Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Short Story Criticism)
"Young Goodman Brown" Nathaniel Hawthorne
The following entry presents criticism of Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," first published in the April 1835 issue of New England Magazine. See also "The Minister's Black Veil" Criticism.
"Young Goodman Brown" is widely regarded as one of Hawthorne's finest works. Drawing on Puritan theology and traditions of witchcraft, Hawthorne crafted a profound and complex work which has fascinated generations of readers with its portrayal of a self-deluded sinner and its ambiguous conclusion. It is typical of Hawthorne's fiction in its use of historical material, its allegorical mode, and its somber view of human nature. "Young Goodman Brown" is also important in the development of Hawthorne's fiction writing, for it prefigures many of the thematic concerns that are at the center of his novels, such as human depravity, religious doubt, secret guilt, and spiritual isolation. Critics note that this tale is integral to an understanding of Hawthorne's artistry, in that it displays the careful workmanship, rhetorical balance of style, clear narrative technique, and ambiguity of meaning which distinguish his best fiction. Although an early tale, "Young Goodman Brown" reveals the mastery which has led scholars to describe Hawthorne as one of America's most prominent and influential short fiction writers.
Plot and Major CharactersSet in seventeenth-century Salem, "Young Goodman Brown" tells the story of a naive and recently married Puritan who leaves behind his anxious wife, Faith, for a mysterious errand in the primeval forest. In a dreamlike sequence, Goodman Brown keeps an assignation with the devil, sees the shadowy figures of the colony's civil and religious leaders, and hears indistinctly the sorrowful voice of his wife. Maddened with despair at what he believes to be his wife's involvement with the devil, Brown tears through the forest and comes upon a witches' Sabbath where he finds commingled Salem's most revered saints, its most dissolute sinners, and his own wife. In this chaotic and lawless setting, the antithesis of the orderly world of daylight Salem, Goodman Brown recognizes within himself a dark propensity for evil. Urged by the devil to join the ungodly congregation, Brown at the last moment cries out to Faith to "resist the wicked one," and then finds himself alone in the cold night. At daybreak he returns to Salem a greatly changed man, convinced of the evil of others and of his own virtue for having resisted temptation. But this new understanding of his wife and neighbors only embitters him, and he spends his days as a grim misanthrope. In the final paragraph, the narrator remarks that when Goodman Brown died, "they carved no hopeful verse on his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom."
Hawthorne's contemporaries and modern critics have disagreed over the theme of "Young Goodman Brown" and what moral readers are to draw from their reading of the tale. Many have commented on Hawthorne's explorations of human psychology, particularly Brown's obsession with sin and guilt. According to these critics, Brown's inability to recognize his own participation in evil attests to his emotional immaturity, revealing as it does his severely limited view of human nature; even after his forest experience, he continues to deny the human potential for both good and evil. Others have focused on the sexual overtones of the story, and they interpret Brown's discovery of evil in the forest scene as his recognition and rejection of his own sexual nature. These critics point to the many sexual symbols in the tale, and they discuss the sexual implications of the devil's invitation to Brown to learn the deep mysteries of sin. Although he escapes the devil's snare and returns to Faith, with whom he begets several children, he is profoundly repulsed by his knowledge of sexual guilt; hence, he is unable to forgive Faith or the Salem villagers, whom he believes are debauched by their carnal appetites. Another group of critics have discussed "Young Goodman Brown" as a religious allegory, noting the paramount importance of Faith to Hawthorne's tale. In this reading, Brown's rejection of Faith—both his wife and his spiritual beliefs—and his subsequent fall into misanthropy reveals Hawthorne's sharp indictment of Calvinist theology. Brown, convinced that he is one of the Elect and thereby assured of salvation, discovers through his night journey the full import of Calvinist doctrine: man's natural condition is depravity, and thus all mankind deserves eternal damnation. Although critics continue to differ in their interpretation of the story's meaning, they concur that Brown's chief sins are his failure to understand the complexities of human nature and his lack of compassion for his fellow sinners.
