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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, February, 1952, pp. 93-6.
[In the following essay, McKeithan observes that Hawthorne is more concerned with the demoralizing consequences of sin than with sin itself]
The majority of Hawthorne critics feel that "Young Goodman Brown" is one of the very best of Hawthorne's tales, but there is somewhat less certainty as to its meaning. The theme of the story has been variously stated as the reality of sin, the pervasiveness of evil, the secret sin and hypocrisy of all persons, the hypocrisy of Puritanism, the results of doubt or disbelief, the devastating effects of moral scepticism, or the demoralizing effects of the discovery that all men are sinners and hypocrites.
Mark Van Doren, in the fullest and most recent criticism [Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1949], gives a thorough analysis of the tale both as to its artistry and as to its meaning. I quote briefly from his discussion of its meaning:
"Young Goodman Brown" means exactly what it says, namely that its hero left his pretty young wife one evening . . . to walk by himself in the primitive New England woods, the Devil's territory, . . . and either to dream or actually to experience (Hawthorne will not say) the discovery that evil exists in every human heart. . . . Brown is changed. He thinks there is no good on earth. . . . Brown, waking from his dream, if it was a dream, . . . sees evil even where it is not. . . . He had stumbled upon that "mystery of sin" which, rightly understood, provides the only sane and cheerful view of life there is. Understood in Brown's fashion, it darkens and sours the world, withering hope and charity, and perverting whatever is truly good until it looks like evil at its worst: like blasphemy and hypocrisy.
This survey of critical opinion is not complete, but it is all I have space for in this brief note. All of these interpretations are plausible, and a good case might be made for each. Some of them agree essentially, and the interpretation which I present below partly coincides with some of them, though it points out certain truths so obvious that I marvel at the critics' neglect of them.
At the end of Chapter VIII of The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne discusses the effects on various types of mind of the discovery or suspicion that "judges, clergymen, and other characters of that eminent stamp and respectability, could really, in any single instance, be otherwise than just and upright men." But to those critics who think they have discovered in this or in similar passages the theme of "Young Goodman Brown" I would suggest that it would be more logical to look for the theme of "Young Goodman Brown" in "Young Goodman Brown" itself. One should carefully guard against reading into the story what is not there. Moreover, elsewhere Hawthorne frequently said that there is evil in every human heart (though evil impulses or desires may not lead to evil deeds), but he does not, in his own person, say so in this story, and that is not, I think, its meaning. The theme is Hawthorne's favorite one: sin and its blighting effects. Goodman Brown's sin is not identified, but its horrible effects are most impressively described. At the end of the story he is full of cynicism and moral scepticism; they are not his sin but merely its effects. The distinction, it seems to me, is essential to a correct interpretation of the story.
Goodman Brown is everyman of average intelligence who is striving to live the good life. For three months he had been married to a lovely young woman symbolizing religious faith. He was not loyal to Faith, though he fully expected to be loyal after just one more indulgence in sin. At some earlier time he had met Satan and had promised to meet him in the forest at night. It is doubtful that he recognized Satan at first, but he knew that his journey was an evil one, and his conscience hurt him because of his disloyalty to Faith. He had confidence in his ability to indulge in the sin—whatever it was—once more and then resist all future temptations. He did not know in advance how far into the forest he would be persuaded to go or what the results would be.
Faith urged him to postpone his journey until the next day, but he said it had to be made between sunset and sunrise. His heart smote him and he called himself a wretch to leave her on such an errand; be believed it would kill her to know what work was to be done that night—and it would have appalled him too if he had known. He thought of her as a blessed angel on earth and said, "After this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." This "excellent resolve" did not prevent his making haste "on his present evil purpose." It is clear that before Brown had any suspicions concerning the sincerity of supposedly pious people—that is, before he had entered the forest—he was himself deliberately and knowingly indulging in sin, though with the intention of reforming soon.
In the body of the story Satan is the main speaker. In two disguises—first as the man with the serpent staff and second as the priest who presides at the meeting of sinners—Satan poisons the mind of Brown and destroys his belief in virtue and piety. But the reader should not make Brown's mistake: he should not suppose that Satan always speaks the truth—nor need he suppose that Satan always expresses Hawthorne's own opinions.
Satan denies the existence of virtue and piety in the world. It is a consequence and a punishment of Brown's sin that he believes Satan and thus becomes cynical. Hawthorne himself believed that evil impulses visit every human heart, but he did not believe that most men are mainly evil or that most men convert any considerable proportion of their evil impulses into evil deeds. In Fancy's Show-Box he said:
It is not until the crime is accomplished that guilt clinches its grip upon the guilty heart, and claims it for its own. . . . In truth, there is no such thing in man's nature as a settled and full resolve, either for good or evil, except at the very moment of execution.
In short, Hawthorne himself does not share the black pessimism that finally came to Goodman Brown as a result of his sin. Hawthorne greatly admired many people with whom he was personally acquainted, and many good characters are pictured in his tales and romances.
Goodman Brown became cynical as a result of his sin and thought he saw evil even where none existed. This is not a story of the disillusionment that comes to a person when he discovers that many supposedly religious and virtuous people are really sinful; it is, rather, a story of a man whose sin led him to consider all other people sinful. Brown came eventually to judge others by himself: he thought them sinful and hypocritical because he was sinful and hypocritical himself. He did not judge them accurately: he misjudged them. The minister of Salem village, Deacon Gookin, Goody Cloyse, and Faith were all good in spite of what Goodman Brown eventually came to think of them.
Moreover, it is not necessary to choose between interpreting the story literally and taking it as a dream. "Young Goodman Brown" is an allegory—which is what Hawthorne meant when he suggested that it might have been a dream—and an allegory is a fictitious story designed to teach an abstract truth. In reality, Brown did not go into a forest at night nor did he dream that he did. What Brown did was to indulge in sin (represented by the journey into the forest at night—and of course the indulgence might have lasted much longer than a night: weeks, months, even years) under the mistaken notion that he could break off whenever he wanted to. Instead of breaking off promptly, he continued to indulge in sin longer than he had expected and suffered the consequences, which were the loss of religious faith and faith in all other human beings.
What Brown's sin was at the beginning of the story Hawthorne does not say, but it was not cynicism: at that time he was not cynical, although he was already engaged in evil dealings with Satan. Cynicism was merely the result of the sin and came later and gradually. By not identifying the sin Hawthorne gives the story a wider application. Which sin it was does not greatly matter: what Hawthorne puts the stress on is the idea that this sin had evil consequences.
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"Young Goodman Brown" Nathaniel Hawthorne
The following entry presents criticism of Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," first published in the April 1835 issue of New England Magazine. See also "The Minister's Black Veil" Criticism.
"Young Goodman Brown" is widely regarded as one of Hawthorne's finest works. Drawing on Puritan theology and traditions of witchcraft, Hawthorne crafted a profound and complex work which has fascinated generations of readers with its portrayal of a self-deluded sinner and its ambiguous conclusion. It is typical of Hawthorne's fiction in its use of historical material, its allegorical mode, and its somber view of human nature. "Young Goodman Brown" is also important in the development of Hawthorne's fiction writing, for it prefigures many of the thematic concerns that are at the center of his novels, such as human depravity, religious doubt, secret guilt, and spiritual isolation. Critics note that this tale is integral to an understanding of Hawthorne's artistry, in that it displays the careful workmanship, rhetorical balance of style, clear narrative technique, and ambiguity of meaning which distinguish his best fiction. Although an early tale, "Young Goodman Brown" reveals the mastery which has led scholars to describe Hawthorne as one of America's most prominent and influential short fiction writers.
Plot and Major CharactersSet in seventeenth-century Salem, "Young Goodman Brown" tells the story of a naive and recently married Puritan who leaves behind his anxious wife, Faith, for a mysterious errand in the primeval forest. In a dreamlike sequence, Goodman Brown keeps an assignation with the devil, sees the shadowy figures of the colony's civil and religious leaders, and hears indistinctly the sorrowful voice of his wife. Maddened with despair at what he believes to be his wife's involvement with the devil, Brown tears through the forest and comes upon a witches' Sabbath where he finds commingled Salem's most revered saints, its most dissolute sinners, and his own wife. In this chaotic and lawless setting, the antithesis of the orderly world of daylight Salem, Goodman Brown recognizes within himself a dark propensity for evil. Urged by the devil to join the ungodly congregation, Brown at the last moment cries out to Faith to "resist the wicked one," and then finds himself alone in the cold night. At daybreak he returns to Salem a greatly changed man, convinced of the evil of others and of his own virtue for having resisted temptation. But this new understanding of his wife and neighbors only embitters him, and he spends his days as a grim misanthrope. In the final paragraph, the narrator remarks that when Goodman Brown died, "they carved no hopeful verse on his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom."
Hawthorne's contemporaries and modern critics have disagreed over the theme of "Young Goodman Brown" and what moral readers are to draw from their reading of the tale. Many have commented on Hawthorne's explorations of human psychology, particularly Brown's obsession with sin and guilt. According to these critics, Brown's inability to recognize his own participation in evil attests to his emotional immaturity, revealing as it does his severely limited view of human nature; even after his forest experience, he continues to deny the human potential for both good and evil. Others have focused on the sexual overtones of the story, and they interpret Brown's discovery of evil in the forest scene as his recognition and rejection of his own sexual nature. These critics point to the many sexual symbols in the tale, and they discuss the sexual implications of the devil's invitation to Brown to learn the deep mysteries of sin. Although he escapes the devil's snare and returns to Faith, with whom he begets several children, he is profoundly repulsed by his knowledge of sexual guilt; hence, he is unable to forgive Faith or the Salem villagers, whom he believes are debauched by their carnal appetites. Another group of critics have discussed "Young Goodman Brown" as a religious allegory, noting the paramount importance of Faith to Hawthorne's tale. In this reading, Brown's rejection of Faith—both his wife and his spiritual beliefs—and his subsequent fall into misanthropy reveals Hawthorne's sharp indictment of Calvinist theology. Brown, convinced that he is one of the Elect and thereby assured of salvation, discovers through his night journey the full import of Calvinist doctrine: man's natural condition is depravity, and thus all mankind deserves eternal damnation. Although critics continue to differ in their interpretation of the story's meaning, they concur that Brown's chief sins are his failure to understand the complexities of human nature and his lack of compassion for his fellow sinners.
The vast number of studies (over 400) devoted to this one story attests to its popularity, but Hawthorne was himself uncertain how his tale would be received. Consequently, he passed over the tale twice when making selections for the 1837 and 1842 editions of Twice-Told Tales, although he did publish it in the relatively obscure New England Magazine in 1835. It was not until nearly twenty years after he wrote the story that he sought a wide readership for this story when he included it in Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. Hawthorne's contemporaries gave the story a mixed reception; the majority of preferred the fanciful and lighter sketches in Mosses from an Old Manse and largely neglected the allegorical tales which Hawthorne's modern readers admire. Edgar Allan Poe, who had applauded the genius of Twice-Told Tales, deplored Hawthorne's reliance upon the allegorical mode in the later collection. Herman Melville, on the other hand, described "Young Goodman Brown" as a marvel, "deep as Dante." Modern criticism of the story has taken three principal directions and has varied in its response to the question of whether Goodman Brown's journey into the forest was an actual occurrence, a dream, or a Satanic trick. Early twentieth-century readers emphasized Hawthorne's treatment of the Puritan doctrines of sin and salvation, Hawthorne's obsession with evil, and the theme of sin and its blighting consequences. A second trend in interpretation of the story focused on its psychosexual elements, variously describing Brown as an Oedipal figure and Faith as representative of the ambiguity of womanhood. More recently, critics have explored Hawthorne's use of historical materials. In particular, scholars have examined Hawthorne's knowledge of and access to late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Puritan documents about theology, political history, and witchcraft. The most recent historical criticism of the story has noted that Hawthorne made use of details of the Puritan experience and incorporated nineteenth-century views of gender relations as a way to examine his own culture's anxieties over theological, sexual, and moral issues. Despite these conflicting interpretations, scholars agree that "Young Goodman Brown" represents a significant achievement in Hawthorne's oeuvre and in the development of the American short story. With rare exception, critics have praised Hawthorne's mastery in exploiting his historical sources for their symbolic, psychological, and mythical possibilities. Critics continue to study "Young Goodman Brown" for its originality, its sophisticated narrative structure, its insight into the American experience, and its authentic exploration of humanity's moral condition.
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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism," in American Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, November, 1956, pp. 370-75.
[In the essay below, Connolly argues that Goodman Brown learns through his experiences that Calvinism is a faith which condemns its followers to eternal damnation.]
It is surprising, in a way, to discover how few of the many critics who have discussed "Young Goodman Brown" agree on any aspect of the work except that it is an excellent short story. D. M. McKeithan [in "Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown: An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes LXVII, No. 94, February 1952] says that its theme is "sin and its blighting effects." Richard H. Fogle in ["Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,'" in New England Quarterly XVIII, December 1945] observes, "Hawthorne the artist refuses to limit himself to a single and doctrinaire conclusion, proceeding instead by indirection," implying, presumably, that it is inartistic to say something which can be clearly understood by the readers. Gordon and Tate assert, "Hawthorne is dealing with his favorite theme: the unhappiness which the human heart suffers as a result of its innate depravity" [Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate, eds. The House of Fiction, 1950]. Austin Warren [in Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1934] says, "His point is the devastating effect of moral scepticism." Almost all critics agree, however, that Young Goodman Brown lost his faith. Their conclusions are based, perhaps, upon the statement, "My Faith is gone!" made by Brown when he recognizes his wife's voice and ribbon. I should like to examine the story once more to show that Young Goodman Brown did not lose his faith at all. In fact, not only did he retain his faith, but during his horrible experience he actually discovered the full and frightening significance of his faith.
