Among the earliest works of the short story genre, "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) is also among the most brilliant. Few can match it in its dramatic appeal, linguistic precision and economy, irony, philosophical depth, or controlled ambiguity. It has lent itself to widely and wildly different interpretations, ranging from being regarded as a Puritan parable to an attack on Puritanism, and from affirming the presence of incarnate evil in the world in the form of the devil and witches, to treating evil merely as a matter of perception. Drawn to the story by its complexity and the demands it places on careful reading, scholarship has made considerable headway in reconstructing its intellectual background and the relationship of the author's biography to it, and in identifying and charting its subtle patterns of structure and effects. As a result, although like any other literary classic it may never be definitively explicated, its area of productive literary interpretation has been considerably narrowed but deepened. Generations of scholars have approached a consensus that in addition to being attracted to, and knowledgeable about, the history of Puritan New England, Hawthorne was a serious student of the psychology of not just the Puritan but also the religious mind. In the final analysis, "Young Goodman Brown" is not only about the Puritans, nor is it only an analysis of what a member of a seventeenth-century American Protestant sect believed and how he acted; it also transcends the particulars of time and place and is a universally valid study of how belief, and especially certitude of belief, can affect the human mind.
Because of the story's ambiguity, even a summary of its plot is not a simple matter, and for that reason plot summary is likely to reveal as little about the true power of the story as a plot summary of Hamlet would of the play. At all levels, the story is highly dramatic and gripping, but readers who take the story line literally find its gloom upsetting and may be moved by it to see Hawthorne as a critic of the evils of society and to conclude that the world that they know is more sinister than they thought. This view, however, would invert the story and mistake the vehicle for the contents it carries. The power and appeal of the story are enhanced by scholarship that demonstrates that the plot is deceptive and the underlying conflicts much more complex and even more compelling than the surface narrative.
TECHNIQUES AND THEMES
Although written relatively early in Hawthorne's career, the story nevertheless contains some of his most characteristic themes and techniques. Had it not appeared six years before Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" (1841), it might have been regarded as a counter or antidote to the radical individualism that essay preaches. Whereas Emerson tends to see things in black and white and as either/or issues, Hawthorne's tale eloquently depicts how inaccurate perception can be and how often ambiguity attends reality or illusion cloaks it and, therefore, how recognition of these complications should discourage simplistic judgments. In the forest with his companion, for instance, Brown is shaken by the revelation that the Puritan community and his own family are not as perfectly virtuous as they seem, and he precipitously leaps to the extravagant conclusion that they are totally wicked.
Technically, the tale is highly sophisticated. The story is told, for example, by an omniscient but unobtrusivelmost to the point of effacementarrator who, with few but important exceptions, is restricted to the limited functions of narrating the plot and channeling the protagonist's thoughts. The protagonist seems to be a good young man with whom it is easy to identify. Readers are therefore inclined to sympathize with him and to overlook the considerable amount of evidence subtly introduced throughout the tale that indicates that most of what he believes he experiences on his night journey into the forest is a dream and that, because he never suspects this, his impressions are not to be accepted as prima facie truths but are to be interpreted. In large measure, therefore, "Young Goodman Brown" is a tale about what goes on in Brown's mind. But the narrator never identifies with Brown, whose perceptions are erroneous, or endorses the conclusions Brown reaches that unfairly malign not just his own community but the world at large. Readers who sympathize with Goodman Brown are led by almost imperceptible degrees to the slippery position that he alone is good and everyone else is evil.
When Hawthorne wrote the story, he was already a master of symbolism, allegory, ambiguity, and irony, four of the story's outstanding features. As with John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a literary progenitor, each character in Hawthorne's tale has symbolic in addition to dramatic value, and while the narrative succeeds at a literal level, the interplay of the symbols effectively constitutes an artful and absorbing allegory. The central personage of young Goodman Brown, who symbolizes youth (although he is no longer young at the end) and goodness (although that value is qualified), focuses the story into an allegory of the plight of every human being who seeks to achieve and maintain mature integrity in a murky world.