The vast number of studies (over 400) devoted to this one story attests to its popularity, but Hawthorne was himself uncertain how his tale would be received. Consequently, he passed over the tale twice when making selections for the 1837 and 1842 editions of Twice-Told Tales, although he did publish it in the relatively obscure New England Magazine in 1835. It was not until nearly twenty years after he wrote the story that he sought a wide readership for this story when he included it in Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. Hawthorne's contemporaries gave the story a mixed reception; the majority of preferred the fanciful and lighter sketches in Mosses from an Old Manse and largely neglected the allegorical tales which Hawthorne's modern readers admire. Edgar Allan Poe, who had applauded the genius of Twice-Told Tales, deplored Hawthorne's reliance upon the allegorical mode in the later collection. Herman Melville, on the other hand, described "Young Goodman Brown" as a marvel, "deep as Dante." Modern criticism of the story has taken three principal directions and has varied in its response to the question of whether Goodman Brown's journey into the forest was an actual occurrence, a dream, or a Satanic trick. Early twentieth-century readers emphasized Hawthorne's treatment of the Puritan doctrines of sin and salvation, Hawthorne's obsession with evil, and the theme of sin and its blighting consequences. A second trend in interpretation of the story focused on its psychosexual elements, variously describing Brown as an Oedipal figure and Faith as representative of the ambiguity of womanhood. More recently, critics have explored Hawthorne's use of historical materials. In particular, scholars have examined Hawthorne's knowledge of and access to late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Puritan documents about theology, political history, and witchcraft. The most recent historical criticism of the story has noted that Hawthorne made use of details of the Puritan experience and incorporated nineteenth-century views of gender relations as a way to examine his own culture's anxieties over theological, sexual, and moral issues. Despite these conflicting interpretations, scholars agree that "Young Goodman Brown" represents a significant achievement in Hawthorne's oeuvre and in the development of the American short story. With rare exception, critics have praised Hawthorne's mastery in exploiting his historical sources for their symbolic, psychological, and mythical possibilities. Critics continue to study "Young Goodman Brown" for its originality, its sophisticated narrative structure, its insight into the American experience, and its authentic exploration of humanity's moral condition.
SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, February, 1952, pp. 93-6.
[In the following essay, McKeithan observes that Hawthorne is more concerned with the demoralizing consequences of sin than with sin itself]
The majority of Hawthorne critics feel that "Young Goodman Brown" is one of the very best of Hawthorne's tales, but there is somewhat less certainty as to its meaning. The theme of the story has been variously stated as the reality of sin, the pervasiveness of evil, the secret sin and hypocrisy of all persons, the hypocrisy of Puritanism, the results of doubt or disbelief, the devastating effects of moral scepticism, or the demoralizing effects of the discovery that all men are sinners and hypocrites.
Mark Van Doren, in the fullest and most recent criticism [Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1949], gives a thorough analysis of the tale both as to its artistry and as to its meaning. I quote briefly from his discussion of its meaning:
"Young Goodman Brown" means exactly what it says, namely that its hero left his pretty young wife one evening . . . to walk by himself in the primitive New England woods, the Devil's territory, . . . and either to dream or actually to experience (Hawthorne will not say) the discovery that evil exists in every human heart. . . . Brown is changed. He thinks...
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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism," in American Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, November, 1956, pp. 370-75.
[In the essay below, Connolly argues that Goodman Brown learns through his experiences that Calvinism is a faith which condemns its followers to eternal damnation.]
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 [in "Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown: An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes LXVII, No. 94, February 1952] says that its theme is "sin and its blighting effects." Richard H. Fogle in ["Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,'" in New England Quarterly XVIII, December 1945] 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" [Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate, eds. The House of Fiction, 1950]. Austin Warren [in Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1934] says, "His point is the devastating effect of moral scepticism." Almost all...
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SOURCE: "The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1958, pp. 331-36.
[In this essay, Walsh discusses the threefold symbolic pattern of Goodman Brown's experience in the forest which results in his surrender to despair.]
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
The above question, found in the second to the last paragraph of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous short story, "Young Goodman Brown," has perhaps inspired more comment than any other sentence of the author's works. But it is futile to attempt to answer the question, especially since the author himself has intentionally avoided it. Yet most commentators have chosen between the two alternatives that Hawthorne has offered, and their choice determines the meaning they give to the short story: those who think that Goodman Brown's experience in the forest is not a dream say that he is the victim of an evil world in which he finds himself (such an interpretation makes Hawthorne more pessimistic than he is usually thought to be); those who think that Brown's experience is a dream put the responsibility for his despair, not on the world, but on him.
It is the purpose of this paper, which is more in agreement with the conclusions of the latter group, to show that Hawthorne's method...
