To what extent is Hawthorne's use of dreams crucial in "Young Goodman Brown" and in "The Birthmark"? Explain how Hawthorne uses dreams as a means to complicate our view of his characters.
In "Young Goodman Brown," the protagonist goes into the woods to test his faith: in himself, in his wife, and in humanity. We don't know if Brown's experience was a dream or not:
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
Brown could have actually experienced these things in the woods or he could have dreamed them. In either case, he had an experience that challenged his faith. And after that experience, he lost his faith in humanity. The ambiguity of whether his experiences were real or just a dream suggests that both mental/spiritual experiences and experiences in the real physical world affect the way we see the world. The uncertain conclusion is that we don't know if Brown loses his faith because of his own mental visions or because he saw evil in the real world. This complicates the closure of the story but, on the other hand, it suggests that there is a connection between our mental visions and the real world. If it was a dream, perhaps Brown was dwelling on his own doubts; not necessarily dwelling on real experiences of corruption and fallible people in his town.
Just as Brown's dream (or real experience) suggested to him that there is evil in the world, Aylmer had a foreboding dream that suggested to him that removing the birthmark might be a foolish idea.
Truth often finds its way to the mind close muffled in robes of sleep, and then speaks with uncompromising directness of matters in regard to which we practise an unconscious self-deception during our waking moments.
Brown's dream was a warning that there is evil in the world. His choice was whether or not to accept this and preserve his faith or to dwell in despair. Aylmer's dream was a warning to avoid trying to play God. He ignored the warning. Here is the difference between the two stories. Brown was overcome by his dream and was defeated by its implication of evil in the world. Aylmer ignored the warning of his dream.
In each story, the character has a dream, a vision, or an experience. What complicates the character's development is how they respond to the dream. What further complicates their response is the unreliability of dreams. How can we trust them? How do we know if they are spiritually or morally motivated? How can we be sure we interpret the dream correctly? This story was written long before psychoanalysis and Freud's work on dream interpretation. But that is essentially what's going on in these stories: the complicated mystery of interpreting dreams. Do they reflect our own doubts, real events in the world, or both?
Both Goodman Brown and Aylmer turn their backs, even in the very short term, on God. When Brown sets off into the forest, he abandons his wife, Faith, who is symbolic of Christian faith. He thinks to himself,
"Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night."
Brown plans to "'cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven'" as soon as "'this one night'" is finished. Faith's dream seems to have served as a warning that only terrible things would come of Brown's trip into the forest. Prior to attempting it, Aylmer dreamed of attempting to remove his wife's birthmark. In this dream,
the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the [birthmark], until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.
When Brown temporarily relinquishes his faith (and his Faith), and when Aylmer resolves to play God by trying to perfect what God created, dreams seem to predict what the result will be: neither man's plot will go according to plan. Both will end in failure and misery. In a way, then, this makes the men even more culpable than they already seem to be: not only does Brown make a selfish decision, but he does so despite his conscience's (and his wife's) warning not to; not only does Aylmer play God, but he also places his love of science before his love of his wife. The dreams that play a role in each of their stories make them even more to blame, making their sins that much worse because they committed them with eyes wide open.