society by wearing a veil, instead positing that he is in fact the victim of unwarranted scrutiny. He comes across as thinking of himself as a type of martyr, the only one capable of acknowledging what is wrong with people.

    I believe that Hooper exemplifies the monomaniac character, as he is oddly fixated on his belief of rising to some greater form of spiritual atonement for any wrongdoing he may have committed, to the extent of abandoning both his fiancé and any semblance of happiness. I am conflicted as to whether he is in control of his actions or not – the way in which he allows his fiancé to abruptly leave him, telling her “Never! It cannot be!” (6), makes it feel like he is blinded by a greater purpose, almost to the extent of being possessed. This is supported by his sermon, where he relates that the Omniscient can detect the “sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest” (2), as if he is telling his audience that they cannot escape their sins, and that they therefore must atone – maybe he has had a vision or dream where the same message was relayed to him, causing him to wear the veil.

    What I find interesting is that while it at the start seems entirely unreasonable, the massive following Hooper acquires as a clergyman suddenly makes wearing the veil seem logical; he is clearly reaching an audience that previously was unreachable. Thus, in wearing the veil, though he alienates everyone in his personal life, one might argue that he is successful in his ultimate mission of gaining converts to his vision. I wonder then, where do we draw the line of sanity vs. insanity? Do questionable or seemingly illogical actions gain meaning once they are validated by an audience?

  4. Andreya Zvonar

    Wakefield, Revered Hooper, and Young Goodman Brown are deliberate and in control of their actions; however, their actions are unreasonable and have no ultimate goal. This combination of control and lack of purpose are what make them such interesting characters as the reader comes to see mental illness as something that is not necessarily debilitating or dangerous.

    Unlike Bartleby, these three characters do not pose difficulties to others in their lives. In fact, in the case of Reverend Hooper, his oddness attracts people and his sermons grow in popularity: “strangers came long distances to attend service at his church, with the mere idle purpose of gazing at his figure” (10). In the case of Wakefield and Goodman Brown, they carry on with their lives and obsessions, but never pose problems to others. Monomania is clearly present in each character: The Reverend’s black veil echoes Esquirol’s “choice of clothing”, Wakefield’s talking to himself (7) suggests “tones of voice”, and Goodman Brown’s distrust of others is a clear “behavioral cue”. Nevertheless, each character is able to live a relatively normal (but weird and sad) life. This makes me wonder if their monomania should truly be described as a character trait rather than a mental illness.

    In looking at monomania as a character trait of acute awareness, one might better understand why each character acts the way he does. Take Goodman Brown for example, who slowly begins to question the Puritan life of Salem as he becomes aware of the hidden evils behind it [e.g. whipping Quakers, burning Indian villages (2)]. This awareness leads him to question the friendly and loving visage of his own town, leading to the characteristics that Esquirol would use to diagnose Monomania. Perhaps Hawthorne is suggesting that there is something much more “ill” with the norm than with these apparently “ill” characters.

    Question: Some believe that the Salem Witch Trials happened due to an outbreak of a hallucinogenic fungus that forms on bread? Is there evidence of such a natural cause for “craziness” in any of these stories?

  5. Elizabeth Srulevich

    As Michael mentions below, Wakefield’s behavior is “explicitly compulsive,” and the character is certainly an extreme example of someone who might fit the “monomaniac” bill. Wakefield has such a singular obsession with being unique that he ends up not “being” at all (at least for twenty years). But then again, don’t we all have fixations? Is it even possible for one to be non-compulsive or fully in control of their actions? Esquirol’s “professional” eye probably would have determined that you, me, and/or everyone else today suffers from “monomania.” After all, he wrote that it’s the “disease” that “offers the broadest and most profound subjects for meditation: the study of it … embraces [the study of] civilization.”

    Hawthorne writes, “We will not follow our friend across the threshold” (12) when Wakefield returns to his wife after twenty years. This means that we don’t have to hold up the microscope to his behavior after this point because it no longer deviates from standard, socially-acceptable behavior. Is this fixation on Wakefield (and generally pathologizing divergent behaviors) not “monomaniacal” behavior itself?

  6. Michael Taylor

    Wakefield’s behavior is explicitly compulsive in nature. He is “spellbound” by “an influence beyond… control,” unable to quit his habitualized estrangement from his wife despite his eternal hope that he soon might (7, 11). If I were to put on Esquirol’s thinking-cap, I would say that Wakefield’s behavior is understandable – if not reasonable – given his predisposed sensitivities to the urban alienation of 19th century London. Wakefield’s two greatest faults, according to his wife, are “a quiet selfishness… [and] a peculiar sort of vanity” (6). Dropped into the “great mass of London life,” where one readily loses any sense of individuality and significance, it makes some sense that Wakefield’s embattled ego would be driven to extremes of self-preservation (7). This, of course, is the great irony of the story; the only product of Wakefield’s efforts to reassert his individuality is his ejection from the entire system of human existence, becoming, in Hawthorne’s words, the “Outcast of the Universe” (13).

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