How do imagination and reality interact in "Young Goodman Brown"?

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There is an ambiguity within "Young Goodman Brown" as to whether his vision in the forest actually happened to him, or whether it was a dream. The story does not express a clear answer to this question either way.

As far as this question is concerned, however, it...

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There is an ambiguity within "Young Goodman Brown" as to whether his vision in the forest actually happened to him, or whether it was a dream. The story does not express a clear answer to this question either way.

As far as this question is concerned, however, it might be useful to consider the story's resolution, rather than the vision in the forest (because there, that ambiguity between imagination and reality does not exist, and one can more clearly discern the ways through which the one influences the other).

Goodman Brown's vision in the forest has destroyed his capacity to trust in the goodness of others. From that point on, he can only see wickedness and sin around him. This we see in his return to Salem and his treatment of the people there. When the minister gives him a blessing, he recoils from it. Meanwhile, Hawthorne writes of his encounter with Goody Cloyse:

Goody Cloyse, that excellent old Christian, stood in the early sunshine at her own lattice, catechizing a little girl who had brought her a pint of morning's milk. Goodman Brown snatched away the child as from the grasp of the fiend himself.

Finally, there is his reunion with his wife, Faith, who meets him joyfully. Hawthorne writes of his response:

Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.

From the beginning of the story, Goodman Brown's expectations of the people around him have shaped his perception of the world. This is a factor which would continue to hold true at its end. After his vision in the forest, Brown has become a cynic, and those cynical expectations will proceed to shape his perception of reality. The result is to cast the remainder of his life in misery.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's story is precisely about the relationship between imagination and reality. Goodman Brown may have a powerful imagination, or strange things may have happened to him in the forest. It is also possible that these strange things happen to him precisely because he is sensitive to supernatural forces (through his imagination) that less sensitive people would not notice; that is, Goodman is a visionary.

Hawthorne may be telling a story about one person and his walk through the woods. He may also be relating an allegory of a spiritual journey that includes temptation and resistance. Goodman's name is a hint toward that interpretation. More broadly, this one man's story can be understood as standing for the larger Puritan community of which he is a part. Rather than emphasizing Brown as an individual, the reader can think about characteristics of a Puritan outlook on such concepts as sin and possession and consequently their powerful influence on the way in which people see the world.

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It is, ultimately, unclear whether or not what Goodman Brown sees in the forest is real. It could be that his imagination conjures up images of the devil in the shape of his father, the witches' meeting, his wife's presence there, and the presence of everyone in Salem, practically. The narrator distinctly leaves open the possibility that it all could have been a dream, asking:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

He leaves this question unanswered.

However, we must ask ourselves: does it matter? Whether everything was simply an imagined fiction or actually took place, it changed the course of Goodman Brown's life forever. From then on, he was a "stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man." He could no longer enjoy his relationship with his faith, and "his dying hour was gloom." If what happened in the forest was all in his imagination, it became his reality regardless. He feels he can no longer trust anyone, and this estranges him from humanity and from God for the rest of his life.

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In one of Dean Kootz's novels, a character declares that "perception is reality" and in the case of the character Young Goodman Brown this is certainly true. A proud, sanctimonious character, who fancies himself as the only one capable of journeying with the devil and being able to return with his soul unscathed, Goodman perceives everyone in relation to his self-image. With this sanctimonious self-deception, Goodman Brown's imagination interprets events into his own reality.

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