(The entire section is 2635 words.)
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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Cynicism or Meliorism?" in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, December, 1959, pp. 255-64.
[In the following essay, Miller contends that Goodman Brown is not meant to be representative of all humanity, and therefore Hawthorne's story is not as pessimistic as is commonly perceived.]
Critics have agreed that Young Goodman Brown, in the course of the Hawthorne story of the same name, moves from a state of simple faith in God and his fellow man to an evil state involving damnation, or at least soul jeopardy. They have also generally implied that as well as being an individual, Young Goodman Brown is in some sense intended to be a type. They have not generally indicated, however, whether they think he is intended to typify all mankind or only one segment of it. This question is important, it seems to me, because on the answer one gives to it depends one's understanding of Hawthorne's view of man when he wrote the story, as well as one's interpretation of this enigmatic but nonetheless fascinating tale.
If, on the one hand, Young Goodman Brown is intended to represent all mankind, Hawthorne himself must be regarded, at the time of composition of this story, as a totally cynical man, obsessed with the notion that even the best of men are but whited sepulchres, unable either to save themselves or to find salvation through divine grace. But if,...
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SOURCE: "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, November, 1962, pp. 344-52.
[In this essay, Levin examines Hawthorne's short story from a seventeenth-century perspective and notes that Goodman Brown succumbs to despair on only spectral evidence of evil.]
I choose for my text two statements written in the autumn of 1692, after twenty Massachusetts men and women accused of witchcraft had been executed. The first is by Increase Mather, the second by Thomas Brattle.
. . . the Father of Lies [Mather declared] is never to be believed: He will utter twenty great truths to make way for one lie: He will accuse twenty Witches, if he can thereby bring one honest Person into trouble: He mixeth Truths with Lies, that so those truths giving credit unto lies, Men may believe both, and so be deceived [Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Impersonating Men].
Brattle was astonished by the ease with which witnesses avoided a crucial distinction:
And here I think it observable [he wrote], that often, when the afflicted [witnesses] do mean and intend only the appearance and shape of such an one, (say G[oodman]. Proctor) yet they positively swear that G. Proctor did afflict them; and they have been allowed so to do; as tho'...
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SOURCE: "The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation," in American Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, May, 1963, pp. 218-25.
[In the following essay, Robinson posits that it is Goodman Brown's marital experience that has opened his eyes to the existence of evil]
Students of "Young Goodman Brown" agree in general that its main materials are drawn from Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World, published the year following the Salem witchcraft trials, in which Mather describes the devil's appearing as a "small black man" to lure people to forest rendezvous where church sacraments were imitated and mocked. Hawthorne, indeed, virtually quotes Mather in placing Martha Carrier among the witches as a "rampant hag" and promised "queen of hell." I have found, however, no comment upon Hawthorne's possible use of a passage from Mather's Magnolia Christi Americana (1702) as a secondary source. The Puritan historian recalls Governor Winthrop's 1632 visit with the leaders of the Pilgrim settlement. "But there were at this time in Plymouth," relates Mather, "two ministers, leavened so far with the humours of the rigid separation, that they insisted vehemently upon the unlawfulness of calling any unregenerated man by the name of good-man such an one, until by their indiscreet urging of this whimsey, the place began to be disquieted." When asked to intercede,...
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SOURCE: "Antinomianism in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 73-5.
[In the essay below, Mathews notes that Goodman Brown's fall into sin is the result of theological error.]
Almost everyone commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" has noted that its general theme is the loss of personal faith. On the specific application of certain symbols, however, there has been a good deal of disagreement. Some time ago [in "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism," American Literature XXVIII, November 1956] Thomas E. Connolly re-asserted the paramount allegorical significance of the character Faith and justifiably concluded that "this story is Hawthorne's criticism of the teachings of Puritanic-Calvinism," though he limited the object of Hawthorne's criticism to predestination. Giving further scrutiny to Faith can establish a more specific probability of meaning, which converts to theological terms Hawthorne's ubiquitous thesis that the most serious personal evil is retreat from reality and responsibility.
A doctrine of one group of Calvinists during the time depicted in the story was Antinomianism, which insisted that salvation was of faith, not of works. If good works existed, they came only as a secondary by-product of the mysterious divine grace; personal volition was de-emphasized, if not...
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SOURCE: "Young Goodman Brown's 'Heart of Darkness'," in American Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, January, 1966, pp. 410-19.