A wide spectrum of irony colors the story, from the obvious, such as the comment that the devil"would not have felt abashed at the governor's dinner table, or in King William's court" (p. 76), to subtle revelations that emerge gradually, such as the fact that Brown is faithless to both Faith and faith, his wife and his religion. Controlled ambiguity, together with irony, thoroughly but deftly permeates the narrative. Indeed, the majority of sentences have ironic capabilities, and certainty is the victim of the invitation of many passages to be read in more than one way, a consequence of Hawthorne's use of the device of multiple choice, one of his favorites. He clearly wanted readers to ponder the text carefully. The least effect of so much alternate possibility is to render literal readings of the story line unlikely. However, not all alternate possibilities lead to full interpretations. The tale has main themes that supply purposeful direction through the ambiguities and ironies.
It is easier to describe an impression of the tale than to articulate what it supports. This was done most famously by Herman Melville, Hawthorne's contemporary and friend, in his 1850 review essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses." Melville stated that a "great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free" (p. 51). Melville's genius and eloquence have endowed this view with long life, but while it is true that Hawthorne had Calvinist roots and was a student of Puritanism, it is far from a foregone conclusion that there is a "power of blackness" in him. In "Young Goodman Brown," in fact, Hawthorne illuminates what is dark rather than projects darkness. Insofar as he addresses the issue of innate depravity derived from a Calvinistic view of original sin (i.e., the corruption of human nature), he rejects it.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
When approaching the story from a biographical perspective, one learns that Hawthorne was reticent about explaining his personal beliefs; he preferred to express them indirectly in his fiction. It is certain, however, that he was neither a Puritan nor a latter-day Calvinist. This understanding is important because years of studying the Puritans enabled him to penetrate so deeply into the Puritan mind and psyche that he was able to represent with authority unmatched until the mid-twentieth century the historical framework of belief and mind-set of Young Goodman Brown. This is done so convincingly that many readers assume that Hawthorne essentially agrees with his main character. For the same reason, the poet William Blake considered Satan to be the real hero of Milton's Paradise Lost. The reasoning in both cases is understandable but wrong. Great authors, including Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as Hawthorne and Melville, have always been able to represent believably the humanity of characters of whom they did not approve.
Hawthorne was thirty years old and unemployed when he published "Young Goodman Brown" in the April 1835 issue of the New-England Magazine. It was collected and reprinted in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), which received favorable general reviews, including Melville's and one by Edgar Allan Poe. At the beginning of his writing career, however, there was little reason to suspect that he would be a literary success. After he graduated Bowdoin College in Maine in 1825, he returned to Salem to live somewhat reclusively in his mother's house for approximately thirteen years. Most biographers agree that Hawthorne spent those years reading and acquiring what the poet Dylan Thomas called the "craft or sullen art" of writing. The details of what he read are important to know; he furthered the education begun at Bowdoin. All students enrolling at Bowdoin knew from the moment of registration which courses and books they would study for the next four years and which professors they would have. There were no "majors" or different tracks; the course of study was the same for all students.
A major component of a Bowdoin education was training in classical rhetoric, Aristotelian logic, and the elements of religion. It does not follow, of course, that all students would have fully agreed with everything they studied, but at least they would have demonstrated competence in the subjects. From what little we know of Hawthorne at Bowdoin, he was uncommunicative about his true interests, but when he returned to Salem, approximately 10 percent of the books he checked out from the library of the Salem Atheneum related to religion and philosophy.
Hawthorne's training in logic and philosophy is applied to the following passage from "Young Goodman Brown":
"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given."
And maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate, that he seemed to fly along the forest path, rather than to walk or run. (P. 83)
This passage is rife with faulty logic and moral danger signals, too ingeniously concocted to have been accidental on Hawthorne's part. It shows Brown to be both confused and in a state of despair, a major sin for Christians, and it is strong evidence that Hawthorne has distanced himself from Brown by exposing the unreliability of his point of view.
A substantial part of the rest of Hawthorne's reading dealt with New England history. It was this reading that gave him the familiarity with the details of Puritan history and religious culture that he drew upon for The Scarlet Letter and many of his short stories, especially "Young Goodman Brown." David Levin and Michael J. Colacurcio have demonstrated persuasively that an essential element in the story's historical background is the seventeenth-century controversy over the validity of "specter evidence," testimony based on the perhaps sincere but unverifiable beliefs of individuals that they witnessed others (or their likenesses) in the community engaging in such forbidden activities as witchcraft or devil worship. Specter evidence played a crucial role in the Salem witch trials; lives were lost and great personal damage was suffered before such testimony was banned. It is known that Hawthorne familiarized himself with the details of specter evidence and the ultimately telling objections to it, and one of his towering achievements is the creation of the character of Young Goodman Brown, who was ruled by it without knowing it.