Mrs. Leavis comes closest to the truth in her discussion of this story in the Sewanee Review in which she says: "Hawthorne has imaginatively recreated for the reader that Calvinist sense of sin, that theory which did in actuality shape the early social and spiritual history of New England" [Q. D. Leavis, "Hawthorne as Poet," Sewanee Review LIX, Spring, 1951]. But Mrs. Leavis seems to miss the critical implications of the story, for she goes on to say: "But in Hawthorne, by a wonderful feat of transmutation, it has no religious significance, it is a psychological state that is explored. Young Goodman Brown's Faith is not faith in Christ but faith in human beings, and losing it he is doomed to isolation forever." Those who persist in reading this story as a study of the effects of sin on Brown come roughly to this conclusion: "Goodman Brown became evil as a result of sin and thought he saw evil where none existed" [McKeithan]. Hawthorne's message is far more depressing and horrifying than this. The story is obviously an individual tragedy, and those who treat it as such are right, of course; but, far beyond the personal plane, it has universal implications.
Young Goodman Brown, as a staunch Calvinist, is seen at the beginning of this allegory to be quite confident that he is going to heaven. The errand on which he is going is presented mysteriously and is usually interpreted to be a deliberate quest of sin. This may or may not be true; what is important is that he is going out to meet the devil by prearrangement. We are told by the narrator that his purpose in going is evil. When the devil meets him, he refers to the "beginning of a journey." Brown admits that he "kept covenant" by meeting the devil and hints at the evil purpose of the meeting.
Though his family has been Christian for generations, the point is made early in the story that Young Goodman Brown has been married to his Faith for only three months. Either the allegory breaks down at this point or the marriage to Faith must be looked upon as the moment of conversion to grace in which he became fairly sure of his election to heaven. That Goodman Brown is convinced he is of the elect is made clear at the beginning: ". . . and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." In other words, at the start of his adventure, Young Goodman Brown is certain that his faith will help man get to heaven. It is in this concept that his disillusionment will come. The irony of this illusion is brought out when he explains to the devil the reason for his tardiness: "Faith kept me back awhile." That is what he thinks! By the time he gets to the meeting place he finds that his Faith is already there. Goodman Brown's disillusionment in his belief begins quickly after meeting the devil. He has asserted proudly that his ancestors "have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs," and the devil turns his own words on him smartly:
Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. 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. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.
Goodman Brown manages to shrug off this identification of his parental and grandparental Puritanism with the devil, but the reader should not overlook the sharp tone of criticism in Hawthorne's presentation of this speech.
When the devil presents his next argument, Brown is a little more shaken. The devil has shown him that Goody Cloyse is of his company and Brown responds: "What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?" He still believes at this point that his faith will lead him to heaven. The devil's reply, "You will think better of this by and by," is enigmatic when taken by itself, but a little earlier the narrator had made a comment which throws a great deal of light on this remark by the devil. When he recognized Goody Cloyse, Brown said, "That old woman taught me my catechism," and the narrator added, "and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment." The reader at this point should be fairly well aware of Hawthorne's criticism of Calvinism. The only way there can be a "world of meaning" in Brown's statement is that her catechism teaches the way to the devil and not the way to heaven.
From this point on Brown is rapidly convinced that his original conception about his faith is wrong. Deacon Gookin and the "good old minister," in league with Satan, finally lead the way to his recognition that this faith is diabolic rather than divine. Hawthorne points up this fact by a bit of allegorical symbolism. Immediately after he recognizes the voices of the deacon and the minister, we are told by the narrator that "Young 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. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a heaven above him. Yet there was a blue arch, and the stars brightened in it." Here the doubt has begun to gnaw, but the stars are symbols of the faint hope which he is still able to cherish, and he is able to say: "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil." But immediately a symbolic cloud hides the symbolic stars: "While he still gazed upward into the deep arch of the firmament and had lifted his hands to pray, a cloud, though no wind was stirring, hurried across the zenith and hid the brightening stars." And it is out of this black cloud of doubt that the voice of his faith reaches him and the pink ribbon of his Faith falls. It might be worthwhile to discuss Faith's pink ribbons here, for Hawthorne certainly took great pains to call them to our attention. The ribbons seem to be symbolic of his initial illusion about the true significance of his faith, his belief that his faith will lead him to heaven. The pink ribbons on a Puritan lady's cap, signs of youth, joy, and happiness, are actually entirely out of keeping with the severity of the rest of her dress which, if not somber black, is at least gray. When the ribbon falls from his cloud of doubt, Goodman Brown cries in agony, "My Faith is gone!" and it is gone in the sense that it now means not what it once meant. He is quick to apply the logical, ultimate conclusion of Goody Cloyse's catechizing: "Come, devil; for to thee is this world given."
Lest the reader miss the ultimate implication of the doctrine of predestination, Hawthorne has the devil preach a sermon at his communion service: "Welcome, my children . . . to the communion of your race. Ye have found thus young your nature and your destiny." Calvinism teaches that man is innately depraved and that he can do nothing to merit salvation. He is saved only by the whim of God who selects some, through no deserts of their own, for heaven while the great mass of mankind is destined for hell. The devil concludes his sermon: "Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race." It is not at all insignificant that the word race is used several times in this passage, for it was used earlier by Goodman Brown when he said, "We have been a race of honest men and good Christians. . . ." After this sermon by the devil, Young Goodman Brown makes one last effort to retain the illusion that faith will lead him to heaven; he calls out: "Faith! Faith! . . . look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one." But we are fairly sure that he is unsuccessful, for we are immediately told: "Whether Faith obeyed he knew not."
Young Goodman Brown did not lose his faith (we are even told that his Faith survived him); he learned its full and terrible significance. This story is Hawthorne's criticism of the teachings of Puritanic-Calvinism. His implication is that the doctrine of the elect and damned is not a faith which carries man heavenward on its skirts, as Brown once believed, but, instead, condemns him to hell—bad and good alike indiscriminately—and for all intents and purposes so few escape as to make one man's chance of salvation almost disappear. It is this awakening to the full meaning of his faith which causes Young Goodman Brown to look upon his minister as a blasphemer when he teaches "the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable," for he has learned that according to the truths of his faith there is probably nothing but "misery unutterable" in store for him and all his congregation; it is this awakening which causes him to turn away from prayer; it is this awakening which makes appropriate the fact that "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tomb-stone."
Though much is made of the influence of Puritanism on the writings of Hawthorne, he must also be seen to be a critic of the teachings of Puritanism. Between the position of Vernon L. Parrington [in Main Currents in American Thought, 1927], who saw Hawthorne as retaining "much of the older Calvinistic view of life and human destiny," and that of Régis Michaud [in "How Nathaniel Hawthorne Exorcised Hester Prynne," in The American Novel Today, 1928], who saw him as "an anti-puritan and prophet heralding the Freudian gospel," lies the truth about Hawthorne.
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Stanton, Robert J. "Secondary Studies on Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,' 1845-1975: A Bibliography." Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes XXXIII, No. 1 (1976): 32-52.
Describes over 400 studies on Hawthorne's short story.
Abel, Darreil. "Metonymic Symbols: Black Glove and Pink Ribbon." In The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne's Fiction, pp. 125-41. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1988.
An examination of the central structural symbols of "Young Goodman Brown."
Bell, Michael Davitt. "Allegory, Symbolism, and Romance: Hawthorne and Melville." In The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation, pp. 126-59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Discusses Young Goodman Brown as an allegorist who chooses to live according to abstract notions of good and evil rather than acknowledge his own sinful impulses.
Bunge, Nancy L. "Unreliable Artist-Narrators in Hawthorne's Short Stories." Studies in Short Fiction 14, No. 2 (Spring 1977): 145-50.
Examines Hawthorne's use of unreliable artist-narrators in conjunction with the theme of brotherly love.
Carpenter, Richard C. "Hawthorne's Polar Explorations: 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'My Kinsman, Major Molineux.'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24, No. 1 (June 1969): 45-56.
Regards these two tales as companion pieces and explores important parallels between them.
Clark, James W., Jr. "Hawthorne's Use of Evidence in 'Young Goodman Brown'." Essex Institute Historical Collections 111, No. 1 (January 1975): 12-34.
Analyzes Hawthorne's artistic manipulation of historical evidence in his writing of "Young Goodman Brown."
Cohen, B. Bernard. "Paradise Lost and 'Young Goodman Brown'." Essex Institute Historical Collections 94, No. 3 (July 1958): 282-296.
Compares John Milton's Paradise Lost with "Young Goodman Brown," which he describes as "a reversal of the re-birth phase of the Adamic myth."
Colacurcio, Michael J. "Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'." Essex Institute Historical Collections 110, No. 4 (October 1974): 259-99.
Provides an extensive historicist account of Hawthorne's tale.
Connolly, Thomas, ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Young Goodman Brown." Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1968, 143 p.
A casebook of important critical studies of the short story.
Davidson, Frank. " 'Young Goodman Brown'—Hawthorne's Intent." The Emerson Society Quarterly 51, No. 2 (1965): 68-71.
Notes the interest of Hawthorne's story lies in its depiction of the progress of an evil thought.
Easterly, Joan Elizabeth. "Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'." Studies in Short Fiction 28, No. 3 (Summer 1991): 339-43.
Argues that Brown's inability to shed tears when faced with the knowledge of evil reveals his moral and spiritual immaturity.
Erisman, Fred. " 'Young Goodman Brown'—Warning to Idealists." American Transcendental Quarterly 14, No. 4 (Spring 1972): 156-58.
Notes that Hawthorne's story comments on the dangers of Romanticism and Transcendentalism.
Franklin, Benjamin, V. "Goodman Brown and the Puritan Catechism." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 40, No. 1 (1994): 67-88.
Argues that Brown fails to assimilate the dual lessons of the Puritan catechism, that man is innately depraved but capable of attaining salvation.
Gollin, Rita K. "The Tales." In Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Truth of Dreams, pp. 81-139. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Discusses Brown's venture into the forest as a journey into the self which ends as a nightmare of self-damnation.
Hollinger, Karen. "'Young Goodman Brown': Hawthorne's 'Devil in Manuscript': A Rebuttal." Studies in Short Fiction 19, No. 4 (Fall 1982): 381-84.
Rejects the view that Hawthorne conceived of "Young Goodman Brown" as a satire and argues that the narrator recognizes humanity's capacity for both good and evil.
Jayne, Edward. "Pray Tarry With Me Young Goodman Brown." Literature and Psychology XXIX, No. 3 (1979): 100-13.
A psychoanalytic study which examines Young Goodman Brown as a negative archetype and investigates Haw-thorne's use of paranoia to structure his narrative.
Jones, Madison. "Variations on a Hawthorne Theme." Studies in Short Fiction 15, No. 3 (Spring 1978): 277-83.
Compares Hawthorne's use of Puritan theology in several of his best-known short stories, including "Young Goodman Brown."
Morris, Christopher D. "Deconstructing 'Young Goodman Brown'." ATQ: American Transcendental Quarterly n.s. 2, No. 1 (March 1988): 23-34.
Seeks to illuminate how the reader, like Brown himself, cannot fix one meaning to the events of the story because the words and gestures lead only to uncertainty.
Mosher, Harold F., Jr. "The Sources of Ambiguity in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': A Structuralist Approach." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 26, No. 1 (1980): 16-25.
Analyzes the structure of contradictions which creates the ambiguities of Hawthorne's story.
Rohrberger, Mary. "Hawthorne's Short Stories: Analyses of Representative Works." In Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story: A Study in Genre, pp. 24-47. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1966.
Examines "Young Goodman Brown" from Freudian and archetypal perspectives.
Stoehr, Taylor. "'Young Goodman Brown' and Hawthorne's Theory of Mimesis." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 23, No. 4 (March 1969): 393-412.
An analysis of Hawthorne's metaphorical style in his most celebrated short stories.
Tritt, Michael. " 'Young Goodman Brown' and the Psychology of Projection." Studies in Short Fiction 23, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 113-17.
Asserts that Brown projects his guilt onto Salem's inhabitants as a way to escape his knowledge of his own feelings of anxiety.
Wagenknecht, Edward. "Tales." In Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Man, His Tales and Romances, pp. 17-72. New York: Continuum, 1989.
Examines the multiple levels of meaning faced by readers of "Young Goodman Brown" which make unanimity among critics impossible.
Williamson, James L. " 'Young Goodman Brown': Hawthorne's 'Devil in Manuscript'." Studies in Short Fiction 18, No. 2 (Spring 1981): 155-62.
Identifies Hawthorne's short story as a "hell-fired" satire of nineteenth-century conventions of authorship.
Additional coverage of Hawthorne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Authors & Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 18; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 1; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Modules—Most-Studied Authors Module and Novelists Module; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 39; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3; World Literature Criticism; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children.
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SOURCE: "The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1958, pp. 331-36.
[In this essay, Walsh discusses the threefold symbolic pattern of Goodman Brown's experience in the forest which results in his surrender to despair.]
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
The above question, found in the second to the last paragraph of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous short story, "Young Goodman Brown," has perhaps inspired more comment than any other sentence of the author's works. But it is futile to attempt to answer the question, especially since the author himself has intentionally avoided it. Yet most commentators have chosen between the two alternatives that Hawthorne has offered, and their choice determines the meaning they give to the short story: those who think that Goodman Brown's experience in the forest is not a dream say that he is the victim of an evil world in which he finds himself (such an interpretation makes Hawthorne more pessimistic than he is usually thought to be); those who think that Brown's experience is a dream put the responsibility for his despair, not on the world, but on him.
It is the purpose of this paper, which is more in agreement with the conclusions of the latter group, to show that Hawthorne's method in "Young Goodman Brown" is such that the tale's full meaning cannot be determined by the narrative itself, which would involve attempting to answer the author's question about Brown's experience in the forest. Rather, the reader must be conscious of a threefold symbolic pattern which objectifies Brown's subjective experience, thereby showing that it is he rather than the world who is responsible for his despair. The reader can never be certain about what actually happened in the forest; he can, however, be certain, not only of the nature and stages of Goodman Brown's despair, but also of its probable cause. And all this can be worked out from the symbolic pattern.