[In this essay, Hurley discusses Goodman Brown's forest encounter with the Devil as the product of his diseased mind. ]
The critical controversy which has centered on Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" seems to have reached an impasse. Critics have usually seen the story as an allegory embodying Hawthorne's suspicions about man's depravity. This interpretation implies that the Devil's words to Goodman Brown—"Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness."—echo Hawthorne's own attitude. R. H. Fogle, for instance, writes [in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952], "Goodman Brown, a simple and pious nature, is wrecked as a result of the disappearance of the fixed poles of his belief. His orderly cosmos dissolves into chaos as church and state, the twin pillars of his society, are hinted to be rotten, with their foundations undermined." Hawthorne, Fogle says, "does not wish to propose flatly that man is primarily evil; rather he has a gnawing fear that this might be true." And Harry Levin has unequivocally stated [in The Power of Blackness, 1958] "The pharisaical elders . . . meeting in the benighted wilderness, are doing the devil's work while professing righteousness."
On the other hand, F. O. Matthiessen and W. B. Stein...
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SOURCE: "The Ending of 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 343-45.
[In the following essay, Abcarian contradicts previous critics who state that the ending of Hawthorne's tale is anticlimactic and redundant]
"Young Goodman Brown" is certainly one of Hawthorne's greatest stories and arguably one of the finest short stories ever written. With the economy of genius, Hawthorne dramatizes the discovery by a young and good man "that all deified Nature absolutely paints like a harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnelhouse within . . ." [Herman Melville, Moby Dick] and the consequences of that discovery. The story is rich and ambiguous enough to have elicited a good deal of critical comment and controversy. However various the approaches and divergent the interpretations, the most illuminating and useful studies have maintained a respectfully critical attitude toward the story. Although many critics have been puzzled and disturbed by Faith's pink ribbon and by the relationship between the daylight world of the opening and the hallucinatory world of the midnight mass, most commentators feel that the story is a successful artistic whole.
Yet alongside this criticism has run another interpretation of "Young Goodman Brown" of a curiously astigmatic sort, a criticism rendered more lamentable by its rather supercilious and...
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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Explicator, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1969, item 32.
[In this essay, Ferguson points out the importance of color symbolism as it pertains to Faith's pink ribbons in "Young Goodman Brown."]
Much concern has been expressed about the significance of Faith's pink ribbons in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," and this commentary has perhaps been initiated in part by F. O. Matthiessen's observation that the author's "literal insistence" on them, as they first appear to Goodman Brown in the forest, damages the effect of what is otherwise portrayed as "the realm of hallucination" (American Renaissance, New York, 1941). More recently, Richard Harter Fogle has attempted to explain this apparent inconsistency by suggesting that the ribbons in this same instance "may be taken as part and parcel of [Brown's] dream," adding that because they vanish into their "shadowy background" their impact is "merely temporary" (Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952). While these observations may help account for the concrete appearance of the ribbons, they tell us little about their meaning in the story.
To be sure, Hawthorne does "insist" on the pink ribbons—three times in the opening six paragraphs and twice thereafter at crucial points in the story—but what observers have failed to underscore is the fact that each time he...
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SOURCE: "Ambivalence in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 577-84.
[In the following essay, Paulits characterizes Hawthorne's tale as one in which the dominant theme is the ambivalence of the human heart when presented with a choice between good and evil.]
My hope in this article is that a discussion of ambivalence and of its concomitants of temptation and deception may provide the still-missing clue to the interpretation of the intent of "Young Goodman Brown." I am distinguishing sharply between ambiguity and ambivalence. Ambiguity is concerned with intermingled meanings—the double meanings in the witches' prophecies to Macbeth or Fedallah's to Ahab, or the amphibologies in Quince's Prologue to "Pyramus and Thisbe" in Midsummer Night's Dream or its antecedent in Ralph Roister Doister. Ambivalence is concerned with opposed feelings within the same person when confronted with a value or values. "Young Goodman Brown" does employ ambiguity but, I think, in the service of a more pervasive theme of ambivalence.
In his fine book, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Angus Fletcher writes: "Allegorical literature always displays toward its polar antagonisms a certain ambivalence. This much-used term does not mean 'mixed feelings,' unless we are willing to amend the phrase to a 'mixture of diametrically opposed...
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SOURCE: "The Forest of Goodman Brown's Night: A Reading of Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, September, 1970, pp. 473-81.
