Transcendentalists vs. Anti-Transcendentalists

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Transcendentalists vs. Anti-Transcendentalists

Post  Angela on Tue May 12, 2009 11:21 pm

Although Melville and Hawthorne are Anti-Transcendentalist writers, they still held transcendentalist beliefs to begin with, only later did they diverge into the anti-transcendentalist domain. From the beginning of Moby Dick up to the climax, Melville reveals transcendentalist beliefs. Through the character of Ahab, Melville shows that he has self-reliance and the confidence that he can kill Moby Dick. After all, Moby Dick is ten times his size! He is rather hopeful and confident in his actions and firm in the choices he makes. This is just like what Emerson pointed out in his essay Self-Reliance. The confidence in himself allowed Ahab to view the situation with unlimited potential in mind. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, he presented transcendentalist views also. Nature appeared as a reoccurring symbol. In the society, Hester was burdened by the society and the shame that was developed. But once she entered the woods (nature), she felt like she was freed from all the heavy burdens that she previously had to carry. She regained passion and liveliness by not conforming to the society. Perhaps in a sense she was detaching from the society and the societal rules that set limits to individual growth. Emerson had a similar view on society in Self-Reliance. He states that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds….” Both Emerson and Hawthorne realize the limits that consistency can set on our beings. These two writers recognized the revolutionary power of transcendentalist ideas and incorporated such ideas into their own beliefs.


Melville and Hawthorne later diverge and expand into the anti-transcendentalist domain. They noticed in nature and in human nature radical contradictions that were not presented in the transcendentalist ideas that humanity was nonevil and “godlike.” In Moby Dick, after the story hits the climax, Melville starts to reveal some anti-transcendentalist beliefs through Ahab. The confidence that Ahab possessed up to the climax of the story seemed to diminish. After Ahab hears about the prophesies on his death, it almost feels as if he became discouraged about the situation and decided to give in. This is like conforming to the societal rules, where the unlimited potential that he once possessed was covered up by his foolish consistency. The gap between the desires he had in the beginning of the story and the possibility of achieving his desire slowly widened. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne opposed Emerson’s views on society/community. The puritan society highly valued order and reason, and conforming to the society was a fundamental value. Change was seen as impossible because purity and order was all that mattered. Hester, after committing adultery, was looked down upon by the society due to the belief that change was not possible once one has acted out of the norm. The strictness and rigidity of the societal beliefs contrast greatly with those of Emerson and Thoreau, which contain great flexibility in the unlimited change that every individual can bring out!


Last edited by Angela on Wed May 13, 2009 10:27 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Re: Transcendentalists vs. Anti-Transcendentalists

Post  Steph C on Wed May 13, 2009 12:25 am

Hey Angela Smile
Completely agree with your observations of transcendentalism in Melville (I wrote pretty much the same thing but that Moby Dick was 100x Ahab's size Razz) and Hawthorne. The synthesis of Emerson and Hawthorne on the issue of nonconformity was really insightful; I didn't see that earlier. As for where Melville and Hawthorne diverge into anti-transcendentalism, I agree with your pointing out when Ahab shifts his mindset at the climax. However, I wanted to point out that in the example of Hester's ostracism from society, they ultimately came around. "A" came to stand for Able and Hester was kind of a monument for womens rights as well as a legend by the time she died. Change in the society was slow, but it happened and is thus a form of transcending. So basically, the anti-transcendentalists weren't polar opposites of the transcendentalists as their name suggests--they just wanted to remind everyone that reality, which sometimes consists of "evil," musn't be overlooked.
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Re: Transcendentalists vs. Anti-Transcendentalists

Post  Philly_CS on Wed May 13, 2009 1:11 am

After reading various posts, I find that the although the beginnings of the Anti-Transcendentalist novels are often different from one another, the characters in the pre-climax part seems to be more hopeful and more optimistic. Hester experienced this during the middle to the climax part where she experiences the joys with Dimmesdale and Pearl in the woods. Captain Ahab, as you pointed out, seems extremely hopeful, noting that the whale was ten or a hundred times a large as himself.

For your second paragraph, I seem to have more of an impression that the author deliberately shows how Transcendentalism cannot work because of its ignorance or the refutation of the corruption and the sins that humans are capable of, although the stripping away of the 'godlike' seems to be also to be present. You used Hester as an example, and I must point out something here. Although Hester did feel down and lost hope, didn't she also become more and more optimistic from the moments in the woods to the contemplation of the plan to escape to Europe? I think that the Anti-Transcendentalist themes came after the plans to escape to Europe failed, in which Hester is devastated. Notice how Hawthorne did not follow up on her story, instead, opting to skip the moments that lead to Hester's death, suggesting that there was no need to follow up on Hester. This means that Hawthorne has nothing meaningful to show other than her being devastated and the Anti-transcendentalist theme that the last chapter seems to contain.
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Re: Transcendentalists vs. Anti-Transcendentalists

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