For an understanding of what happens to Goodman Brown the reader should be conscious of three sets of symbols: first, Faith, Brown's wife, represents religious faith and faith in mankind; second, Brown's journey into the forest represents an inward journey into the black, despairing depths of his soul; third, the devil represents Brown's darker, doubting side, which eventually believes that evil is the nature of mankind. The symbolic movement of the forest scenes is from the bosom of Faith to the loss of faith, which involves despair, from the village of belief to the depths of the forest of despair, and from a doubting balance of Brown's personality to the complete submergence of the brighter side into the darker side, which objectifies despair. The three sets of symbols tell the story of a man, young and naïve in the ways of the world, who, finding that men are not all good, became so convinced they are all bad that he could not remove the doubt of universal evil from his mind.
It is difficult to treat each set of symbols separately, so interlaced with each other are they, but first let us consider Faith, who, Hawthorne tells us, is "aptly named." Faith is symbolic of Brown's faith, which he gradually loses as he doubts more and more the existence of any goodness in man. The physical movement away from Faith, marking his own loss of faith, can be traced through the forest scene to the climax at the witches' gathering. Brown's feelings of guilt about his movement away from his wife help to underscore the psychological turmoil involved in the process. He is conscious of the dangers of the mission but is impelled onward by the thoughts of evil which hold him fascinated until it is too late to turn back to his wife and so to faith.
Tracing this symbol through, we note that as Goodman Brown enters the forest, he salves his guilty conscience with the "excellent resolve" that he will cling to Faith's skirts forever after this night. When he meets the devil, he tells him that " 'Faith kept me back awhile'." As he proceeds deeper into the forest, his conscience continues to disturb him: at one point he bemoans the fact that his action will break Faith's heart, while at another point he asks himself why he should quit his Faith. But nevertheless he moves on, going deeper and deeper until his very senses play tricks on him. He tries to reassure himself against overwhelming doubts by looking to the sky; he beguiles himself that he is safe as long as he has the blue heavens and Faith.
But one cannot contemplate such thoughts about evil, which by their very nature undermine all belief, and at the same time keep one's faith. Goodman Brown tries and becomes a man who leans too far over the edge of a pit. Thus the heavens darken and the symbolic pink ribbon makes him cry out in realization, "'My Faith is gone!'," as truly it is, and he wildly laughs in his despair. The storm in his soul and in the forest rises, and he stumbles into the heart of the forest depths where there is symbolically represented the complete perversion of all that he once held dear. As Richard Harter Fogle points out, all the external manifestations of his faith are turned upside down: "The Communion of Sin is, in fact, the faithful counterpart of a grave and pious ceremony at a Puritan meetinghouse. . . . Satan resembles some grave divine, and the initiation into sin takes the form of baptism" [Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952]. And as the external evidences of his religion are perverted, so, climactically, is his very faith, which is symbolized by his discovering his wife in the unholy communion. He has despaired, believing all men are depraved and religion a sham.
Second, there is the journey into the black depths of Young Goodman Brown's soul, paralleled by his journey into the dark undergrowth of the forest. When he enters the forest, we are told, "He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be. . . ." This act is symbolic of what he is doing: he is plunging into the road leading to despair, and the immediate closing of the trees symbolizes the shutting off of his escape. He is alone, cut off from humanity with but one companion, the devil, his own evil genius. The farther he goes, the more hopeless his plight becomes; even Brown realizes it:
"Friend," said the other, exchanging his slow pace for a full stop, "having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples touching the matter thou wot'st of."
"Sayest thou so?" replied he of the serpent, smiling apart. "Let us walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go; and if I convince thee not thou shalt turn back. We are but a little way in the forest yet."
"Too far! too far!" exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk.
The italics are mine and indicate how the physical journey into the forest is related to the devil's growing power over Goodman Brown's soul and to Brown's realization of what he is doing. He knows he has gone too far, but he does not turn back. In the established pattern, he walks on, and the devil talks persuasively: "They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path. . . . "
It is not long until the forest is darkened by the black cloud with its attendant voices, symbolizing Brown's doubt-tortured soul as he cries in despair: "'Faith!' shouted Goodman Brown, in a voice of agony and desperation; and the echoes of the forest mocked him, crying, 'Faith! Faith!' as if bewildered wretches were seeking her all through the wilderness." Then we are told, "The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil."
This scene is Hawthorne's finest bit of writing in the story, making the following scene in the heart of the forest almost anticlimactic. The point of view throughout is consistent and clear. It is Brown who sees and doubts and hears and thinks he hears. We, the readers, see both him and the innermost depths of his soul.
Third, Young Goodman Brown moves from a state of belief, in which the good and naïve side of his nature predominates, to a state of despair, in which the good side becomes submerged in the dark side, symbolized by the devil. The black man Brown meets in the forest is the dark side of his own nature objectified. What this man suggests and reveals to him are his own thoughts, which gradually possess him completely.
We are told not only that Goodman Brown looks like the devil, but that so too do his father and his grandfather. This family identification with the devil, together with the stages by which Goodman Brown comes to believe that his fellow men are evil, becomes most important to an understanding of the beginnings of the dark thoughts which eventually overpower him. The first people who are mentioned with reference to sin are his father and grandfather. Early in his journey Brown protests,
"My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs; and shall I be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path and kept—"
There Brown echoes the good report he might have heard from anyone in the village; but the devil, representing the evil doubts in his mind, rejoins with,
"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."
The facts concerning the persecution of the Quakers and the Indians Goodman Brown must certainly have known before, although in the past he might never have allowed himself to think of them in relation to sin. But what is most interesting, of all those who are mentioned and revealed by the devil, his father and grandfather have in their history that which would make one suspect that they were of the devil's party. Thus, Goodman Brown, having sinned himself or at least realizing his own potentiality for sin, makes the mistake of identifying himself, as the resemblance of three generations of Browns to the devil shows, with his ancestors in a sort of heredity of sin. Behind it all we can see the author brooding over his own ancestors, for, like Goodman Brown's father and grandfather, William Hathorne persecuted both Indians and Quakers, leading two hundred of the former into slavery after killing another eight and ordering Anne Coleman and four of her Quaker friends whipped through Salem, Boston, and Dedham.
From doubts, then, about himself and his ancestors, who show evidences of being evil, Goodman Brown moves to those whose lives are, on the surface of things, uncorrupt. But in his naïveté he begins to suspect that all men are intrinsically evil, even if they are respected members of the community, as were his father and grandfather. Doubts about his ancestors spread, until Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, the parson, and finally Faith herself fall victims to his diseased mind.
The symbolic representation of such increasing doubts is given in the sequence with the devil. The devil is Brown, father, grandfather, all rolled into one, the exact counterpart of Faith, Brown's heavenly side. He is Brown's darker side, which believes that evil is the nature of man. In the forest the dark side of Brown's nature overcomes the good side. We notice that when Brown conjectures about the proximity of the devil, he appears as if he sprang from Brown's very being:
and he glanced fearfully behind him as he added, "What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!"
His head being turned back, he passed a crook of the road, and, looking forward again, beheld the figure of a man, in grave and decent attire, seated at the foot of an old tree.
The devil not only looks like the Browns, but he is distinguished by a diabolic laughter and a staff. We are told that the devil discoursed "so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself." Brown continues on until the ribbon scene. Then the cry of despair—but note its form: "And, maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run."
The submergence is now complete. Brown's dark nature has wholly enveloped his good. He is a devil with a devil's laughter and a devil's staff. If this were not enough, Hawthorne, describing Brown in the forest, tells us, "But he was himself the chief horror of the scene," which stresses the inward symbolic significance of Brown's experience, thereby emphasizing the fact that the cause of Brown's despair is from within, not from without. Such an interpretation is firmly clinched by the following: "The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course. . . ." And finally, we are not surprised to hear the devil say, "'Evil is the nature of mankind'," which is nothing more than an echo, in a forest of echoes, of the demon-like Brown's, " 'There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given'."
What actually happened in the forest must remain, as Hawthorne chose to put it, a question. What happens once Goodman Brown emerges from the forest is clear enough: Goodman Brown lived and died an unhappy, despairing man. These clear facts imply that Brown did enter the forest. The reader, following the narrative line of the story, then asks what happened in the forest. But Hawthorne asks the same question himself, which suggests that it is futile to examine the facts of the narrative to determine the meaning of the story.
The only solution to the problem lies in the tale's complex symbolic pattern. We are sure that on the physical level Goodman Brown emerged from the dark wilderness to live the rest of his dismal life in his community. We are also sure from the threefold symbolic pattern that Brown never emerged from the forest depths of despair. And from the identification of the Brown family with the devil we can reach to the origins of that despair: we see a man who began to doubt, with some reason, the goodness of his own family, which led him to doubt the goodness of all men, until he concluded that, "Evil is the nature of mankind," words uttered by the devil, who represents the dark side of Brown's nature. Hawthorne has shown symbolically not only what happened to a man's soul, but why it happened. His handling of his symbols is expert, subtle, and brilliant enough to dispose the reader to overlook whatever narrative deficiencies there may be.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3213
SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Cynicism or Meliorism?" in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, December, 1959, pp. 255-64.
[In the following essay, Miller contends that Goodman Brown is not meant to be representative of all humanity, and therefore Hawthorne's story is not as pessimistic as is commonly perceived.]
Critics have agreed that Young Goodman Brown, in the course of the Hawthorne story of the same name, moves from a state of simple faith in God and his fellow man to an evil state involving damnation, or at least soul jeopardy. They have also generally implied that as well as being an individual, Young Goodman Brown is in some sense intended to be a type. They have not generally indicated, however, whether they think he is intended to typify all mankind or only one segment of it. This question is important, it seems to me, because on the answer one gives to it depends one's understanding of Hawthorne's view of man when he wrote the story, as well as one's interpretation of this enigmatic but nonetheless fascinating tale.
If, on the one hand, Young Goodman Brown is intended to represent all mankind, Hawthorne himself must be regarded, at the time of composition of this story, as a totally cynical man, obsessed with the notion that even the best of men are but whited sepulchres, unable either to save themselves or to find salvation through divine grace. But if, on the other hand, Young Goodman Brown is intended to represent only a certain segment of mankind, his creator must be viewed as much less pessimistic than the alternative interpretation would suggest.
If it is concluded that Young Goodman Brown's condition is not intended to represent that of all mankind, it remains to be considered whether such men as Brown are doomed by their nature alone to separation from God and man, or whether the kind of society in which they live is an important factor in this separation. If the latter—and if it be granted that in Hawthorne's view, the individuals who comprise society are in a measure free to alter it—it may be concluded that the story, though pessimistic so far as the fate of Young Goodman Brown is concerned, need not be so regarded as it relates to the Young Goodman Browns of the future. On the contrary, it might be regarded as melioristic in outlook, anticipating the dawning of a new and better day.
There remains to be considered an alternative to both possibilities of interpretation mentioned above. It is embodied in Henry James's conclusion that
the magnificent little romance of Young Goodman Brown [sic], for instance, evidently means nothing as regards Hawthorne's own state of mind, his conviction of human depravity and his consequent melancholy; for the simple reason that if it meant anything, it would mean too much [Hawthorne, 1887].
This is to say, in effect, that the picture of mankind painted in "Young Goodman Brown" is so dark that it cannot reflect Hawthorne's view accurately. Consequently it must be viewed simply as an exercise in the free play of the imagination.
James's interpretation of Hawthorne's tale is convenient. It spares the reader the necessity of raising certain disturbing questions, such as the following: Did Hawthorne mean, in "Young Goodman Brown," that the most pious-seeming of men, along with the grossest sinners, are absolutely depraved? If he did, how can his view of mankind here be squared with the views he expressed in The Scarlet Letter, where the scarlet letter itself becomes a symbol of natural virtue annealed by human suffering, or in The House of The Seven Gables, where humanity is represented by the virtuous if faltering Clifford and Hepzibah Pyncheon as well as by that melodramatic quintessence of evil, the Judge?
At the same time one is impressed with the convenience of James's approach one is led to question its correctness. For unless a story is light and frivolous, one expects the critic who finds it difficult to interpret either to discover a meaning in it, or dispraise it finally as inferior art. James, however, does neither. He is far from defining the story's tone as frivolous, he professes himself unable to find a serious meaning in it, yet he does not dispraise it. Instead he attempts to remove the story from the realm of serious art by asserting it was inspired by the "moral picturesqueness" of "the secret that we are really not by any means so good as a well-regulated society requires us to appear." James seems to mean here that Hawthorne, in writing "Young Goodman Brown," was not interested in revealing a truth, but in achieving a poetic effect based on the paradoxical existence among men, of evil in the guise of good.
Whether or not James is right here would seem to depend on the degree of seriousness and conviction one finds in the story. If, after finishing it, one thinks of Young Goodman Brown only as a shadowy figment of the imagination, one is perhaps justified in regarding his story as a hypothetical or speculative tale. But if, like the present reader, one conceives of Brown as only a little less real than Hamlet or Othello and much more real than such characters as Hawthorne's Mrs. Bullfrog or Ethan Brand, if one shudders with Brown at the impalpable menace of the forest, and if, after finishing the story, one is drawn to dark speculation on Brown's soul state at death, one would seem obliged to take the story seriously, to try to pluck out the heart of its mystery.
Whether or not Young Goodman Brown is intended to represent all mankind would appear to depend upon whether or not the author has included in the story a representative sample of mankind, and if so, upon whether Young Goodman Brown is himself representative of that sample. If there were not a fair sample of mankind in the story, Brown would not of course be representative of all mankind, even though everyone else in the story might closely resemble him in essentials.