[In the essay below, Cook provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of Hawthorne's short story, observing that Goodman Brown's compulsive pact with evil is caused by his masochistic desire to punish himself.]
"Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart . . . "
Hamlet v. 2, 220
In a literary epoch when the dominant field of action was the frontier settlement, the forest, and the fort, Hawthorne focussed on the world of moral imagination. His "Young Goodman Brown" is a paradigm of this particular world, and Brown's behavior on a fateful night in his life is the key to this haunting tale. Although the motives for Goodman Brown's behavior are ambiguous, the consequences of his compulsive acts are clear but frightening.
It is truly an enchanted forest into which Goodman Brown enters on his way to keep a tryst. "The magic forest," says Heinrich Zimmer in The King and the Corpse, "is always full of adventures. No one can enter it without losing his way. The forest has always been a place of initiation for there the demonic presences, the ancestral spirits, and the forces of nature reveal...
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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Explicator, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, January, 1971, item 44.
[In the following, Dickson notes that Goodman Brown lacks charity, the greatest of the Christian virtues.]
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is the story of a youth's initiation into the knowledge of the universality of the evil in man's heart. The story is ambiguous on the question of whether this newfound knowledge is trustworthy or illusory, though it is perhaps significant that the only guarantor of the authenticity of Brown's experience is the Devil, himself the father of deception. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of Brown's psychology, the inherent truth of falsity of the knowledge is unimportant anyway. What matters is first that he accepts it as true, and second that, having done so, he becomes "a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man. . . ."
Now it is interesting that a person raised in a Puritan culture should be traumatized by the realization that evil is a universal feature of human nature. After all, that this is so is a prime tenet of the Calvinist theology. There are several possible explanations. Perhaps Brown's hitherto academic knowledge of evil had just now been personally borne home to him. Perhaps he had become convinced that evil was not just an ingredient of human nature, but the main ingredient. Since this...
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SOURCE: "Freudianism, American Romanticism, and 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 33, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 3-6.
[In the essay below, Campbell rejects psychoanalytic interpretations of "Young Goodman Brown," which see the story as an allegory of the conflict caused by sexual sin.]
Certainly Freudian criticism has made substantial contributions to the understanding of some aspects of American romanticism—in studies of the sexual symbolism in much of Whitman's best poetry, the tortured ambiguities of Melville's Pierre and some of his short stories, and the relation between Poe's probable impotence and his creative work, to mention only a few examples that come readily to mind. It has even been said that some of the American Romanticists themselves anticipated Freud in describing the shadowy subliminal origin of some of their images. It seems to me, however, that in the twilight area between the unconscious and the conscious of the Romanticists these vague beginnings of images which then emerged into the conscious and became full images were not pre-Freudian but were far closer to what Jacques Maritain [in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, 1955], has called creative intuition or the spiritual preconscious, of which, says Maritain, "Plato and the ancient wise men were aware, and the disregard of which in favor of the Freudian unconscious alone is a sign of the...
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SOURCE: " 'Young Goodman Brown' and the Failure of Hawthorne's Ambiguity," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 8, December, 1971, pp. 425-31.
[In this essay, Humma argues that the ambiguous ending of "Young Goodman Brown" reveals Hawthorne's artistic failure rather than his triumph.]
Most critics of "Young Goodman Brown" consider it one of Hawthorne's finest short stories. Richard H. Fogle, for instance, says [in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952] that in "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne has achieved that "reconciliation of opposites which Coleridge deemed the highest art." Daniel Hoffman [in Form and Fable in American Literature, 1965] ranks it as "one of Hawthorne's masterpieces." To Roy Male "Young Goodman Brown" is nothing less than "one of the world's great short stories" [Hawthorne's Tragic Vision, 1957]. In spite of such accolades (or perhaps because of them), few critics are agreed as to the story's precise meaning. In general, the criticism falls into two broad categories: to the first belong such critics as Male, Fogle, and Harry Levin, who feel the story reveals Hawthorne's sentiments about the essential iniquity of mankind [Levin, The Power of Blackness, 1958]; to the second belong those who contend that it is not humanity at all that Hawthorne indicts, but Brown himself. For both groups, the question of whether Brown experienced or dreamed the...
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SOURCE: 'The Woe That Is Madness: Goodman Brown and the Face of the Fire," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1973, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1973, pp. 177-82.
