Young Goodman Brown Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Themes and Structure in "Young Goodman Brown"

Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of those rare writers who drew great critical acclaim during his own lifetime. To his contemporaries—Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville—as well as to the next generation of writers, Hawthorne was a genius. Poe said in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales that Hawthorne has ''the purest style, the finest taste, the most available scholarship, the most delicate humor, the most touching pathos, the most radiant imagination." Hawthorne's work, consisting of over 50 stories and sketches as well as such classic novels as The Scarlet Letter, continued to draw attention after his death and experienced a particular resurgence of interest after World War I. His writings attract readers not only for their storytelling qualities, but also for the moral and theological ambiguities Hawthorne presents so well.

The Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges and the eminent American scholar Harold Bloom both agree that Hawthorne's shorter works are his best. Foremost among his stories in popular appeal and critical respect is "Young Goodman Brown," which tells the story of a young Puritan drawn into a covenant with the Devil, despite his attempts to resist. In the course of one evening, Brown's illusions of the godliness of his society are shattered as he discovers that his fellow townspeople, including religious leaders and his wife, are attending a Black Mass. At the end of the story, Brown is left to wonder whether his vision was, in fact, a dream. Yet the delineation between the imaginary and the real does not matter, because the mere ability to see such evil in his loved ones destines Brown thereafter to a life of desperate gloominess. The prose is powerful, prompting Melville, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales to delight in this ''strong positive illustration of that blackness in Hawthorne."

''Young Goodman Brown'' has been analyzed through many lenses, including the psychological, historical, sociological, theological, and semantic. Critics still disagree over fundamental questions such as whether Brown is a victim or has only himself to blame for what befalls him. One feature that does stand out in the work is the accurate portrayal of Puritan society. Hawthorne clearly understands the demands of the Puritan faith, and it is no surprise to find that he has a legitimate claim to this heritage—among his ancestors number a constable who "lashed [a] Quaker woman so smartly" and a military officer who engaged in the destruction of an Indian village. Hawthorne also includes in his story the characters of Goody Cloyse, who taught Brown catechism, Martha Carrier, who had been promised to be "the queen of hell," and Goody Cory, all of whom were real people accused of sorcery during the Salem Witch Trials. Deacon Gookin also figures in Puritan history, as does, of course, Salem village. Such details challenge the reader to analyze Hawthorne's intentions: is he trying to influence us through his use of history to believe that Brown was not dreaming? Is he trying to cast doubt on historical figures and thus show that no one is beyond suspicion? Whatever the answers may be, Hawthorne effectively places us in the story, illustrating the social milieu which produced the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Though "Young Goodman Brown" is sharply steeped in Puritan history and culture, like all great works of literature it can be viewed on a more universal level as well. "Young Goodman Brown" takes the form of an allegory, which uses certain elements of a story (characters, plot, etc.), or the entire story itself to symbolize something else. Brown represents Everyman ("Goodman" was a title for those who were beneath the social rank of ''gentleman''), while Faith, his wife, represents his religious devotion. In leaving Faith, Brown forsakes his belief in the godliness of humanity. He immediately enters into a wood "lonely as could be," which is enshrouded in "deep dusk ... deepest in the part" through which Brown walks. These woods are the physical location in which he will explore his doubts and conflicting desires. That he feels ambivalent about forging an alliance with the Devil is clear from his first entry into the forest, when he tells his companion that ''Faith kept me back awhile.'' Yet though he pledges to return to Faith—or to his belief in humankind—several times,...

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The Woe That Is Madness: Goodman Brown and the Face of the Fire

Hawthorne, if any one, was equipped to write the definitive novel on the Salem witchcraft delusion; but he never confronted it head on. ''Alice Doane's Appeal" conjures up the victims from the graveyard, Grandfather's Chair and "Main Street" give the barest bones of a synopsis, ''Sir William Phips'' merely hints at it, and The House of the Seven Gables fictionalizes its heritage of guilt. But nowhere does Hawthorne give the dramatic account in depth of the trial and tragedy of Rebecca Nurse, George Burroughs, John Proctor, Giles Corey, George Jacobs and the other courageous victims, nor the damnable game of the ''afflicted'' girls, the admission of spectral evidence by autocratic judges, nor the sinister attempt by paranoid theocrats to maintain their power through terror. It remained for lesser writers to deal with such matters, for Hawthorne was not so much chronicling our history as he was molding the legend of our past. Thus the wholly fictitious "Young Goodman Brown" is our most effective literary work in recreating the atmosphere in which the witchcraft hysteria occurred.