To put the matter specifically, if it be granted that Young Goodman Brown in the course of the story moves from a state of simple faith to an evil state, and if the story suggests—as Brown himself suspects—that the other characters of the story, as representatives of all mankind, have gone through a similar experience, it will appear that Young Goodman Brown, in the essential matters of the spirit, is representative of all mankind. But if, on the other hand, it be concluded that owing to the Devil's deluding him with false imaginings in the forest, or showing him a sample of mankind which is not truly representative, Young Goodman Brown's suspicions about the world are not justified, then it will follow that Brown himself is not representative of all mankind, but only of some vile, suspicious portion of it.
Among recent critics who conclude that "Young Goodman Brown" views all human nature skeptically, is Richard Fogle. He writes apropos of this tale: "Hawthorne wishes to propose, not flatly that man is primarily evil, but instead the gnawing doubt lest this should indeed be true" [Hawthorne's Usable Truth, 1949]. In Fogle's view, then, Brown would be representative of all mankind as well as of the other characters in the story.
[D. M. McKeithan, in "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes LXVII, No. 94, February 1952] presents a view of the story very different from Fogle's. He writes:
This is not the story of the disillusionment that comes to a person when he discovers that many supposedly religious and virtuous people are really sinful; it is, rather, a story of a man whose sin led him to consider all other people sinful. . . . He did not judge them accurately: he misjudged them.
In other words, Young Goodman Brown does not even come near to being a representative of all mankind. Like a mirror with wavy lines in it, he perversely reflects the world as the world is not. In this view, "Young Goodman Brown" is the story of a warped and twisted psyche atypical of mankind in general.
One may be drawn to a conclusion very like McKeithan's without accepting all the evidence he adduces to support it. One may agree, for example, that Faith retains her virtue in the story. Even Goodman Brown, suspicious as he is, has no proof to the contrary, as the narrator makes clear: "Whether Faith obeyed [Goodman Brown's plea to 'look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one'] he knew not." And the narrator's description of Faith the next morning, "bursting into such joy at sight of him [Brown] that she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village," would certainly suggest that she had summoned the strength to heed her husband's plea. Joy such as Faith showed that morning would seem to be a more natural consequence of resisting temptation than yielding to it, especially with the stakes so high.
There may be some doubt in one's mind, though, whether Brown was as wrong in his judgments concerning the minister of Salem village, Deacon Gookin, and Goody Cloyse, as he was about Faith. For it appears from the story that all three, in contrast to Faith, were of Satan's party even before the forest meeting. Only Faith and Brown himself are referred to as "the converts." It is at this point that an important ambiguity arises, not of the both/and, but of the either/or variety. How do we know whether the figures Young Goodman Brown sees in the forest—the figures of the minister, the deacon, the other citizens of Salem village and of the state of Massachusetts, and Faith herself—are genuine witches, or merely specters of truly virtuous townspeople conjured up by the Devil? They cannot be both at the same time. The same sort of problem faced Hamlet when confronted by his father's ghost, but Brown, unlike Hamlet, simply ignores the problem, leaving it to haunt his interpreters.
In the absence of any final answer to this problem, I conclude that the witches Goodman Brown saw were genuine. Even Faith was a witch. . . . She had been tempted by Satan; then, yielding initially to temptation much as Brown himself had done, suffered herself to be conveyed to the Witches' Sabbath to conclude her pact. Faith's pink ribbon which Goodman Brown sees fluttering down in the forest is the confession of her initial yielding. But Faith's confession also serves as a means of grace. Openly signifying that she still delights in the beautiful things of this world, that she is still vain of her appearance, that the whiteness of her angelism is still mixed with the crimson of her passion for Young Goodman Brown, the pink ribbons keep Faith humble and honest, and thus contribute to her ultimate preservation from the Evil One. Even so, for the duration of her stay in the forest, Faith remains a "witch."
Why do I conclude that the other figures Goodman Brown saw in the forest were also "real" witches? Principally because none of them had ever made any public confession of sin, failure to do which is a dangerous sign in any human being. The proof that they had never admitted to human frailty was Brown's trauma on discovering their guilt. In public the minister "mediate[d] his sermon," Deacon Gookin prayed "holy words," and Goody Cloyse "catechiz[ed]." None of them showed any signs of frailty corresponding to the pink ribbons of Faith, those efficacious talismans that confess one is still earthbound even though one's aspiration is heavenward. Nor did any of them confess, as Faith confessed, to "being troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afeard of herself sometimes." The minister, Deacon Gookin, and Goody Cloyse were the "unco' guid, or the rigidly righteous" of Salem village, and as such were likely candidates for Satan's party.
In other terms, they were pharisees, and their pharisaism led them to hypocrisy. Obeying the letter of the law, they kept from others, and perhaps themselves as well, the sobering fact that, being human, they were unable to follow perfectly the spirit of the law. They fell far short of the ideal expressed elsewhere by Hawthorne: "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred" [The Scarlet Letter].
To summarize, then, although one might reject some of the evidence on which McKeithan's conclusions are based, one might accept at least part of his evidence and conclusion: namely that Faith retains her virtue finally, and that Brown is consequently wrong in continuing to view that part of humanity which Faith represents with suspicion. In this view, Brown, as McKeithan asserts, is not representative of all mankind, and consequently the story is not totally pessimistic.
In apologizing for Brown's misanthropic view of mankind, one might argue that it was an easy step from the observation that all but one at the Witches' Sabbath were corrupt, to the conclusion that all at the Witches' Sabbath, indeed all mankind, were corrupt. And it would be especially easy for Brown, after discovering that some he had regarded as at least as virtuous as Faith had made a pact with the Devil, to come to the conclusion that Faith also had fallen.
At the same time one understands why Brown came to these conclusions, one must recognize that there was no valid reason for his coming to them. As long as his wife Faith gave signs of being faithful, Brown should not have despaired. Even if Faith herself had yielded to the Devil (I speak of Faith now as his wife rather than as a personified abstraction), Brown should have cast his net more widely in Salem village and beyond it in his search for virtue. He should have reckoned with the possibility that somewhere in Salem village, or at least beyond its narrow confines, there might be men neither "famous for their especial sanctity" nor "given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes." For it is worth noting that all of those Brown observes at the Witches' Sabbath fall into one or the other of these categories. Brown should have considered the possibility that the man who confesses his virtue is mixed with vice may possess not only humility, but true virtue as well, insofar as virtue is a plant that grows on mortal ground.
Having concluded that Brown's misanthropic view of all mankind is unjustified, and consequently that Brown, in his own devotion to evil, is not representative of all mankind, one may ask what portion of mankind he does represent.
The answer, I think, is that he represents those weaker members of a puritanical society who are traumatized, arrested in their spiritual development, and finally destroyed by the discovery that their society is full of "whited sepulchres." Others in such a society, with more strength but less moral sensitivity than Brown, recognize the power of hypocrisy to give the appearance of virtue (the sine qua non of success), and capitalize on this discovery to rise to the highest positions of secular and religious authority. Then there are those few hardy souls, who, like Faith, with difficulty preserve their virtue by letting a tincture of their vice be displayed on their breastplate of righteousness.
Hawthorne stands in this story, then, as an analyst and critic of the society that demands so much of a man that he can achieve what is demanded only through hypocrisy, and that blinds itself so thoroughly to the power of sin in the lives of even its best men that it denies them the ritual and balm of public confession.
Other critics have noted Hawthorne's concern with the moral rigorism of Puritanism. Vladimir Astrov, for example, comparing Hawthorne with Dostoevski writes [in "Hawthorne and Dostoevski as Explorers of the Human Conscience," in NEQ XV, June 1942]:
. . . Hawthorne and Dostoevski . . . stressed the power of the irrational and the abysmal in soul and life. . . .
Puritan rigorists had always to protect their integrity and their peace with blinds of inflexible dogmas from the impact of reality. This was the ostrich way to remain "pure" and "consistent." The security thus achieved was, of course, an illusory one. . . .
The result was, inevitably, perpetual moral conflicts, remorse, feelings of sin and guilt.
Herbert Schneider, similarly emphasizing Hawthorne's concern with the blind, malevolent side of human nature, which no display of virtue can eradicate, writes [in The Puritan Mind, 1930]:
For him [Hawthorne] sin is an obvious and conspicuous fact, to deny which is foolish. Its consequences are inevitable and to seek escape from them is childish. The only relief from sin comes from public confession. Anything private or concealed works internally until it destroys the sinner's soul.
These words shed light on the soul state of the minister of Salem, Deacon Gookin, Goody Cloyse, and Goodman Brown, as well as on that of Hester Prynne, in connection with whom they were written.
And Arthur Miller, attempting in his preface to The Crucible  to establish a connection, long since denied by G. L. Kittredge, between the outburst of witchcraft at Salem and Puritanism, has this to say:
The witch hunt was not, however, a mere repression. It was also, and as importantly, a long overdue opportunity for everyone so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victims. . . . These people had no ritual for the washing away of sins. It is another trait we inherited from them, and it has helped to discipline us as well as to breed hypocrisy among us.
Finally, Hawthorne himself has in another work ["Main Street," published in The Snow Image III, 1900] made his criticism of Puritanism explicit:
In truth, when the first novelty and stir of spirit had subsided,—when the new settlement [Salem] . . . had actually become a little town . . . its rigidity could not fail to cause distortions of the moral nature. Such a life was sinister to the intellect and sinister to the heart; especially when one generation had bequeathed its religious gloom and the counterfeit of its religious ardor, to the next; for these characteristics, as was inevitable, assumed the form both of hypocrisy and exaggeration, by being inherited from the example and precept of other human beings, and not from an original and spiritual source.
What better anatomy than this could be found of the kind of society that produced Young Goodman Brown?
In "Young Goodman Brown," then, Hawthorne, as well as "explaining" the Salem witch trials, is pleading that what survives of Puritan rigorism in society be sloughed off, and replaced by a striving for virtue starting from the confession of common human weakness. Such a society would be based upon the firm foundation of humility and honesty rather than upon the sinking sands of human pride and the hypocrisy that accompanies it. In such a society, the soul of even a Goodman Brown might prosper. "Young Goodman Brown" is not so much the story of Brown's view of society as it is the story of the impact of a certain type of society on a man such as Brown.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3132
SOURCE: "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, November, 1962, pp. 344-52.
[In this essay, Levin examines Hawthorne's short story from a seventeenth-century perspective and notes that Goodman Brown succumbs to despair on only spectral evidence of evil.]
I choose for my text two statements written in the autumn of 1692, after twenty Massachusetts men and women accused of witchcraft had been executed. The first is by Increase Mather, the second by Thomas Brattle.
. . . the Father of Lies [Mather declared] is never to be believed: He will utter twenty great truths to make way for one lie: He will accuse twenty Witches, if he can thereby bring one honest Person into trouble: He mixeth Truths with Lies, that so those truths giving credit unto lies, Men may believe both, and so be deceived [Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Impersonating Men].
Brattle was astonished by the ease with which witnesses avoided a crucial distinction:
And here I think it observable [he wrote], that often, when the afflicted [witnesses] do mean and intend only the appearance and shape of such an one, (say G[oodman]. Proctor) yet they positively swear that G. Proctor did afflict them; and they have been allowed so to do; as tho' there was no real difference between G. Proctor and the shape of G. Proctor [Letter, dated October 8, 1692].
Nathaniel Hawthorne's protagonist Goodman Brown commits the very mistakes that Brattle and Mather belatedly deplored in 1692. He lets the Devil's true statements about the mistreatment of Indians and Quakers prepare him to accept counterfeit evidence, and he fails to insist on the difference between a person and the person's "shape," or specter. Most modern critics who have discussed the story have repeated both these errors, even though Hawthorne clearly identifies the chief witness as the Devil and the setting as the Salem Village of witchcraft days. In the last decade, several articles have rightly contended that Hawthorne meant to reveal the faultiness of Goodman Brown's judgment; but the first and most cogent of these did not prevent so distinguished a critic as Harry Levin from alluding to "the pharisaical elders" whom Goodman Brown sees "doing the devil's work while professing righteousness" [The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, 1958]. And the cogent article itself insists that "it is not necessary to choose between interpreting the story literally and taking it as a dream"; that Brown neither goes into a forest nor dreams that he goes into a forest. What Brown does, says D. M. McKeithan [in "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes LXVII, February 1952], is "to indulge in sin (represented by the journey . . . )."
I believe that one must first of all interpret the story literally. The forest cannot effectively represent sin, or the unconscious mind of Goodman Brown, or the heart of the dark moral wilderness, until one has understood the literal statements about the forest in regard to the literal actions that occur therein. Instead of agreeing with one recent critic [Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., in "The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown," Modern Language Quarterly, XIX, December 1958] that "the only solution to the problem" of what happens in the forest "lies in the tale's complex symbolic pattern," let us try to accept Hawthorne's explicit statements of fact. Instead of inventing a new definition of the word "witch," as another critic has done [Paul W. Miller, in "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Cynicism on Meliorism?" Nineteenth-Century Fiction XIV, December 1959], let us try to read the story in the terms that were available to Hawthorne. A proper reading of the literal action removes some of the ambiguity that it is now so fashionable to admire, but it should leave open a sufficient variety of interpretations to satisfy those who insist on multiple meanings, and it will clarify the fine skill with which Hawthorne made the historical materials dramatize his psychological insights and his allegory.
Hawthorne knew the facts and lore of the Salem witchcraft "delusion," and he used them liberally in this story as well as others. He set the story specifically, as the opening line reveals, not in his native Salem, but in Salem Village, the cantankerous hamlet (now Danvers) in which the afflictions, the accusations, and the diabolical sabbaths centered in 1692. Among the supposedly guilty are the minister of Salem Village and two women who were actually hanged in that terrible summer. Hawthorne not only cites testimony that Martha Carrier "had received the Devil's promise to be queen of hell"; he also quotes Cotton Mather's description of her as a "rampant hag," and he even violates Goodman Brown's point of view in order to introduce another actual rumor of 1692: "Some affirm that the lady of the governor was there [at the witches' sabbath]." He takes great care to emphasize the seeming presence at the witches' sabbath of the best and the worst of the community—noting with superbly appropriate vagueness, just before the climax, that the "figure" who prepares to baptize Goodman Brown "bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New England churches."