COMPLEXITY DISGUISED AS SIMPLICITY
Indeed, Brown is rendered so matter-of-factly that readers are likely not to ask crucial questions of the narrative. The first sentence of the story, for example, is by itself a tour de force of how a heavily loaded statement can be presented with disarming casualness: "Young Goodman Brown came forth, at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife" (p. 74). Brown sets out on his journey at sunset, an ominous time in a village surrounded by wilderness and enemies. He crosses a threshold and exchanges a "parting" kiss with his Faith. Each of these three elements will have major repercussions. Inasmuch as we soon learn that Brown has an "evil purpose" (p. 75) we must ask what it is and when he encounters evil. Brown simply wishes to know what evil is. As soon as he encounters the devil figure in the forest, Brown tells him that having kept "covenant" (p. 76) by meeting him, he now intends to return home. His journey had been motivated only by intellectual curiosity. It was a brilliant stroke of Hawthorne's genius to realize that a young seventeenth-century Puritan was likely to conceive of evil in the tangible figure of the devil. He also understood that a naive young man raised in a holy community of "visible saints" (which was the standard to which Puritans aspired) might actually believe that in order to find out what evil is he has to leave the community, and that to be evil one must dedicate himself formally to the devil. Ironically, therefore, the story really begins before the first sentence; it begins when Brown decides to find out what evil is. But the mere interest in evil is evil, so it is inside of Brown all the time, concealed by his naive misconception that when found it will be external to himself in the shape of the devil and can be easily left behind at will.
Hawthorne handles the details of the meeting with exquisite irony. Brown, we are told, "passed a crook of the road" and looking forward "beheld the figure of a man, in grave and decent attire" (p. 75). The subtle pun "crook of the road" can refer both to a bend in the road and to the devil, who is believed to bend minds and steal souls. It is important to note that the narrator never refers to the devil by that name: he is always a "figure," or "elder person," "traveller," "the other," or some such term. Hawthorne uses these circumlocutions purposefully; he deliberately distinguishes between the omniscient narrator as channeler of Brown's fantasies and the narrator's own views, which are usually presented inobviously. The narrator never says the devil is present; Brown convinces himself that he literally meets the devil incarnate. If Brown expected to find the devil in red, with horns, tail, and pitchfork, he is surprised to find only the "figure" of a man, possibly ominous only in that his attire is "grave" (p. 75). The figure not only looks like a Puritan, he even resembles Brown. By such adroit touches, Hawthorne suggests that evil is not "out there" but inside of us.
By the same token, Brown's conviction that he apprehends fellow villagers in the forest prevents himnd sympathetic readersrom recognizing them as projections of his mind, extensions of his original delusion. Goody Cloyse, his catechism teacher and spiritual adviser, is introduced only as a "female figure" (p. 78). This figure identifies Brown's companion as the devil, but in counterpoint to the figure's admissions of witchery are the narrator's understated but factual descriptions of Cloyse as "a very pious and exemplary dame" and "pious old lady" (p. 78). Brown is made to choose between his lifetime knowledge of the real Cloyse and this aberrant apparition. He instantly loses faith in the real Goody Cloyse. Next, Brown does not even think he sees the town minister and Deacon Gookin, he only believes he recognizes their voices in the "empty air" (p. 82). Again he trusts his impressions and abandons his experiential knowledge. He discards everything in which he believes except for Faith. She (and what she symbolizes: love, trust, and support) is all that stands between him and despair. And so when Faith's pink ribbon seems to float down from a "black mass" (p. 82) of cloud overhead, Brown surrenders to despair.
