Would you please criticize 'Young Goodman Brown' by Nathaniel Hawthorne from New Critical Approach (New Criticism)?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Among the assumptions of New Critical Analysis are that analyses should emphasize intrinsic meaning over extrinsic.  This intrinsic meaning is found in the organic unity of the text and in the use of literary conventions and semantic tensions that apply.  The best interpretations are those which seek out ambiguities in the text and then resolve these ambiguities as a part of demonstrating the organic unity of the text.

The main ambiguity that arises from Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is the question the author himself poses,

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

This ambiguity of Hawthorne's story is resolved through his uses of metaphor, double entendre, and counter-balanced sentence structures.


The most obvious metaphor is the supposed wife of Goodman Brown, whom the reader discerns represents the conscience of Goodman.  For example, in the exposition of Hawthorne's story, Faith begs him to stay "this night of all nights," but he says he must go "this night."  He promises his Faith that he will return after this night, but as he leaves he notices "trouble in her face."  It is apparent that Goodman Brown wrestles with his conscience; when the old man recognizes him, indicating that there have been previous meetings, Brown blames his Faith who "kept me back awhile."  As he embarks on his journey into the forest with the old man, Brown worries about breaking Faith's heart, and is in conflict with his conscience as he asks the old man/devil, "...is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her [Goody Cloyse--a witch]"


Hawthorne employs semantics to convey the ambiguities regarding the experience of Young Goodman Brown.  In many of his sentences, there are double meanings which can be construed.  For example, after the old man has flown Goody Close to the black mass, he tells Deacon Gookin that he must hurry and nothing can be done "until I get on the ground."  This phrase can mean that he arrives at the mass, or he lands from the air in which he has been flying.  Then, Goodman Brown "caught hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart."  Here, too, Brown may be flying on the devil's stick or he may being feeling guilty.  But, later Hawthorne writes that Brown "seemed to fly" and "he flew."  He hears voices in the clouds "aloft in the air." (He or the clouds?)


Creating ambiguities that actually contribute to the intrinsic unity of Hawthorne's theme of hypocrisy in the Puritan, Goodman Brown, Hawthorne writes sentences that balance conflicting ideas:

It was strange to see that good shrank from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.

Another verse of the hymn arose, a slow and mournful strain, such as the pious love, but joined to words which expressed all that our nature can conceive of sin, and darkly hinted at far more.

Verse after verse was sung; and still the chorus of the desert welled between like the deepest tone of a mighty organ;...and every other voice of the unconcerted wilderness were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man in homage to the prince of all.

At the wor, Goodman Brown stepped forth from the shadow of the trees and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart.

Through the use of these counter-balanced terms which reflect the pangs of conscience in Goodman Brown, along with metaphor and double-entendre, the final ambiguity of Goodman's experience in the woods as reality or a dream is resolved as the workings of his inner self, a hypocritical self that projects his guilt onto others, much as the congregation of Rev. Cooper's do when the minister dons a veil over his face in another of Hawthorne's stories about Puritanism.

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Young Goodman Brown

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