There can be no doubt that Hawthorne understood clearly the importance of what was called "specter evidence" in the actual trials. This was evidence that a specter, or shape, or apparition, representing Goodman Proctor, for instance, had tormented the witness or had been present at a witches' meeting. Hawthorne knew that there had been a debate about whether the Devil could, as the saying went, "take the shape of an angel of light," and in both "Alice Doane's Appeal" and "Main Street" he explicitly mentioned the Devil's ability to impersonate innocent people. He was well aware that Cotton Mather had warned against putting too much confidence in this sort of evidence; he also knew that after the Mathers and Thomas Brattle had opposed even the admission of specter evidence (the Mathers on the ground that it was the Devil's testimony), the court had convicted almost no one and not a single convict had been executed. It seems certain, moreover, that Hawthorne had read Cotton Mather's biography of Sir William Phips, in which Mather the historian not only echoes his father's language about truths and lies, but clearly suggests that one of the Devil's purposes had been the traducing of Faith.
On the other Part [Mather wrote in 1697], there were many persons of great Judgment, Piety and Experience, who from the beginning were very much dissatisfied at these Proceedings; they feared lest the Devil would get so far into the Faith of the People, that for the sake of many Truths, which they might find him telling of them, they would come at length to believe all his Lies, whereupon what a Desolation of Names, yea, and of Lives also, would ensue, a Man might without much Witchcraft be able to Prognosticate; and they feared, lest in such an extraordinary Descent of Wicked Spirits from their High Places upon us, there might such Principles be taken up, as, when put into Practice, would unavoidably cause the Righteous to perish with the Wicked, and procure the Blood-shed of Persons like the Gibeonites, whom some learned Men suppose to be under a false Pretence of Witchcraft, by Saul exterminated.
[Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, 1702]
If we set aside the alternative possibilities for a while and examine the story from the seventeenth-century point of view—the perception of Goodman Brown through which Hawthorne asks us to see almost all the action—we will find a perfectly clear, consistent portrayal of a spectral adventure into evil. Goodman Brown goes into the forest on an "evil" errand, promising himself that after this night he will "cling" to the skirts of his wife, Faith, "and follow her to heaven." Once in the wilderness, he himself conjures the Devil by exclaiming, "What if the Devil himself should be at my very elbow!" Immediately, he beholds "the figure of a man," and this figure quite unambiguously tells him that it has made the trip from Boston to the woods near Salem Village—at least fifteen or twenty miles—in fifteen minutes. Brown refuses the Devil's staff and announces that he is going back to Faith, but the Devil, "smiling apart," suggests that they "walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go."
The reasoning proceeds from this point, as the Devil tries to convince Brown that the best men are wholly evil. Most of the argument that follows corresponds to the traditional sophistry of the Devil—the kind of accusation with which Satan nearly discourages Edward Taylor's saint from joining the church in God's Determinations Touching His Elect. It is here that the Devil mentions true sins (the mistreatment of Indians and Quakers) in order to induce despair: men are so wicked that nothing can save them. Against this first argument Goodman Brown resists longer than some modern critics have resisted, for he sees that the alleged hypocrisy of elders and statesmen is "no rule for a simple husbandman like me." Foolishly, however, he believes the Devil's testimony (as his neighbors did in 1692), and he frankly tells him that "my wife, Faith," is the foundation of his reluctance to become a witch.
This admission invites the Devil to proceed, and it determines the organization of the rest of his argument. With typical subtlety he pretends to give up at once, because
". . . I would not for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us that Faith should come to any harm."
As he spoke he pointed his staff at a female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary old dame . . . [italics Levin's].
The Devil has of course conjured this "figure," which moves "with singular speed for so aged a woman," and he appears to it in "the very image"—soon afterward, "the shape"—"of old Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is." When the woman's figure has served his purpose, the Devil throws his staff "down at her feet," and she immediately disappears. Brown accepts this evidence without question, for by this time the Devil is "discoursing so aptly that his arguments [seem] rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself."
But Goodman Brown holds back once again, and the Devil, assuring him that "You will think better of this by and by," vanishes. Just as Brown is "applauding himself greatly," he is assaulted by another kind of airy evidence: disembodied voices. The "mingled sounds" appear to pass "within a few yards," and although the "figures" of the minister and deacon "brushed the small boughs by the wayside, it could not be seen that they intercepted, even for a moment, the faint gleam from the strip of bright sky athwart which they must have passed." Brown cannot see "so much as a shadow," but "he could have sworn"—as witnesses in 1692 did indeed swear—that he recognized the deacon and the minister in "the voices, talking so strangely in the empty air."
Now, as Brown doubts that "there really [is] a heaven above him," the Devil has only to produce evidence that Faith, too, is guilty. Hearing the voice of Faith from a "black mass" of cloud that "hurried" across the sky although no wind is stirring, Brown calls out to her in agony, and the "echoes of the forest"—always under the Devil's control—mock him. Then the Devil sends his final argument, Faith's pink ribbon, as her voice fades into the far-off laughter of fiends. At the end of the story we learn that this evidence, too, was spectral, for Faith wears her ribbons when her husband returns home in the morning; but now, in the forest, Brown is convinced that his "Faith is gone," that the world belongs to the Devil. He takes up the Devil's staff and "seems to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run, . . . rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil."
With beautiful care Hawthorne makes his descriptive language reinforce these meanings through the rest of the horrible experience. "Flying" among the black pines, Brown finally sees the "lurid blaze" of the witch-meeting and pauses "in a lull of the tempest that had driven him onward." The verse that he hears is sung "by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together," and his own cry sounds in "unison with the cry of the desert." At the sabbath itself he sees, "quivering between gloom and splendor," faces belonging to the best people of the colony. A congregation shines forth, then disappears in shadow, and again grows, "as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once" [italics Levin's]. Brown believes that he recognizes "a score" of Salem Village church members before he is "well nigh ready to swear" that he sees "the figure" of the minister, "the shape of his own dead father," "the dim features" of his mother, and "the slender form" of his wife. When he stands with the form of Faith, they are "the only [human] pair, as it seemed," who hesitate "on the verge of wickedness in this dark world." It is "the shape of evil" that prepares to baptize them, and the figure that stands beside Brown is that of his "pale" wife. When he implores her to "look up to heaven and resist the wicked one," the whole communion disappears, and he cannot learn "whether Faith obeyed."
The clarification that this reading achieves for the story should remove some of the objections that have been raised against it even by its admirers. When we recognize that the Devil is consistently presenting evidence to a prospective convert who is only too willing to be convinced, we do not need to complain with F. O. Matthiessen against Hawthorne's "literal insistence on that damaging pink ribbon"; nor need we try, with R. H. Fogle, to explain the ribbon away. One might insist that even here Hawthorne restricts his language admirably to Brown's perception, for he says that something fluttered lightly down through the air and that Brown, after seizing it, beheld a pink ribbon. Brown's sensory perception of the ribbon is no more literal or material than his perception of the Devil, his clutching of the staff, or his hearing of the Devil's statement about the fifteen-minute trip from Boston to the woods near Salem Village. But such an argument is really unnecessary. The seventeenth-century Devil could produce specters, with or without the consent of the people they resembled, and he could make cats, birds, and other familiars seem to materialize before terrified witnesses. For such a being, and with a witness overcome by "grief, rage, and terror," a ribbon posed no great difficulty.
Hawthorne's technique thus gives a clear view of his meaning. When we stop looking for what we may wish to believe about Puritans who whipped Quakers and burned Indian villages, we can recognize just what it is that Goodman Brown sees. Hawthorne does not tell us that none of the people whom Brown comes to suspect is indeed a diabolical agent, but he makes it clear that Brown has no justification for condemning any of them—and no justification for suspecting them, except for the shadowy vista that this experience has opened into his own capacity for evil. Asking whether these people were "really" evil is impertinent, for it leads us beyond the limits of fiction. The story is not about the evil of other people but about Brown's doubt, his discovery of the possibility of universal evil. Before reading the Devil's statements here in the light of ideas that Hawthorne suggested elsewhere, we must read them in their immediate context. At the witch-meeting, the "shape of evil" invites Goodman Brown to "the communion" of the human "race," the communion of evil, but we have no more right than Brown himself to believe the Father of Lies. Indeed, Hawthorne's brilliant success depends on this distinction. He gives us an irresistible picture of a "crisis of faith and an agony of doubt" [Harry T. Levin]; we must notice that Brown finally does exorcise the spectral meeting, but that he can never forget his view of the specters or the abandon in which he himself became "the chief horror" in the dark wilderness. He lives the rest of his life in doubt, and the literal doubt depends on his uncertainty about whether his wife and others are really evil. If he were certain that they had been present in the forest, he would not treat them even so civilly as he does during the rest of his life. It is the spectral quality of the experience—both its uncertainty and its unforgettable impression—that makes the doubt permanent.
The question, then, is not whether Faith and the others were really there, in their own persons, at the witch meeting. When Hawthorne asks whether Goodman Brown had "fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting," and replies, "Be it so if you will," he offers an alternative possibility to the nineteenth-century reader who refuses to take devils seriously even in historical fiction. The choice lies between dream and a reality that is unquestionably spectral. Neither Hawthorne nor (at the end) even Goodman Brown suggests that the church members were present in their own persons. Brown's question is whether the Devil, when he took on their shapes, had their permission to represent them. That is why Hawthorne can say, "Be it so if you will." For the meaning remains the same even if Brown, having for some odd reason fallen asleep in the woods before the story begins, has dreamed the entire experience.
By recognizing that Hawthorne built "Young Goodman Brown" firmly on his historical knowledge, we perceive that the tale has a social as well as an allegorical and a psychological dimension. Hawthorne condemns that graceless perversion of true Calvinism which, in universal suspicion, actually led a community to the unjust destruction of twenty men and women. But we ought also to be reminded of some general truths about proper ways to read this wonderfully shrewd writer. We must not underestimate his use of historical materials, even when he is writing allegory; nor should we let an interest in patterns of image and symbol or an awareness that he repeatedly uses the same types of character obscure the clear literal significance of individual stories. Working over an amazingly—some critics have said, an obsessively—narrow range of types and subjects, he nevertheless achieves a remarkable variety of insights into human experience.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2577
SOURCE: "The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation," in American Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, May, 1963, pp. 218-25.
[In the following essay, Robinson posits that it is Goodman Brown's marital experience that has opened his eyes to the existence of evil]
Students of "Young Goodman Brown" agree in general that its main materials are drawn from Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World, published the year following the Salem witchcraft trials, in which Mather describes the devil's appearing as a "small black man" to lure people to forest rendezvous where church sacraments were imitated and mocked. Hawthorne, indeed, virtually quotes Mather in placing Martha Carrier among the witches as a "rampant hag" and promised "queen of hell." I have found, however, no comment upon Hawthorne's possible use of a passage from Mather's Magnolia Christi Americana (1702) as a secondary source. The Puritan historian recalls Governor Winthrop's 1632 visit with the leaders of the Pilgrim settlement. "But there were at this time in Plymouth," relates Mather, "two ministers, leavened so far with the humours of the rigid separation, that they insisted vehemently upon the unlawfulness of calling any unregenerated man by the name of good-man such an one, until by their indiscreet urging of this whimsey, the place began to be disquieted." When asked to intercede, Winthrop applied the distinction between civil and church discipline which stood him in good stead at home. Mather records the defeat of the extreme separatists:
The wiser people being troubled at these trifles, they took the opportunity of governour Winthrop's being there, to have the thing publicly propounded in the congregation; who in answer thereunto, distinguished between a theological and a moral goodness; adding, that when Juries were first used in England, it was usual for the crier, after the names of persons fit for that service were called over, to bid them all, Attend, good men, and true; whence it grew to be a civil custom in the English nation, for neighbours living by one another, to call one another good man such an one: and it was pity now to make a stir about a civil custom, so innocently introduced. And that speech of Mr. Winthrop's put a lasting stop to the little, idle, whimsical conceits, then beginning to grow obstreperous.
[Magnalia Christi Americana: or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England, 2nd ed., 1820]
Obviously, this concern with calling an unregenerate man "goodman" resembles the ironic overtones in Hawthorne's story of Goodman Brown.
Without corroborating Winthrop's etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary offers interesting evidence upon connotations of "goodman" in colonial days. Several citations agree with Winthrop in stressing the colloquial status of the term, one entry from 1577 explaining that "goodman" is added to the surnames of yeomen "amongst their neighbours, . . . not in matters of importance or in lawe." An archaic meaning may be particularly applicable to Hawthorne's tale. After defining "goodman" as "the master or male head of a household," the O.E.D. cites its former application to "a husband" himself or "a householder in relation to his wife"—quoting a writer of 1593 who asks the pointed question: "Why is the husband called his wives good-manne?" Another makes the sly comment: "Little our goodmen knowes what their wiues thinkes." Hawthorne, of course, would not need to know these passages to be familiar with traditional connotations of the word.
Taken together, Mather's account and the O.E.D. throw a curious light upon Hawthorne's tale. Dramatizing as it does a Calvinistic concept of universal evil in mankind, "Young Goodman Brown" is clearly ironic in its continued stress upon the protagonist's title. Similarly the name Faith, given to Brown's wife, is played upon in such statements as "Faith kept me back a while" and "My Faith is gone." Nor is it coincidence that Brown and his wife are subjects of a common irony. Brown once calls himself by title with apparently self-conscious sarcasm: "Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown." Since this heightened realization of evil potential follows immediately upon the "goodman's" discovery that his wife has an appointment with the devil, their matrimonial situation is pertinent. In the archaic sense of "goodman" the title could mean "Young Husband Brown."
The internal evidence that the "Goodman" of the title refers in part to Brown's marital status may be subsumed briefly under three headings: 1) veiled and overt sexual references in the story, 2) the role of Brown's father and mother, 3) the significance of young Brown's dream or vision.
