Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Literary Description of the Perversion of Human Affections

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. He graduated from Bowdoin College (Maine) in 1825 and would eventually become one of America’s most famous writers. Hawthorne is perhaps best known for two of his novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables. “The Man of Adamant” is a short story that he wrote in 1837. It is a tale about Richard Digby, a self-righteous, selfish man who seeks to rid himself of all others. It is a tale about a man with a hard heart. It is very short and worth the read. I encourage you to read it before continuing with this post. You can read it by clicking here. In this post we will discuss how this story presents the distortion of the love of the good that occurs due to a sinful heart.

This is a story that demonstrates what happens when someone hardens his heart to God and His grace. If you read my recent post on the value of literature, you know that literature can be very helpful in thinking about the human condition. Therefore, I want to look at three aspects of the human condition in relation to this short story. By considering Hawthorne’s literary work, “The Man of Adamant,” we will see how sin perverts three human affections: love for the good, love for others, and love for God.

“The Man of Adamant” and the Love of the Good

“The Man of Adamant” is about the perversion of human affections that accompanies Richard Digby as he plunges into the darkness of self-righteousness and self-love. The story poignantly and graphically illustrates what happens when a man becomes deluded in his thinking about God and mankind. As Digby’s heart becomes harder and harder, he loses sight of what is actually good in the world. Despite his zealousness, he seriously misunderstands and perverts three areas of human affection: love of good, love of others, and love of God. Let’s now consider the first aspect of perverted human affection: the love of the good.

Hating the Light, Hating the Good

Nathaniel Hawthorne uses common imagery to demonstrate that Richard Digby’s affections for what is good in life have become corrupted. In the beginning of the tale, as Digby is about to fling himself headlong into the “dreariest depths of the forest,” the reader is confronted with a fleeting glimpse of goodness. Digby looks back, hoping to see the townspeople consumed with fire and brimstone, and finds instead a calm, serene picture:

But, as the sunshine continued to fall peacefully on the cottages and fields, and the husbandmen labored and children played, and as there were many tokens of present happiness, and nothing ominous of a speedy judgment, he turned away, somewhat disappointed.

The imagery of light is common in the Bible, and as “The Man of Adamant” is steeped in biblical language, this connection cannot be overlooked. Light often signifies goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The Apostle Paul wrote, “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)” (Ephesians 5:8-9). Perhaps the most powerful Bible passage on this topic is found in the Gospel of John:

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God. (John 3:20-21)

D. A. Carson, a New Testament scholar, commenting on this passage, noted that those who thus hate the light value “their pride more than their integrity, their prejudice more than contrite faith.”  By presenting Richard Digby as fleeing from the light of the village, Hawthorne uses a common biblical image to disclose Digby’s desire for the darkness. Even as Digby goes further and further into the forest, he still seeks to avoid the light as much as possible. Digby is content, nearly ecstatic, to be alone in the darkness, sitting beneath the trees “as the gloom of the forest hid the blessed sky.” When he finally finds his beloved cave, the reader learns that “there was nothing bright nor cheerful near it, except a bubbling fountain, some twenty paces off, at which Richard Digby hardly threw away a glance.” Richard Digby hates the light—he hates all that is good and true in the world. Instead of loving the light and all that is represents, Digby loves the darkness. His conception of what is good has become warped to the point that he “was well contented with his sepulchral cave”—he loved, as it were, to live as dead man, rejecting all that is life and light. His affection for goodness is perverted and twisted by his self-righteous, hard heart.

This example corresponds to the tragic impact of sin on humanity. The good (ultimately finding its meaning in the character of God) is rejected as being evil. For example, consider the current “debate” over homosexual “marriage.” The good—the institution of marriage that God created for one man and one woman—is being perverted. Due to our sinfulness, we are apt to call that which is good, evil and call that which is evil, good. There are countless other examples of good things being despised as “evil” in contemporary culture (and cultures of yesteryear): sexual purity, parental authority, integrity, selflessness, etc. Next, we will see how the human affection of love for one another is also perverted by a hard, sinful heart.