"Young Goodman Brown" is Hawthorne's most successful story. Here he is free from the authorial editorializing that makes some other tales excessively didactic. Nowhere does the author intrude; such moral generalizations as the story contains are spoken by the devil, who is, of course, unreliable. The reader is spared such obvious guidelines as, "and this shall be a moral unto you," that mar other tales. Hawthorne's allegories, profound though they usually are, often seem too contrived and their plots are sometimes inadequate for their meaning. But in "Young Goodman Brown," there are no poisoned Gothic gardens, no bosom serpents, Faustian laboratories, or other unnatural devices; the supernatural terror is not of Germany but comes from authentic American history; its folk-lore quality is not from flights of fancy but from an actual episode that has become a part of our heritage. As Hawthorne says elsewhere of the Salem burial ground, for every Bunker Hill monument in our history, there should be a Gallows Hill. As he says of democracy that it' 'comes from the nature of things," so does the situation in ''Young Goodman Brown"; it is not superimposed from without but corresponds to the psychology of Puritan belief and of the Salem witchcraft delusion.

Yet the very absense of editorializing has caused considerable ambiguity. In their introductory notes to the story, Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long explain its meaning as Brown's "corruption through his loss of simple faith in the goodness of mankind...." This is comment has stood in the widely used The American Tradition in Literature since 1956; but in the context both of Hawthorne's fiction and of 17th-century Puritanism, it is misleading. For Brown, as a Puritan, would have been indoctrinated with the Calvinistic concept of total depravity, according to which mankind is utterly corrupt and deserves no better than damnation. In the orthodox Calvinism of Michael Wiggles worth's doggerel "The Day of Doom," men of good works are damned to hell, and so are they

Who dy'd in infancy, And never had or good or bad
effected pers'nally, But from the womb unto the tomb
were straightway carried....

They are damned not for sins of commission but simply for their humanity in being born with "Nature / depraved and forlorn."

Accordingly, Perry Miller maintained that "It is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan; no matter what misfortune befell him, no matter how often or how tragically his fellowmen failed him, he would have been prepared for the worst, and would have expected no better.''

In Goodman Brown, Hawthorne did conceive of a disillusioned Puritan, but Brown's tragedy is not the loss of his simple faith; rather it is that his faith is too simple to begin with. He is, of course, aware of evil from the start, for he is concerned lest a dream have warned his wife "what work is to be done tonight" as he sets forth on "his present evil purpose." But at this stage in his development, evil is still a notion; he may believe in it intellectually as dogma, but he has not yet experienced it. So his leaving his wife for an evening of diabolical revelry at the witches' sabbath is merely an untested young man's first (and he expects final) fling. One might compare him to the youth who thinks he will just once try drugs, prostitution, or some sort of perversity—just once, to see what it's like, and never again—and who gets hooked into addiction or shocked into fanatical reaction. Goodman Brown is like the person who from perverse curiosity experiments once with LSD and has a bad trip.

His trip into the forest is indeed a bad one, so traumatic that he concludes by disbelieving in any goodness. Though he cries out to Faith to ''look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one," and is whisked away from the black mass, he still believes Satan's claim that "Evil is the nature of mankind" and blights the rest of his life by acknowledging, "Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." His discovery of the hypocrisy of the catechist, clergy, ministers and magistrates of Salem has destroyed his faith in the Calvinist elect, who if they persevered anywhere should have done so in the new Zion of Massachusetts. With the participation of his wife Faith in the devil worship, there are not brands spared from the burning; the depravity is indeed total.

It is too simple to consider the story an unqualified attack on Calvinism. Though Hawthorne deplored the Puritans' grim bigotry, he respected their strength and commitment and wrote in the "The Old Manse'' that he preferred the warmth that their writings once had to the anemic frigidity of 19th-century liberal theology. It is true that one element of "Young Goodman Brown" is a criticism of Puritan self-righteousness; the devil points out to Brown that he has "a very general acquaintance here in New England'' and proceeds to cite numerous instances of bigotry, persecution, and hypocrisy.

On the question of evil, the issue is more complex. Hawthorne rejected Emerson's bland dismissal of evil as mere illusion that will vanish when one rises transcendently into the world of spirit: "So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies,...

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"Young Goodman Brown": An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism

It is surprising, in a way, to discover how few of the many critics who have discussed "Young Goodman Brown'' agree on any aspect of the work except that it is an excellent short story. D. M. McKeithan says that its theme is "sin and its blighting effects." Richard H. Fogle observes, "Hawthorne the artist refuses to limit himself to a single and doctrinaire conclusion, proceeding instead by indirection,'' implying, presumably, that it is inartistic to say something which can be clearly understood by the readers. Gordon and Tate assert, "Hawthorne is dealing with his favorite theme: the unhappiness which the human heart suffers as a result of its innate depravity." Austin Warren says, ''His point is the devastating effect of moral...

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