As proselytes for baptism by the devil, the most evident quality which Brown and Faith have in common is the fact that they are "but three months mai-ned." Pertinent also is the nature of the temptations presented to the devil's regular communicants. Old Goody Cloyse decided to "foot it" to the meeting, "for they tell me there is a nice young man to be taken into communion tonight." Men are attracted by the converse situation, as Goodman Brown learns upon hearing Deacon Gookin's remark to the minister, "Moreover, there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion," and the clergyman's reply, "Mighty well, Deacon Gookin!" The dominant motivation for the secret sins revealed in Satan's speech is also sexual:
"This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow's weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant's funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed. . . ."
The devil's exhortation does not imply that sex is the sole origin of sin, which indeed "inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power . . . can make manifest in deeds." Satan apparently recognizes that the young couple's situation renders them particularly susceptible to allurement of the flesh. Self-knowledge, however, is not the key, since Brown is already aware of his own sinfulness. Rather, as Satan declares, the converts hitherto have retained a childlike reverence for their elders: "Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness. . . . Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly." The verbal irony which had disturbed the congregation in Plymouth takes on a more universal cast in the mind of Brown, as one after another his more respected towns-people reveal their predilection for sin.
Clearly the climax of Brown's religious ordeal is a vision of sin in his wife Faith. Reflection suggests that mistrust of Faith is also the origin of that ordeal. For instance, why should this vision overwhelm Brown at just this time, when in his own words he is "but three months married"? The story has an "everyman" atmosphere that makes Brown, with his common name, symbolic of mankind. As a boy he had found tendencies in himself not sanctioned by the society within which he was growing up and he had blamed these upon personal weakness. His marital shock also presupposes early idealization of woman: his Faith is a "blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." Brown's ordeal is to learn that his sinful longings belong to the pattern of his race, and that none are exempt, not even women.
The role of Brown's parents subtly reinforces the significance of sex in the story. Neither parent is living, and Brown has succeeded to his father's position. Both have been householders, but as husband, Brown insists, his father "never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him." The emphasis upon succession of generations is ironic because Brown's inherited passions are the cause of these generations. Yet there is desperation in his insistence, for Satan has appeared in a guise resembling Brown so closely that the two "might have been taken for father and son." (In more modern terminology, Brown's quest for universal sin could be regarded as both a search for a father and initiation into Puritan manhood.) Goody Cloyse recognizes Satan simultaneously as the devil and the "image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is." At the witches' meeting Brown's father, far from censuring him, urges him forward to baptism in evil, "while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?" Well may his mother warn him, for here she is, in the devil's company, unable to give her son power "to resist, even in thought," the attraction of evil. Instead she becomes another symbol of that attraction.
All these details in "Young Goodman Brown" take on a further dimension upon introduction of the dream motif near the end of the story. As usual Hawthorne leaves the degree of actuality unresolved. Has Brown, he asks, "only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting? Be it so if you will. . . ." If we accept this reading of the story, much that was before objective becomes rather a manifestation of Brown's inner nature: Satan's punctilio in greeting him as "Goodman Brown," his amusement at the youth's trust in his elders, etc. Father and mother now appear only in their son's imagination. Young Brown must be conceived as simultaneously proclaiming his father's righteousness and picturing the devil's approaching him in his parent's lineaments; as revering Goody Cloyse at the same time that he imagines her scorn of him as the "silly fellow that now is" and her recognition of the devil's presence in his more experienced male ancestors. The young man's intuition is shocked by contradictory contrasts between himself and his forebears. The implication is that Brown's marital experience has awakened him to recognition of the universal role of sex, with special relevance to sin.
In short, Goodman Brown has realized that his father was a man like himself and his mother a woman like Faith. His passions and those of his wife are the product of like passions. Since Brown fights to repress this knowledge, the discovery comes subconsciously at first and then with awful awareness, emerging finally in the form of a vision.
His imagination embodies carnal appetites in all the people he has venerated from childhood—his father, the woman who taught him his catechism, the deacon, the minister, and finally and logically his mother. Against each he tests his new intuition, and in each instance he is startled anew to find that it fits. Subconsciously, the devil's speech is his own also, for the sins recounted are more in keeping with Brown's naïveté than with his image of Satanic sophistication.
The dream-hypothesis forces likewise a reassessment of Faith. The dream ends convincingly but there is no satisfactory point for it to begin, Hawthorne's technique gravitating between the traditional dream-vision and modern expressionism. Brown's opening conversation with his bride may thus be as subjective as the rest of his vision. She begins by warning her husband to sleep in his own bed this night and hints that she, too, has dreams—and yet this may be only Brown's fancy growing out of incipient doubts. The substance of his suspicion could be infidelity, since the deacon in Brown's "dream" evinces interest in Faith's initiation into evil, but the presentation of husband and wife before Satan insinuates a more pervasive doubt. Mutual discovery of guilt tends to presume a common guilt. Brown's suspicion focuses not on Faith's unfaithfulness but on the quality of their shared passion. Faced, in his imagination, with mutual recognition of their common pollution, the young husband appeals to heaven for assistance and calls on his wife to do likewise, but the vision ends before she can respond. The disillusionment is that of a bridegroom. Thereafter Brown cannot accept Faith's kisses without questioning the impulses of her nature, and he thinks of no woman as an angel on earth that will lead him to heaven.
From this point of view Faith's pink ribbons symbolize passion, and also, contrary to some critical comment, the conclusion becomes characterized by inevitability and ironic power. In the first place, doubts such as Brown's are by nature unresolved; perhaps the conviction that his wife can be tempted by sensuality is enough to disrupt his life. In the second place, Brown's vision ends in compromise. Through a long lifetime he shrinks at midnight "from the bosom of Faith" and scowls upon her at family prayers, but this aversion does not prevent their producing numerous offspring. Thus Brown, a middle-class Puritan yeoman, becomes no ascetic or hermit.
The significance of Brown's vision is shown in sharper relief when we see that in essence the symbolism of Faith's pink ribbons is repeated in "The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter," first in Georgiana's flaw of complexion and then in Beatrice's poisonous plant, both of these being crimson or purple and both representative of woman's physical nature. Like Brown, Aylmer and Giovanni allow feminine imperfection to become an obsession, the one shortly after and the other shortly before marriage. Georgiana even regards her defect as one of her natural charms before her union with the idealistic Aylmer, and allegorically Hawthorne makes the servant Aminadab, who mutters, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark," represent "man's physical nature" and Aylmer a "type of the spiritual element" in man. Similarly Beatrice, ironically named for Dante's spiritual guide, is a paradoxical combination of a poisonous body and a soul which as "God's creature" craves "loves as its daily food." Her spirit could lead Giovanni upward, as Brown thought to follow Faith, but her physical beauty, which resembles the gorgeous but fatal plant, is deadly unless he can assimilate sufficient poison to join her upon equal terms. The moral is old and complex: woman, albeit of finer spiritual quality than man, possesses physical attributes that lure man to evil, although the evil may not be within her power or will. Beatrice's unanswered question is whose fault it is. "Oh, was there not," she asks Giovanni (speaking for her sisterhood in many Hawthorne tales), "from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?"
The two later stories resolve a portion of Brown's dilemma by making it clear that since woman's imperfection is physical, her spirit may triumph over "the gross fatality of earth" in heaven. Hawthorne interrupts the story of "Rappaccini's Daughter" to point out that nothing is left for Beatrice but to "bathe her hurts in some fount of Paradise . . . and there be well" and that Giovanni would have been wiser to attach his faith to her future purity and thus to accept the bittersweet of mortality. Lacking such a faith, Brown can neither fully accept nor fully deny his wife. Despite his compromise, however, his choice, in a way, is wiser than Aylmer's or Giovanni's. If his life is devitalized by doubt of human nature, his skepticism is restrained by a compulsion to live. He can continue in his generation only as previous generations have done, caught between the theological and marital ironies of his title "Goodman" Brown.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3749
SOURCE: "Young Goodman Brown's 'Heart of Darkness'," in American Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, January, 1966, pp. 410-19.
[In this essay, Hurley discusses Goodman Brown's forest encounter with the Devil as the product of his diseased mind. ]
The critical controversy which has centered on Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" seems to have reached an impasse. Critics have usually seen the story as an allegory embodying Hawthorne's suspicions about man's depravity. This interpretation implies that the Devil's words to Goodman Brown—"Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness."—echo Hawthorne's own attitude. R. H. Fogle, for instance, writes [in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952], "Goodman Brown, a simple and pious nature, is wrecked as a result of the disappearance of the fixed poles of his belief. His orderly cosmos dissolves into chaos as church and state, the twin pillars of his society, are hinted to be rotten, with their foundations undermined." Hawthorne, Fogle says, "does not wish to propose flatly that man is primarily evil; rather he has a gnawing fear that this might be true." And Harry Levin has unequivocally stated [in The Power of Blackness, 1958] "The pharisaical elders . . . meeting in the benighted wilderness, are doing the devil's work while professing righteousness."
On the other hand, F. O. Matthiessen and W. B. Stein have resisted the majority consensus and suggested that it is Goodman Brown who purposely seeks for evil. Recently [in "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown," in American Literature XXXIV, November 1962] David Levin has attempted to void both points of view by insisting that Goodman Brown is misled by the Devil who conjures up apparitions to befuddle his innocent victim. The idea is comforting but not convincing. To take guilt away from human beings in order to place it on infernal powers is not a satisfactory explanation of the story. To the modern mind (and I suspect that includes Hawthorne's) either Abigail Williams and her Salem playmates were irresponsible, hysterical little liars, or Martha Carrier and Goody Proctor really were witches.
If I am correct, David Levin's contention is misleading, and we must return to the original argument. He writes, "Asking whether these people were Really' evil is impertinent, for it leads us beyond the limits of fiction." Confessing diabolical inspiration, I shall take a chance on being impertinent because I am not convinced that questions dealing with man's nature and the human heart are "beyond the limits of fiction." I believe the reader has every right to wonder if the townspeople are actually cohorts of the Devil. After all, if Young Goodman Brown did not have a nightmare or experience hallucinations, Hawthorne has created a fearful indictment of humanity. But if Goodman Brown did "dream," then the evil he saw, like the witchcraft reported in Salem in 1692, was the product of his own fancy with no reality save that supplied by his depraved imagination.
My point here is that "Young Goodman Brown" is a subtle work of fiction concerned with revealing a distorted mind. I believe the pervasive sense of evil in the story is not separate from or outside its protagonist; it is in and of him. His "visions" are the product of his suspicion and distrust, not the Devil's wiles. Goodman Brown's dying hour is gloomy because the evil in his own heart overflows; he sees a world darkened by the dreariness of sin. Hawthorne has given us every reason to read the story as a revelation of individual perversion (the story, after all, is entitled "Young Goodman Brown"), and speculations about man's nature or the talents of the Devil are out of place.
The tale begins with an account of Goodman Brown's departure from his home in Salem village in order to keep a strange tryst in the forest. He prepares to leave "at sunset," an hour when the world is about to be plunged into darkness. Faith, "as the wife was aptly named," begs him to "put off [his] journey till sunrise"; but he replies, "My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise." Like Richard Digby, the intolerant religious fanatic of "The Man of Adamant" who "plunged into the dreariest depths of the forest" and was disappointed that "the sunshine continued to fall peacefully on the cottages and fields . . . ," Goodman Brown's alliance with evil is suggested by contrasting images of light and dark which intimate a symbolic opposition between good and evil. These images of shadow, dark, and gloom become more frequent and persuasive as the story continues.
Hawthorne makes clear at once that Goodman Brown's purpose on this night is an evil one. The fact that he is aware of the sinfulness of his trip destroys any belief we may have in Goodman Brown's "simple and pious nature."
"Poor little Faith!" thought he, for his heart smote him. "What a wretch am I to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. 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. But no, no; 'twould kill her to think it. Well, she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven."
Aside from the interesting emphasis on dreams, the passage is noteworthy for several reasons. Goodman Brown's conscience is troubled by his departure from Faith. He realizes that it would "kill her" if she were to know the purpose of his trip, but he assumes that his absence (his departure from faith) will be only temporary. Goodman Brown's first mistake is to imagine that faith (which, most readers are agreed, must be interpreted as faith in one's fellow men as well as religious faith) can be adopted and discarded at will. The irony of the passage resides primarily in the implication that Goodman Brown intends to get to heaven by clinging to the "skirts" of faith rather than by virtue of his own character or actions. The ironic implications become almost playful in the following sentence: "With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose." Despite Fogle's concentration on the ambiguities of the story, it seems clear that Hawthorne means us to be in no doubt that Goodman Brown has already had some contact with the forces of evil and does not hesitate to renew that contact, because he feels that he will prove superior to the temptations which may assail him.
The suggestions that we are primarily concerned with the character of Goodman Brown, with some secret concerning his mind and heart, become stronger as he journeys into the forest, which functions as a symbol of withdrawal into oneself. Goodman Brown's isolation, his retreat from normal human intercourse into the strange dream world of the subconscious, is intimated by the imagery which describes his journey. He takes "a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest." Goodman Brown there encounters the man whom he has journeyed into the forest to find. The man appears to be the Devil himself, and he expects Goodman Brown.
The forest, symbol of Brown's retreat into himself, is associated with images suggestive of evil. "It was deep dark in the forest, and deepest in that part of it where these two were journeying." Hawthorne also insists on the similarity between Brown and the Devil—"the second traveller was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him. . . ." And we are informed that "they might have been taken for father and son." Despite David Levin's reminders of the Devil's wiles and powers, this personage is so curiously described that he is indisputably Goodman Brown's own personal devil.
