In "Young Goodman Brown," was Brown's experience in the forest a dream or a reality?

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Hawthorne's tales inhabit a middle ground between illusion and reality. The reader often cannot be sure if the action is presented as something actually occurring, if it is a dream or hallucinatory experience, or if it is somehow all of the above. This ambiguity is a central theme of Romantic...

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Hawthorne's tales inhabit a middle ground between illusion and reality. The reader often cannot be sure if the action is presented as something actually occurring, if it is a dream or hallucinatory experience, or if it is somehow all of the above. This ambiguity is a central theme of Romantic (especially Dark Romantic) literature, and it is an extension of the nineteenth-century view of man as a being who essentially creates a reality of his own through the power of his mind. As in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, one of Hawthorne's contemporaries, there is no simple answer to the question of dream vs. reality in "Young Goodman Brown."

Hawthorne's personal religious beliefs are open to interpretation, but by his time, even most devout Christians probably no longer believed that Satan or the Devil was an actual being who took human form and visited people on earth. The story of Goodman Brown meeting the mysterious stranger in the woods is a parable, a metaphorical representation of the struggle within one man's soul. The Devil "wins," not because he is converting Brown into an evil man, but because Brown turns into a misanthrope, hating and distrusting other human beings (including his wife, Faith) on account of their supposed evil.

Hawthorne himself asks the following question:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting? Be it so, if you will. But, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown.

That the question is left open is typical of Hawthorne, Poe, and other writers of their period.

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The answer to this question can be left to the opinions of individual readers. The narrator of the story does not tell readers either way if Brown's experience in the forest was dream or reality. It definitely could have been a reality. Brown certainly thought so; however, if a reader absolutely doesn't believe in Satan, then that reader can also defend the position that it was a dream. Certainly, it seems quite fantastical that all of those seemingly good people could be servants of the Devil, but then again, the Devil is a powerful being. I don't think it truly matters if it is real or not. The result is the same. Brown is left a shell of a man. He has lost his faith in his religion, in his wife, and in his fellow townspeople. After seeing what Brown saw, he simply can't bring himself to interact with anybody in the way that he used to interact. This is probably why I would side with the events being real. I've had some vivid and very real feeling dreams; however, I always realized it was a dream shortly after waking up.

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How one answers this question is dependent upon whether one believes the devil (and the supernatural) is real, I suppose. For me, Goodman Brown's experience in the forest was a dream, but a dream that showed him the reality of people's hearts and ruined his ability to believe in his friends and family for the rest of his life. 

Nothing in the tale seems real. The older man he meets is only "about fifty years old," but says, "I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's War." This is impossible, of course, unless he's ageless. 

I suppose my biggest reason for arguing that this is a dream is that nothing is explained to anyone, either in the story or to the readers of the story. The reasons for Goodman Brown's going on the errand are obscure; he doesn't even seem to know. Also, he seems hell-bent (so to speak) to meet with the dark lord, but also reticent about being seen with him. This is not explained, either. His wife doesn't ask where he's going and we aren't told why "this night of all nights" is a bad night to be out. The fact that the whole story is so surreal and unexplained points to its being a dream, the only situation I know of where stories unfold with odd occurrences without questions or explanations.  

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