PROBLEMS IN DISTINGUISHING ILLUSION FROM REALITY
The critic F. O. Matthiessen errs in analyzing the story when he claims "the literal insistence on that damaging pink ribbon obtrudes the labels of a confining allegory, and short circuits the range of associations" (p. 284). In other words, within the context of a hallucinatory vision, the appearance of something concrete breaks the otherwise seamlessly consistent narrative. But the ribbon is as much an illusion as everything else Brown thinks he sees or hears. From the moment, early in the story, when the devil figure urges Brown to accompany him farther into the forest, and Brown "unconsciously" (p. 76) resumes his walk, all that happens is part of a dream: the apparitions, the voices, the ribbon, and the devil's conclave in the forest. Intensely wrought up by his purpose to meet the devil, Brown is so overcome by his imagination that first he convinces himself that he is with the devil and then he becomes unconscious. In the story's last two paragraphs, the possibility of a dream is mentioned twice. When Brown awakens in the morning, he is not where the devil supposedly held court, the remote glade in the forest to which Brown "flew" (p. 84), but near enough to the village to walk to it.
When he arrives, all is as he left it, including Faith "with the pink ribbons" (p. 89). All is as he left it, but he is changed, perceiving not what is there but what his dream causes him to see. He is perturbed by the congregation's singing of a holy hymn that sounds to him like an "anthem of sin" (p. 89) and by the "blasphemer" (p. 89) minister's preaching from the Bible. If readers have completely identified with Brown, then they share his unrealistic insistence on associating only with pure people, and they forget that the Bible and religion are there for humans who are not perfect but aspire to become better. If readers are troubled by hypocrites preaching and singing, they might reflect that if the Bible is true, the fact that a hypocrite reads from it or sings hymns based on it does not detract at all from its truth. And if it discomfits readers to think that their ministers and fellow congregants are sinners, then readers should recall that religion teaches that no one, themselves included, is without sin. In recognizing no middle ground between depravity and his notion of saintliness, Brown's "goodness" is evilly narrow.
The story's ending is all the more tragic because the persisting consequences on Brown of his dream are baseless and unnecessary. He lives out his life in the immature either/or fallacy, unable to cope with humans who though not saints are yet more good than bad. He continues to live with Faith, despising her, and yet begets children with her. It is a horrifying picture of how delusion can poison even the most beautiful gifts that life has to offer and pervert legitimate and innocent happiness into gloom. The story's final irony is in its last sentence: "And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tomb-stone; for his dying hour was gloom" (pp. 890). Brown is followed to his grave by a "goodly" procession. This is the narrator's judgment. The procession is goodly not just by being numerous but by being virtuous. Troubled by fellow humans whom he feared did not tell the truth, Brown at the last is not lied about by them.
"Young Goodman Brown," then, is a tale that does not explicitly advance an agenda of its own so much as criticize a fallacious one. But its own moral import is inferable when it is closely and thoughtfully examined for the grounds of its criticism. While undercutting belief in the literal existence of the devil and witches by exposing the dangerously subjective nature of specter evidence, it proposes that the mere knowledge of evil can be sufficiently destructive by itself if indulged and acted upon. Furthermore, the attendant belief that one is the only virtuous and infallible person is itself a form of evil because it bases action on a fallacy and blinds one to seeing good in the world. Young Goodman Brown is most vulnerable when he rejects the wholesome influences of other human beingsspecially those who earned and deserved his trust: his minister, Deacon Gookin, Goody Cloyse, and his wife, Faithnd the faith of his religion, which warned him against the presumptuous beliefs he adopted, and thus makes possible their aid in moderating his obsession.
In "Young Goodman Brown," paralleled in Hawthorne's oeuvre by such other tales as "The Minister's Black Veil" (1835), "The Birth-mark" (1843), "Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent" (1843), "Ethan Brand" (1850), and also The Scarlet Letter (1850), readers are warned against extreme self-reliance before Emerson advocated it. No single work of Hawthorne, this story included, can be regarded by itself as a representative microcosm of his personal philosophy, but "Young Goodman Brown" reflects his classical conservatism in its emphatic acknowledgment of human limitations. In the tradition of that standard primer of American principles, The Federalist (1787788), and in its distrust of infallibility, extremism, and other simplistic responses to life's complexities, the story is one of literature's most rationally and psychologically convincing arguments for humanity's need of a balance of powers, to protect ourselves against ourselves.
See also The Bible; "The Birth-mark"; The Blithedale Romance; Calvinism; "The Custom-House"; Gothic Fiction, "Hawthorne and His Mosses"; The House of the Seven Gables; Individualism and Community; Puritanism; The Romance; The Scarlet Letter; Short Story; Transcendentalism; Utopian Communities; Wilderness
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Lawrence I. Berkove