Goodman Brown's faith may be "little," but it is not nonexistent. His "devil" knows, just as Goodman Brown or any contemporary criminal subconsciously knows, that belief in the morality of society must be destroyed, rationalized away, before total commitment to evil is possible. When the young man is chided by his companion for his tardiness in keeping their appointment, he replies, "Faith kept me back awhile"; but faith was not, of course, strong enough to prevent his journey. Goodman Brown's "lonely night of the soul," his pathetic struggle between good and evil, is dramatized in his dialogue with the Devil. At first he protests that he intends to return at once to the village. '"Sayest thou so?' replied he of the serpent, smiling apart." The Devil, it seems, knows his victim well. He urges the young man to walk on, insisting that they are "but a little way in the forest yet"; and Goodman Brown goes with him, not realizing how far into the forest of his own evil he has already traveled.
The Devil then begins a sly temptation of Goodman Brown, but it is a puzzling temptation because the only rewards Goodman Brown is offered are the aspersions cast on his family, his neighbors, and his church. Strangely enough, he accepts without question the words of the Father of Lies. The temptation is actually a kind of interior monologue, a debate which Goodman Brown holds with himself. He asks the Devil several questions whose purpose seems to be to keep him from evil. The questions, it is interesting to note, suggest the three institutions to which man is morally obligated: the family, society, the church. Goodman Brown asks, in effect, "What would my family think? What would the neighbors say? How would the church react?" But the Devil (or psychic rationalization) assures him that his family, his neighbors, and the leaders of his church are far more stained by the blackness of sin than he.
These questions are projected into vivid, concrete form in the visions which follow. As they walk on into the forest, Goodman Brown and the Devil come upon a woman whom Brown recognizes as the venerable and pious Goody Cloyse. Fearing (or pretending to fear) that she will question his being out so late in such strange company, Goodman hides himself. The Devil, however, advances on her; she recognizes him and they hold a short conversation in which the old woman reveals that she has long been on familiar terms with Satan. The young man never pauses to consider the reality of Goody's appearance, even though such consideration might be expected of any well-trained Puritan cognizant of the Devil's powers. Hawthorne's use of Goody Cloyse and her reference to Martha Carrier remind us that they were actual historical personages unjustly accused by twisted "youngsters." That Goody Cloyse's appearance is part of Goodman Brown's psychological self-justification seems clear from Hawthorne's statement in the following paragraph: "They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path, discoursing so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself" [Hurley's]. The biblical echo of the Devil's exhortation to Brown "to make good speed and persevere in the path" appears to be Hawthorne's ironic parodying of the situation since it is the path of self-righteousness to which Goodman Brown adheres.
When Brown finally refuses to go any further, the Devil seems entirely undisturbed by the news: "You will think better of this by and by,' said his acquaintance, composedly." Sitting by himself, Goodman Brown experiences his second "vision." He imagines that he hears the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin, as they ride by, talking about the devilish communion which they plan to attend. Goodman's reason for believing what little evidence his senses afford him is even less good in this instance than it had been in the previous one:
owing doubtless to the depth of the gloom at that particular spot, neither the travellers nor their steeds were visible. Though their figures brushed the small boughs by the wayside, it could not be seen that they intercepted, even for a moment, the faint gleam from the strip of bright sky athwart which they must have passed. Goodman Brown alternately crouched and stood on tiptoe, pulling aside the branches and thrusting forth his head as far as he durst without discerning so much as a shadow.
Fogle has alluded to this passage too as evidence of Hawthorne's ambiguity, but there is no ambiguity in the fact that Goodman Brown actually saw nothing at all. Nevertheless, he stands "doubting whether there really was a heaven above him." Goodman Brown makes one last desperate avowal of his resistance to evil: "'With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm. . . .'" But he has already departed from Faith. Goodman Brown then thinks that he hears the sound of voices: "The next moment, so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind." Hearing "one voice of a young woman," he immediately assumes it is his wife, and he cries her name. Suddenly he catches sight of an object fluttering down through the air; he clutches it and discovers it is a pink ribbon. Associating it at once with the ribbons his wife had worn that evening, he shouts: "'My Faith is gone!' . . . 'There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.'" Goodman Brown accepts his wife's guilt without ever having seen her.
Faith's ribbons have proved bothersome to several critics. F. O. Matthiessen objected to them because they seemed too literal and concrete; they appeared to him out of keeping with other suggestions that Brown is having an hallucination [American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, 1941]. Fogle has noted that they are mentioned three times in the opening paragraphs of the story, and he feels that "if Goodman Brown is dreaming the ribbon may be taken as part and parcel of his dream." At any rate, "Its impact is merely temporary" [Fogle] (a peculiar statement in view of the fact that these ribbons appear, at last, to convince Goodman Brown of man's depravity and so "color" the rest of his life). Hawthorne concentrates so insistently on Faith's ribbons, and their effect on Goodman Brown is so devastating, that one may assume they were intended as an important symbol. If we remember that Faith is primarily an allegorical figure, an answer suggests itself. Goodman Brown, we recall, intends to get to heaven by clinging to Faith's skirts; in other words, he feels that the mere observation of ritual will insure salvation—good works have no place in his (as they had no place in Calvinistic) theology. Faith's skirts and her ribbons fulfil somewhat the same function. The ribbons, with their suggestions of the frivolous and ornamental, represent the ritualistic trappings of religious observance. Goodman Brown, it seems, has placed his faith and his hopes of salvation in the formal observances of religious worship rather than in the purity of his own heart and soul. This interpretation is supported by the fact that what he has seen and heard of Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin, even though it may condemn them as individuals, can hardly be used as a condemnation of religious faith. Goodman Brown accepts the metonymic ribbon, Faith's adornment, as reality—just as he has accepted the "skirts" of religion as a means of salvation.
Has Goodman Brown really been subjected to visions which imply the universal prevalence of evil? Has the faith of a good man been destroyed by a revelation of the world's sinfulness? It would seem not. If one accepts the fact that Hawthorne gives us no valid grounds to believe in the reality of Goodman Brown's visions and voices, he must either believe, as Fogle does, that Hawthorne feared his own knowledge of the world's evil; or he must treat those events as emanations from Brown's subconscious which intimate the corruption of Brown's own mind. Why do the young man's visions of evil concern only Goody Cloyse, the minister, Deacon Gookin, and his wife? One answer, of course, is that they represent an exceptional piety which makes their participation in evil dramatically more effective. But if Hawthorne's theme concerns the universality of human sinfulness, should we not see a wider manifestation of that evil? The only scene in which such a manifestation occurs is the Devil's communion, but that takes place after Goodman Brown has declared his loss of faith; and the scene of that vision, Hawthorne tells us, was "in the heart of the dark wilderness," a setting whose significance is so inescapable that Joseph Conrad would later echo Hawthorne's words (unknowingly?) in the title of one of his novels.
A more significant reason for Hawthorne's choice of those four characters occurs to us if we return to a consideration of their relationship to Goodman Brown. They are the four people in Salem village to whom he is morally responsible. Goody Cloyse "had taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual advisor, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin." His wife is an even more important representative of the forces of morality and virtue. It seems obvious that they are the four people whose respectability must be destroyed before Goodman Brown can fully commit himself to a belief in the wickedness of the world.
The remainder of the story continues to emphasize Goodman Brown's surrender to evil. Rushing through the forest "with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil," Goodman Brown, the man who has lost faith in his fellow men, "was himself the chief horror of the scene. " "The fiend in his own shape," Hawthorne tells us, reminding us of the similarities between Goodman Brown and the Devil, "is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man."
The communion scene in the forest, which Roy Male finds "essentially sexual," seems to me to be entirely the product of a dream fantasy, a blasphemous parody of a religious service. In this "grave and dark-clad company" Goodman Brown, his faith totally destroyed, fancies that he sees every person he has ever known. When a call is made to bring forth the converts, "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." When the converts look upon each other, Goodman Brown at last sees his wife. They are told that "Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race." But as if in denial of the Devil's assertion, just as they are about to be baptized into "the mystery of sin," Goodman Brown cries out: "'Faith! Faith!' . . . 'look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.' Whether Faith obeyed he knew not." Goodman's cry breaks the spell of his hallucination: "He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew." That Goodman Brown has been experiencing hallucinations or dreaming seems unquestionable. The details concerning the rock and the twig are surely intended to signal Goodman Brown's return to a "rational" state of mind.
The most striking quality of the paragraph which describes Goodman Brown's return to the village of Salem is its tone. No longer are there any suggestions of the weird and incredible. The dreamlike quality of Brown's adventure in the forest is replaced by purposefully direct and forthright narration. Life proceeds in the village as it always has. Only Goodman Brown has changed. If the events of the night before had been real, or even symbolic of reality, would not Hawthorne have indicated in some way a shared knowledge between Goodman Brown and the townsfolk whom he sees? Hawthorne has told us that Brown did not know whether his wife obeyed his cry to look up to heaven. Nonetheless, he passes her without a greeting when she runs to meet him. His own distrust and suspicion have assured him that she is sinful, even though, as Hawthorne is careful to note, she is wearing the pink ribbons which Goodman Brown thought he had grasped from the air. Nor is there any change in anyone else. The minister seeks to bless Goodman Brown, but the young man shrinks from him; Deacon Gookin is praying and even though Goodman Brown can hear "the holy words of his prayer," he still thinks him a wizard. Goody Cloyse is catechizing a young girl, and Goodman Brown snatches the child from the old woman's arms. The corruption of his mind and heart is complete; Goodman Brown sees evil wherever he looks. He sees it because he wants to see it.
If Hawthorne had wished to intimate that the events of the night were real, it would hardly do to confuse us with suggestions about dreams (unless, as Fogle thinks, this was Hawthorne's method of escaping the implications of his own insight into man's depravity). A more acceptable
interpretation of the ambiguity of the story is to see in it Hawthorne's suggestion that the incredible incidents in the forest were the product of an ego-induced fantasy, the self-justification of a diseased mind. It seems clear that these incidents were not experienced; they were willed. The important point, however, is that Goodman Brown has accepted them as truth; and the acceptance of evil as the final truth about man has turned him into "a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful" human being. Goodman Brown does not become aware of his own kinship with evil; he does not see sinfulness in himself but only in others. That, perhaps, is his most awful sin. He has lost not only faith in his fellow men but his compassion for them. And so it is that "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." Hawthorne never tells us that the anthem, loud and fearful as it must have been, ever reached the ears of any but young Goodman Brown.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1465
SOURCE: "The Ending of 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 343-45.
[In the following essay, Abcarian contradicts previous critics who state that the ending of Hawthorne's tale is anticlimactic and redundant]
"Young Goodman Brown" is certainly one of Hawthorne's greatest stories and arguably one of the finest short stories ever written. With the economy of genius, Hawthorne dramatizes the discovery by a young and good man "that all deified Nature absolutely paints like a harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnelhouse within . . ." [Herman Melville, Moby Dick] and the consequences of that discovery. The story is rich and ambiguous enough to have elicited a good deal of critical comment and controversy. However various the approaches and divergent the interpretations, the most illuminating and useful studies have maintained a respectfully critical attitude toward the story. Although many critics have been puzzled and disturbed by Faith's pink ribbon and by the relationship between the daylight world of the opening and the hallucinatory world of the midnight mass, most commentators feel that the story is a successful artistic whole.
Yet alongside this criticism has run another interpretation of "Young Goodman Brown" of a curiously astigmatic sort, a criticism rendered more lamentable by its rather supercilious and complacent "modern" tone. Now this sort of thing one could easily let pass were it not for the fact that the interpretation is to be found in a popular collection of short stories for college students. The anthology is Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate's The House of Fiction (2nd edition). As Gordon and Tate read the story, the final paragraph is artistically damaging. Their comment upon it is as follows:
The dramatic impact would have been stronger if Hawthorne had let the incidents tell their own story: Goodman Brown's behavior to his neighbors and finally to his wife show us that he is a changed man. Since fiction is a kind of shorthand of human behavior and one moment may represent years in a man's life, we would have concluded that the change was to last his entire life. But Hawthorne's weakness for moralizing and his insufficient technical equipment betray him into the anticlimax of the last paragraph.
The same point is made by Wallace and Mary Stegner in their collection Great American Short Stories: ". . . Hawthorne was not so impeccable a craftsman as Poe; Poe would never have left this story, which up to the time of Brown's return is tight, concentrated, sensuous, sharply visualized, to end lamely with an anticlimactic appendix."
The charge is serious. In order to test its truth, we need to examine with some care the final section of the story, that is from Brown's return to the village following the midnight mass to the end of the story. This section is comprised of three paragraphs, the first describing some of the sights and sounds of Salem village and Brown's changed response to them, the second (a single sentence) in which the narrator asks the crucial question about the objective reality of Brown's experience, and the final paragraph, in which the narrator answers the question and rapidly summarizes the remainder of Brown's life.
According to Gordon and Tate (and the Stegners) the first of these paragraphs makes the final one an anticlimactic redundancy; Hawthorne's weakness for moralizing thus betrays him into violating the artistic integrity of his story.
A careful reading, I believe, will not support such a charge. The two presumably redundant paragraphs are in fact clearly different in technique and purpose, and both are vitally important to the story. The first of these paragraphs needs to be quoted in full:
The next morning young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man. The good old minister was taking a walk along the graveyard to get an appetite for breakfast and meditate his sermon, and bestowed a blessing, as he passed, on Goodman Brown. He shrank from the venerable saint as if to avoid an anathema. Old Deacon Gookin was at domestic worship, and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the open window. "What God doth the wizard pray to?" quoth Goodman Brown. Goody Cloyse, that excellent old Christian, stood in the early sunshine at her own lattice, catechizing a little girl who had brought her a pint of morning's milk. Goodman Brown snatched away the child as from the grasp of the fiend himself. Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him that she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.
