Themes and Structure in "Young Goodman Brown"
Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of those rare writers who drew great critical acclaim during his own lifetime. To his contemporaries—Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville—as well as to the next generation of writers, Hawthorne was a genius. Poe said in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales that Hawthorne has ''the purest style, the finest taste, the most available scholarship, the most delicate humor, the most touching pathos, the most radiant imagination." Hawthorne's work, consisting of over 50 stories and sketches as well as such classic novels as The Scarlet Letter, continued to draw attention after his death and experienced a particular resurgence of interest after World War I. His writings attract readers not only for their storytelling qualities, but also for the moral and theological ambiguities Hawthorne presents so well.
The Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges and the eminent American scholar Harold Bloom both agree that Hawthorne's shorter works are his best. Foremost among his stories in popular appeal and critical respect is "Young Goodman Brown," which tells the story of a young Puritan drawn into a covenant with the Devil, despite his attempts to resist. In the course of one evening, Brown's illusions of the godliness of his society are shattered as he discovers that his fellow townspeople, including religious leaders and his wife, are attending a Black Mass. At the end of the story, Brown is left to wonder whether his vision was, in fact, a dream. Yet the delineation between the imaginary and the real does not matter, because the mere ability to see such evil in his loved ones destines Brown thereafter to a life of desperate gloominess. The prose is powerful, prompting Melville, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales to delight in this ''strong positive illustration of that blackness in Hawthorne."
''Young Goodman Brown'' has been analyzed through many lenses, including the psychological, historical, sociological, theological, and semantic. Critics still disagree over fundamental questions such as whether Brown is a victim or has only himself to blame for what befalls him. One feature that does stand out in the work is the accurate portrayal of Puritan society. Hawthorne clearly understands the demands of the Puritan faith, and it is no surprise to find that he has a legitimate claim to this heritage—among his ancestors number a constable who "lashed [a] Quaker woman so smartly" and a military officer who engaged in the destruction of an Indian village. Hawthorne also includes in his story the characters of Goody Cloyse, who taught Brown catechism, Martha Carrier, who had been promised to be "the queen of hell," and Goody Cory, all of whom were real people accused of sorcery during the Salem Witch Trials. Deacon Gookin also figures in Puritan history, as does, of course, Salem village. Such details challenge the reader to analyze Hawthorne's intentions: is he trying to influence us through his use of history to believe that Brown was not dreaming? Is he trying to cast doubt on historical figures and thus show that no one is beyond suspicion? Whatever the answers may be, Hawthorne effectively places us in the story, illustrating the social milieu which produced the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Though "Young Goodman Brown" is sharply steeped in Puritan history and culture, like all great works of literature it can be viewed on a more universal level as well. "Young Goodman Brown" takes the form of an allegory, which uses certain elements of a story (characters, plot, etc.), or the entire story itself to symbolize something else. Brown represents Everyman ("Goodman" was a title for those who were beneath the social rank of ''gentleman''), while Faith, his wife, represents his religious devotion. In leaving Faith, Brown forsakes his belief in the godliness of humanity. He immediately enters into a wood "lonely as could be," which is enshrouded in "deep dusk ... deepest in the part" through which Brown walks. These woods are the physical location in which he will explore his doubts and conflicting desires. That he feels ambivalent about forging an alliance with the Devil is clear from his first entry into the forest, when he tells his companion that ''Faith kept me back awhile.'' Yet though he pledges to return to Faith—or to his belief in humankind—several times,...
(The entire section is 1806 words.)