[In the following essay, Morsberger contends that Goodman Brown's loss of faith in others reflects the beginnings of American political and social paranoia.]
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...
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SOURCE: "Young Goodman Brown' as Historical Allegory," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1973, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1973, pp. 183-97.
[In the essay below, St. Armand analyzes Hawthorne's short story as "an historical parable, pure and simple."]
In his 1964 Centenary essay, "On Hawthorne" [included in Beyond Culture, 1965], Lionel Trilling declared that:
. . . in the degree that he does not dominate us, Hawthorne cannot wholly gratify us, moderns that we are. He is an exquisite artist, yet he suggests to us the limitations of art, and thus points to the stubborn core of actuality that is not to be overcome, and seems to say that the transaction between it and us is after all an unmediated one. . . . He has no great tyrant-dream in which we can take refuge, he leaves us face to face with the ultimately unmodifiable world, of which our undifferentiated human nature is a part.
Trilling's use of the word "exquisite" has heralded a new phase in the history of Hawthorne criticism and the remarkable Hawthorne revival which came to a rich culmination in the 1950's of Neo-Orthodoxy and the New Criticism. We are now in a period marked by modification and repetition, if not by absolute retrenchment, and more and more Hawthorne is being read not as a bold explorer of "a blackness ten times black"...
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SOURCE: "'Young Goodman Brown and Puritan Justification," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 200-03.
[In this essay, Johnson examines "Young Goodman Brown" in terms of the Puritan doctrine of justification, in which "God might open the hearts of certain men, allowing them to descend within in order to know themselves."]
Criticism of "Young Goodman Brown" has traditionally been divided into speculations about the nature of the hero's journey. Was it a dream? Or was it reality? Newton Arvin is usually cited as representative of the view that Goodman Brown received a true vision of human depravity in the woods, and F. O. Matthiessen is representative of the view that the sins witnessed by young Goodman Brown were creatures of his own making [Newton Arvin, Hawthorne, 1929; F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 1941]. Almost no modern critic supports Arvin's view, however, so the old argument rarely arises in the old way. Questions about the reality of the story and Brown's relationship to it continue to interest critics, however. A new dimension is given the problem of Goodman Brown's relation to a special kind of reality in the light of what we know and what Hawthorne knew about the Puritan doctrine of justification, a belief which has to be understood in terms of Covenant Theology. The Puritan believed that, since Adam broke the first covenant with God in the...
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SOURCE: "The Concluding Paragraph of 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 29-30.
[In the essay below, Gallagher illustrates how the conclusion successfully completes the circular plot of "Young Goodman Brown."]
In the concluding paragraph of "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne uses the forest experience to its fullest effect, moving Brown through another series of separations to the ultimate separation, from life itself. To some critics, in fact, the concluding paragraph itself has seemed a separation, breaking the neat circularity of Hawthorne's plot, moving in linear fashion through time from Brown's figurative death at the threshold of his house to his literal death at the threshold of the grave. Yet I agree wholeheartedly with Richard Abcarian, though for different reasons, that the paragraph is not anticlimactic, a digression, an example solely of Hawthorne's penchant for heavy moralizing, or a violation of the neatly unified circular form [Abacarian, 'The Ending of 'Young Goodman Brown'," Studies in Short Fiction III, No. 3, Spring 1966].
First, the paragraph is replete with echoes, especially verbal echoes, which tie it to incidents in the forest experience while the effect of that experience reaches its highest peak. That Goodman Brown has become permanently stern and sad as a result of his one night in the forest is linked...
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SOURCE: "The Problem of Faith in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXXIV, No. 3, July, 1975, pp. 375-87.
[In the following essay, Levy examines Faith as a character, an allegorical figure, and a symbol]
Few of Hawthorne's tales have elicited a wider range of interpretations than "Young Goodman Brown." The critics have been victimized by the notorious ambiguity of a tale composed of a mixture of allegory and the psychological analysis of consciousness. Many of them find the key to its meaning in a neurotic predisposition to evil; one goes so far as to compare Goodman Brown to Henry James's governess in The Turn of the Screw [Darrel Abel, in "Black Glove and Pink Ribbon: Hawthorne's Metonymic Symbols," in NEQ 42, 1969]. The psychological aspect is undeniably important, since we cannot be certain whether "Young Goodman Brown" is a dream-allegory that takes place in the mind and imagination of the protagonist, an allegory with fixed referents in the external world, or a combination of these that eludes our ordinary understanding of the genre itself. The story is all three: a dream vision, a conventional allegory, and finally an inquiry into the problem of faith that undermines the assumptions upon which the allegory is based.
