How was Nathaniel Hawthorne affected by Puritanism, and how did Puritanism influence his short story "Young Goodman Brown"?
Nathaniel Hawthorne was affected by Puritanism in a number of different ways. After all, Hawthorne was born and raised in New England, a part of the country in which the Puritan heritage was especially strong. Moreover, Hawthorne’s own ancestors had been Puritans. One of them, in fact, had been involved in the infamous witch trials at Salem, and Hawthorne seems to have been quite troubled by the conduct of this ancestor in particular. Another way in which the influence of Puritanism can be seen in Hawthorne’s writings involves his deep interest in sin. Hawthorne’s writings are often dark and gloomy, but they are also almost always morally serious. In other words, they almost always deal with matters of right and wrong, of good conduct and bad. Hawthorne was highly aware of the often grim legacy of Puritanism, and he was also interested in the hypocrisy that Puritan beliefs could sometimes produce in some people.
Hypocrisy, of course, is a major theme of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Brown himself seems hypocritical when he heads off into the woods, apparently to meet the devil, assuming that he can engage in evil one last time before he returns to a life that he assumes will be entirely virtuous. However, Brown is even more hypocritical when he passes harsh judgment on others he encounters in the woods, even though he himself is there. He is especially distraught when he thinks he discovers that his own wife, Faith, whom he had considered completely pure, is also in the woods, apparently communing with Satan. Brown’s tendency to judge others harshly for thoughts and deeds of which he may be guilty himself makes him liable to the charges of hypocrisy that were often leveled against Puritans.
Perhaps the most disturbing section of “Young Goodman Brown” is the final paragraph, which notes of Brown that after he returned from the woods to town, he became a
stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man . . . from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers.
In other words, Brown takes on the role of God. He self-righteously and inappropriately condemns others for their supposed transgressions. Rather than examining himself and his own scrutinizing his own conscience, he presumes to sit in judgment of others.
Hawthorne was very interested in guilt and sin, in part because of his great-great-grandfather's participation in the Salem Witch Trials. In fact, he was so embarrassed by his ancestor's guilt that he actually added the "w" to his last name in order to separate himself more fully from Judge Hathorne. Much of Hawthorne's work focuses on the effects of guilt and sin on individuals, especially when they remain secret—think of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale of The Scarlet Letter or Father Hooper of "The Minister's Black Veil." Like those characters, Young Goodman Brown would likely be much better off if he were simply honest about his sinfulness. He tries to hide it from his wife, Faith, and if he had simply told her where he was going, then perhaps things would not have gone so terribly awry. Likely, they would have gained a better understanding of one another, bringing them closer together in their relationship. Many people, perhaps beginning in America with the Puritans, seemed to try to hide the fact that they were sinners—this is a popular Hawthorne theme: we are ALL sinners—an irony that added hypocrisy to sin and alienated each individual from his or her fellows, never to be understood or known, and always to be alone. This story is no different and is, thus, certainly affected by Hawthorne's Puritan past.