“The Man of Adamant” and Love of Others

In addition to disdaining the good, Richard Digby illustrates the disastrous perversion of affection for fellow men that results from a sinful heart. From the beginning of the story, Digby is more than happy to see others “struggling with the billows of eternal death.” He has no concern for their well-being and is even ready to “smite and slay any intruder” who might come “upon his hallowed seclusion.” Once again, Digby moves away from the order that God has established for mankind. Instead of lovingly seeking his neighbor’s good, Digby hurls anathemas at his fellow humans. Richard Digby’s sinful heart produces a hatred for others that is unrivaled. Here Digby brings to mind Jonah, the Old Testament prophet. Like Digby, Jonah expressed an indifference to the salvation of others: “Jonah, because of his rejection of Gentiles and distaste for their participation in salvation, was displeased at God’s demonstration of mercy towards the Ninevites” (J. MacArthur). When Digby leaves the town, he is disappointed that God extends “mercy,” instead of destroying those whom Digby considers “heathens.”

A truer prophet would see the potential salvation of his or her community, or at least sincerely lament their damnation. But Richard Digby views others as incapable of righteousness and therefore his only hope to secure his own salvation is to curse them and remove himself from their presence. (Ellwood)

Whereas Jonah repented after three days in the belly of the great fish, Digby will be turned to stone after his three-day stay in the belly of the forest. These feelings of indifference, even animosity, towards his fellow man demonstrate a heart that is sinful and wicked. Richard Digby should have been seeking to love his neighbors and lead them to salvation; instead he was unwilling to lift a finger to help anyone. This perversion of a human affection that is central to God’s plan for humanity—a love for one another—is the precise result of a hard heart. In Christ, the sinner is renewed to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24). This new nature—a reflection of God’s intention for humans—will produce a person who is kind to others, tenderhearted, and forgiving (Ephesians 4:32). The Bible also speaks of “pure religion” as caring for those in need (James 1:27). Richard Digby represents the opposite of this design.

“The Man of Adamant” and the Love of God

In our look at the third and final aspect of the perversion of human affection in “The Man of Adamant,” we will consider love for God. We have already observed the perversion of the love of the good and the love for others in this tale. Now we turn to the greatest affection mankind is to have: love for God.

The Epitome of Self-love

At his core, Richard Digby is a man overcome with self-love. As he goes into the seclusion and darkness of the forest, Digby talks to himself, reads to himself, prays to himself, and laughs to himself. The point is clear: Digby loves himself. He finds his joy in being alone. Even Digby’s “exclusive tabernacle suggests a broken relationship with God” (Ellwood). When the selfless Mary Goffe arrives, extending love and mercy, Digby again demonstrates his worship of self: “What hast thou to do with my Bible?—what with my prayers?—what with my Heaven?” (emphasis added). For Richard Digby, love of God has given way to love of self. Despite a façade of religion, Digby has no love for God. He “lacks love for his God and his fellow human beings through his prideful rejection of others and of God’s grace” (Walsh). For Richard Digby, God is but an idea, a tool, used to further his own agenda of self-love. Digby is a “lover of self” akin to those the Apostle Paul warned of (2 Timothy 3:2). Digby has corrupted God’s design for love. Instead of loving God first, his sinful heart leads him to love himself above all else, even God. This is the ultimate perversion of the affections of man created in God’s image.

Conclusion

Richard Digby uses religion to separate himself from goodness, from others, and from God. He is a consummate example of the way of wickedness—the way that seems right in man’s eyes, but leads to death (Proverbs 14:12). Digby tragically exemplifies the result of sin. As sin hardens the heart of men more and more, all that is good and right becomes twisted. Instead of seeing goodness for what it is, it is shunned and maligned. Conversely, instead of avoiding the darkness, sin causes mankind to love the darkness and seek after it, calling it good and true. The prophet Isaiah gave a warning for those like Richard Digby: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). Richard Digby put darkness for light and thus “rejected the law of the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 5:24). Instead of watching others be consumed with God’s wrath, hardened, self-righteous sinners like Richard Digby will face “the anger of the LORD” themselves (Isaiah 5:25).


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