Whether we think of the central episode of the witches' Sabbath as a dream or an hallucination, or as a...
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SOURCE: "The Reader in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1975, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1975, pp. 156-69.
[In this essay, Liebman argues that Hawthorne's concern in "Young Goodman Brown" is to challenge the reader's own morality and to force the reader to choose between conflicting possibilities of meaning. ]
Like "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and "The Maypole of Merry Mount," "Young Goodman Brown" begins at dusk, and the journey on which its hero embarks is ventured among diminishing lights and growing shadows which signify a world of moral uncertainty and announce the coming of a moral crisis. In "the heart of the dark wilderness," as in so many of Hawthorne's stories, a young man is given the opportunity to see nature as it really is, illuminated by no lights other than its own and observed by his eyes only. Like Reuben Bourne, Goodman Brown enters a "dark and gloomy" labyrinth in which the only knowledge he can gain is personal, and the only resources at his disposal are his own heart and mind. He must come to grips with the nature of things in the deep, dark, pathless wilderness of night and determine to his own satisfaction and on the basis of his own observation whether the universe is, beyond the power of his own will and desire, divine or demonic or both.
Of course Brown concludes, though only implicitly and...
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SOURCE: "Setting and Fictional Dynamics," in Hawthorne's Functional Settings: A Study of Artistic Method, Editions Rodopi, 1977, pp. 128-31.
[In the essay below, Carlson discusses how Hawthorne inverts the symbolic significance of the forest and village settings to initiate the breakdown of Goodman Brown's simplistic understanding of good and evil.]
The most obvious ambiguity in "Young Goodman Brown" (New England Magazine, April, 1835) falls under H.-J. Lang's third classification, . . . the ambiguity of external actions. Was Brown's experience in the forest real, or was it a dream? Certainly, a strong case for this ambiguity could be culled from the implications of the scenic elements, but this is not the ambiguity which I intend to discuss because, clearly, it makes little difference to the ultimate meaning which Hawthorne wished to express. To the reader who asks "[h]ad Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?" Hawthorne answers "[b]e it so if you will."
The ambiguity which is thematically central to the tale is the confusion of good and evil. Beginning with a clearly defined polarity of village and forest, the functional setting reflects the clearly defined separation between right and wrong in Brown's simplistic moral vision. In his uncomplicated schema Faith and Salem represent good, and the forest represents evil. But in...
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"Young Goodman Brown': Hawthorne's Condemnation of Conformity," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1978, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Gale Research Company, 1984, pp. 137-45.
[In this essay, Matheson asserts that Goodman Brown's resistance to the Devil is based solely on his desire to conform to approved social practices and protect his public image.]
At first glance, it might appear farfetched to see Hawthorne's Goodman Brown as the spiritual ancestor of someone like Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that the same preoccupation with social convention, public appearance, and conformity in general that characterized Lewis's twentieth-century protagonist is behind most of the speeches and actions of Hawthorne's seventeenth-century Puritan. Indeed, if Brown does lose the battle with the Devil for his soul, a case can be made that his lack of self-reliance is the most important contributing factor in his damnation.
Virtually everything Brown says and does stems from a concern with preserving his public image in some form or other. This is first seen as he bids farewell to his "aptlynamed" and obviously allegorical wife Faith. That Faith is Brown's wife, and hence "his," is symbolically just as important to the story as is her name. For this indicates that whatever can be said about her symbolic role actually applies to some aspect of Brown. They...
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SOURCE: "Narrative Structure and Theme in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 221-28.
[In the following essay, Hostetler investigates how conflict between the points of view of the title character and the narrator of "Young Goodman Brown" creates an ironic tension from which Hawthorne "develops his criticism of Brown's lack of awareness of the controlling power of the mind."]
One of Nathaniel Hawthorne's major themes concerns conscious awareness of the reality which the mind imposes on external objects. Hawthorne's characters are repeatedly confronted by the need to establish the relationship between their imaginations and the external world. Their ability to make the epistemological distinctions between the products of their mental processes and their sense impressions of the external world frequently governs their ability to develop a sound moral relationship with other people.
"Young Goodman Brown" illustrates especially well the fatal consequences of psychological misjudgment concerning perception and reality. The problem of establishing point of view is central to developing this interpretation. Although Hawthorne's narrator exists outside the story line, the tension between the conflicting interpretations of experience provided by the narrator and Goodman Brown from their different points of view creates the basic...
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SOURCE: "Six Tales: 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Nathaniel Hawthorne, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 81-7.
[In the following excerpt, Martin focuses on Goodman Brown's incomplete but cataclysmic initiation into evil]
To judge from the title, wrote Herman Melville in his review of Mosses from an Old Manse, one would suppose that "Young Goodman Brown" was "a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to 'Goody Two-Shoes.' Whereas it is as deep as Dante." Readers since Melville's time have agreed that "Young Goodman Brown" is one of Hawthorne's most profound tales. In the manner of its concern with guilt and evil, it exemplifies what Melville called the "power of blackness" in Hawthorne's work. The thrust of the narrative is to move the protagonist toward a personal and climactic vision of evil which leaves in its aftermath an abiding legacy of distrust.
"Young Goodman Brown" takes in a strict if surprising sense the form of a story of initiation; ritual and ceremony dominate the central scene in which Goodman Brown is invited to become an initiate into the community of evil proclaimed by the devil. And although the ritual of initiation is perforce left incomplete, Goodman Brown is ruined for life by all that the devil shows him. In the course of one evening he is given such a monstrous perception of the scope, depth, and universality of evil that he is forever blind...
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SOURCE: "The Law of the Fathers: Hawthorne," in Desire and the Political Unconscious in American Literature: Eros and Ideology, St. Martin's Press, 1990, pp. 49-78.
[In the excerpt below, Girgus offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Goodman Brown as a tormented neurotic who represses both his sexual desire for Faith and his doubts about his parentage.]
On a relatively conventional level of Freudian analysis, Young Goodman Brown would appear to be an unhappy neurotic who cannot reconcile himself to his wife's carnality and cannot return or enjoy the love she represents. He cannot appreciate her natural desires: ' "Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, "prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afraid of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year".' Possibly this is a veiled plea from the wife, one that probably was made frequently in the past, to consummate their marriage of three months. Brown, however, leaves her bed to go off into the forest, ultimately to participate in a Witches' Sabbath on All Saints' Eve, a ritual historically associated with licentiousness.
The sexual symbolism of this evening suggests that Brown succumbs to the very force of sexuality that he dreads...
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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 33-55.
[In this essay, Keil examines "Young Goodman Brown" in terms of nineteenth-century views concerning masculinity and femininity.]
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" traditionally has been read as an examination of crises of faith, morality, and/or psychosexuality. Early readings focused on questions of theology and conduct, but since the opening years of the 1950s, a second category of readings has emphasized the psychosexual elements. Roy Male, for example, argued [in Hawthorne's Tragic Vision, 1957] that "the dark night in the forest is essentially a sexual experience, though it is also much more," while Frederick Crews observed [in The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, 1966] that in his dream experience, the young, newly wed, and still oedipal Brown, fleeing from the sexuality of married love, removes himself to a place where he can voyeuristically and vicariously enjoy that which he directly shuns. The third important category of readings attempts to ground the story in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century documents about witchcraft to which Hawthorne had access. Most significant of these considerations are David Levin's contention [in "Shadows of Doubt: Specter...
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Stanton, Robert J. "Secondary Studies on Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,' 1845-1975: A Bibliography." Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes XXXIII, No. 1 (1976): 32-52.
Describes over 400 studies on Hawthorne's short story.
Abel, Darreil. "Metonymic Symbols: Black Glove and Pink Ribbon." In The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne's Fiction, pp. 125-41. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1988.
An examination of the central structural symbols of "Young Goodman Brown."
Bell, Michael Davitt. "Allegory, Symbolism, and Romance: Hawthorne and Melville." In The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation, pp. 126-59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Discusses Young Goodman Brown as an allegorist who chooses to live according to abstract notions of good and evil rather than acknowledge his own sinful impulses.
Bunge, Nancy L. "Unreliable Artist-Narrators in Hawthorne's Short Stories." Studies in Short Fiction 14, No. 2 (Spring 1977): 145-50.
Examines Hawthorne's use of unreliable artist-narrators in conjunction with the theme of brotherly love....
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