As the italicized phrases show, this passage is heavy with realistic specificity in both time and place, contrasting strikingly with the grotesque and timeless world of the forest. Its function is twofold: to return Brown and the reader to the daylight world of reality in which the story opened (". . . the young man pursued his way until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith . . . ," Hawthorne writes in the opening section), and to prepare us for the final paragraph, in which the lasting and corrosive effects of the experience on Brown are revealed. To assert that the passage performs the same function as the final paragraph is either to give it a less careful reading than it deserves or retroactively to confuse the meaning of the final paragraph with this passage. In short, although the passage contains as a latent possibility what Hawthorne makes explicit in the final paragraph, without the final paragraph, the story would be inconclusive and weak. For we find the ultimate meaning of "Young Goodman Brown" precisely in the final paragraph, which reveals the permanent effects of Brown's experience. It is because the story is about the inner world of Brown rather than the world of objective fact that Hawthorne dismisses the question of objective reality (which he rightly anticipates his readers will ask) with, "Be it so if you will . . . (a sentence, we might note, which opens the "anticlimactic" final paragraph). Despite the artful ambiguity in the story that has been so often noted, by dismissing the question, Hawthorne surely could not have made clearer the central importance of the final, summarizing paragraph.
It is this final paragraph that gives such appalling power and meaning to all that has preceded it. Brown has confronted, as surely all men must at one time or another, that "great power of blackness" and is forever after dominated by its effects. Having been shown by the Devil "the whole earth one stain or guilt, one mighty blood spot," he never for a moment questions the truth of his vision. Indeed, for Brown his vision is reality, and it slowly consumes his heart away.
All this is revealed, and revealed only through the final paragraph. But this is not all it reveals. In some of the details that Hawthorne selects for the final paragraph, he seems to be suggesting that Brown, like Ethan Brand, Rappaccini, Aylmer, and Chillingworth, has become the prisoner of a partial vision that has dehumanized him, and obliterated from his mind that part of man that, according to Brown's own Christian doctrine, is made in God's image and is next to the angels in the hierarchy of being. Brown turns pale when he hears the minister speak "of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable" and thereby denies those qualities in man that Hawthorne so often identifies with the heart. Brown's heart, having closed the valves of its attention, disintegrates in a region of gloomy despair and distrust where the hope and affirmation offered by saintly lives and triumphant deaths cannot penetrate. The pall of Brown's denial settles upon his entire family: Faith, who lovingly asked Brown not to leave her on that fateful night, and who skipped in joy and "almost kissed her husband" on his return, Brown shrinks from; children and grandchildren bring neither joy nor innocence into his life.
Hawthorne's technical equipment, then, is superbly adequate to his purposes. If one were rash enough, as Gordon and Tate are, to suggest cuts in this fine story, surely the final paragraph would have to be the last to go. Indeed, the final paragraph bears the same relation to the entire story that the devil's address bears to the witches' meeting: both are major and indispensable climaxes. In a technical sense, the concluding paragraph is a masterful triumph of fictional narrative whereby Hawthorne turns the remainder of Brown's long life into a sharply focussed climax.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572
SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Explicator, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1969, item 32.
[In this essay, Ferguson points out the importance of color symbolism as it pertains to Faith's pink ribbons in "Young Goodman Brown."]
Much concern has been expressed about the significance of Faith's pink ribbons in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," and this commentary has perhaps been initiated in part by F. O. Matthiessen's observation that the author's "literal insistence" on them, as they first appear to Goodman Brown in the forest, damages the effect of what is otherwise portrayed as "the realm of hallucination" (American Renaissance, New York, 1941). More recently, Richard Harter Fogle has attempted to explain this apparent inconsistency by suggesting that the ribbons in this same instance "may be taken as part and parcel of [Brown's] dream," adding that because they vanish into their "shadowy background" their impact is "merely temporary" (Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952). While these observations may help account for the concrete appearance of the ribbons, they tell us little about their meaning in the story.
To be sure, Hawthorne does "insist" on the pink ribbons—three times in the opening six paragraphs and twice thereafter at crucial points in the story—but what observers have failed to underscore is the fact that each time he mentions the ribbons Hawthorne is careful to specify that they are pink. This failure seems surprising, for it is common knowledge that color symbolism was a favorite Hawthorne device; and if we look to the color of the ribbons to yield their meaning we find an obvious interpretation for this detail which contributes to the meaning of the story perhaps more than any other single image within it. Neither scarlet nor white, but of a hue somewhere between, the ribbons suggest neither total depravity nor innocence, but a psychological state somewhere between. Tied like a label to the head of Faith, they represent the tainted innocence, the spiritual imperfection of all mankind.
As a Puritan who had been taught his catechism, Goodman Brown should have been fortified against the shock of this knowledge of the human condition. Yet, discovering the pink ribbons during his forest adventure, he cries "My Faith is gone!" It is significant that he does not refer to his faith in God, for he later dreads "lest the roof should thunder down" on the Sabbath day congregation in the meetinghouse. It is, instead, his faith in man that has been shaken, and it is in the immediate context of this piercing confession that he makes an even more terrible pronouncement: "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name."
Hawthorne implies, however, that Goodman Brown is in error, for Faith's ribbons are still intact the next morning in Salem village as she skips to meet him, and Hawthorne "insists" they are still pink, not scarlet, as Goodman Brown would have them. Since they symbolize the condition of mankind, it is ironic that the protagonist has rejected "the communion of [his] race" and excluded himself from that condition, for in Puritan eyes he is thus guilty of the worst of all sins. It is his pride which isolates him and prevents him from seeing that he too, figuratively speaking, wears pink ribbons. This hubris, to use the classical term, leads to his psychological destruction and accounts for the "darkly meditative" and "distrustful" man whom Hawthorne describes at the end of the story.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2517
SOURCE: "Ambivalence in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 577-84.
[In the following essay, Paulits characterizes Hawthorne's tale as one in which the dominant theme is the ambivalence of the human heart when presented with a choice between good and evil.]
My hope in this article is that a discussion of ambivalence and of its concomitants of temptation and deception may provide the still-missing clue to the interpretation of the intent of "Young Goodman Brown." I am distinguishing sharply between ambiguity and ambivalence. Ambiguity is concerned with intermingled meanings—the double meanings in the witches' prophecies to Macbeth or Fedallah's to Ahab, or the amphibologies in Quince's Prologue to "Pyramus and Thisbe" in Midsummer Night's Dream or its antecedent in Ralph Roister Doister. Ambivalence is concerned with opposed feelings within the same person when confronted with a value or values. "Young Goodman Brown" does employ ambiguity but, I think, in the service of a more pervasive theme of ambivalence.
In his fine book, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Angus Fletcher writes: "Allegorical literature always displays toward its polar antagonisms a certain ambivalence. This much-used term does not mean 'mixed feelings,' unless we are willing to amend the phrase to a 'mixture of diametrically opposed feelings'." The generic names in Hawthorne's tale and the biblically allusive nature of the temptations Goodman is subjected to seem sufficient proof of Hawthorne's allegorical intent, and Hawthorne's awareness of radical ambivalence seems evident from sentences in "Rappaccini's Daughter": "It was not love . . . nor horror . . . but a wild offspring of both love and horror that had each parent in it, and burned like one and shivered like the other"; and "Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions." I believe that "Young Goodman Brown" is an allegorical presentation of ambivalence.
The precise ambivalence in Brown at the beginning of the tale is an attraction for the Devil conjoined with a regret at leaving Faith. Neither has Brown given himself to the Devil nor is he leaving Faith definitively: "Well, she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." Whether this dalliance with evil makes sense theologically or socially or not seems to me to be peripheral; what is important is that Brown deserts Faith and goes into the forest to meet the Devil in a highly tentative venture. He has not firmly decided. This tentativeness is important because it springs from his emotive ambivalence—he wants two things strongly enough to be unwilling to give up either. The Devil's role is to lead him to complete evil by temptation and fall. The tale becomes in great part, thus, a record of the temptation. As Fletcher says: "The heart of moralizing actions becomes temptation, which asserts the desirability of evil."
Once in the forest and after having met the Devil, Brown almost immediately questions the emotive attraction that has drawn him there: "I have scruples touching the matter thou wot'st of." That he then "unconsciously" resumes his walk evidences the presence of the two feelings battling within him. From the time Brown shows hesitation Hawthorne casts the story into the framework of a temptation leading toward decision. The Devil's easy assumption of his role as tempter is consonant with his knowledge that the pact is not yet complete. He knows he must convince Brown of the goodness of the decision to be made. When Brown is convinced, the conflicting feelings will presumably cease, and he will become the dedicated votary a witch or warlock traditionally is.
Hawthorne, after detailing an unavailing conversation in which the Devil uses an "everybody-has-done-it" argument, constructs a major tripartite segment which has affinities with the biblical account of the triple temptation of Christ in the desert. Hawthorne's allusive use of the biblical scene is consistent with the theme of ambivalence he is working out. That Christ underwent everything that man suffered, sin excluded, is a biblical truism that Brown should have been aware of. And perhaps he is presumed to have been, because his reactions are remarkably like Christ's—up to a point. Brown is almost as stubborn as Christ. After Goody Cloyse's apparition, he says: "my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand." After he hears the Minister's and the Deacon's "voices" he cries: "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil." But after Faith's seeming defection he appears to yield. The yielding should be understood in its relationship to Christ's third reaction. Christ committed himself to the service of his Father: "It is the Lord your God whom you will adore" (Matt. 4:10). His decision was firm, and any feelings he might have had to the opposite of the service of the Lord (which, in terms of the biblical story, could only have been service of the Devil) dissipate, and he is at oneness with himself, and his peace is symbolized by the angels who come to minister to him. Brown should have imitated Christ. But he is deceived by the spectral evidence of the ribbon, just as he had been by the earlier apparitions, and so for a while Brown does not follow the biblical pattern. But at the initiation scene Hawthorne reverts to this important Christ-temptation scheme, and Brown will ultimately imitate Christ. Much, though, will have happened by then.
Brown's yielding should also be understood in its relationship to the ambivalence he suffers when he enters the forest. The Devil has not succeeded in fixing the vacillating Brown with any of the previous temptations, and until he does succeed, Brown's ambivalence will continue. It would be a mistake to read Brown's mad flight through the forest, however, as a definitive success for the Devil. After all, Brown is hurrying toward the Witches' Meeting where the initiation can actually occur, and until he arrives he is simply not an initiate. What impels him is more frenzy than rational, unimpassioned choice, and it is a standard moral dictum that passion alleviates the gravity of moral fault. Brown is "maddened with despair," he is "still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal men to evil," he is "the demoniac." Significantly, after Brown arrives and examines the assembly, his latent revulsion against the initiation stirs again when he does not see Faith: "'But where is Faith?' thought Goodman Brown; and, as hope came into his heart, he trembled." It seems to me that all Hawthorne can legitimately be made to say between the ribbon and the new hope is that Faith seems to have defected; but that Brown sees now the goodness of the Devil's proposal is far from evident. Thus, the great purpose of the Witches' Sabbath will be precisely to show the desirability of rationally accepting the initiation.
Therefore, Brown's state at the time of the calling-forth of the candidates is not radically different from his state when he first entered the forest: he is torn between conflicting desires. Nevertheless the flight has apparently shown him something of himself. He now knows how related he is to the entire grim group, "with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart." He knows the instinct within him that can drive him toward evil, and he senses this same instinct in others. But the important qualification to be made here is that the brotherhood he has with the others is experienced as "loathful." The feeling is one of revulsion, and yet he does step forward for full initiation, the consequence of which will presumably be that he will become a full member of the coven. But the sense of loathing is significant, because its presence indicates that Satan's work is still unfinished. All the speeches Satan speaks prior to the aborted baptism will be directed toward one of two purposes: either Brown's final self-convincing or Brown's self-delusion. In either case the Devil's purpose will have been gained.
Hawthorne's presentation of Satan's final argument is delicate. Satan tempts the couple (really, Brown; Faith is not important in herself in the intent of the tale) with two promises, not one. The first is: "Welcome . . . to the communion of your race"; "By all the sympathy of your human hearts for sin," "It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin." This is an invitation to knowledge, to recognition of sin, first in oneself and then in others. I would suggest that, in itself, nothing is wrong with possessing this knowledge; for example, Minister Hooper's awareness of sin, while it does isolate him, paradoxically also brings him closer to his parishioners in their most critical hours, especially death. The second invitation is very different: "ye . . . shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot"; "Evil must be your only happiness." These invitations are not directed only toward knowledge; rather they refer to values pursued and attained and to the joy one experiences in their possession. For Brown to accede to the first invitation would have been no victory for Satan. But if Brown makes evil his only good, all other goods cease to have value for him, and his ambivalence is replaced by "univalence." He will be the Devil's and a fully participating member of the coven. But the Devil's clever intermingling of the two invitations also leaves open the possibility that an uninformed "no" could still be "yes" to issues unsuspected by the simple Goodman.
Hawthorne does not allow Brown to opt for or against initiation on the terms of the second invitation. At the exactly climactic point in the tale, Brown suffuses elements of the first invitation with elements of the second. The climax does not come in terms of value and happiness but in terms of knowledge: "Herein did the shape of evil dip his hand and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own." The entire significance of the baptism for Brown will be, then, that the two will know the sins of each other: "The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other." On these terms Brown refuses the baptism violently.
The refusal is tremendously significant. In his not listening carefully to the Devil's words Brown has conflated the two promises into one meaning and has allowed the horror of the second to flow over onto the first. Value suffuses meaning in the one place in the tale where it is most necessary for Brown to recognize ambiguity, an ambiguity he more than the Devil has created because he has taken two frankly presented meanings as one and filled it with one of the feelings contending within him. Ambivalence has led Brown to the point where ambiguity can confuse him. In a revulsion against the evil, he refuses the baptism. But by this time the evil is not only evil; it is also a good—knowledge. So that when Brown rebels he rebels against knowledge of sin and does so with all the violence of his revulsion against evil. The paradox results that an act of virtue—repelling temptation—throws him into as inhuman a state as his yielding would have done.
The definition of Brown's final state in Salem Village seems to be of critical importance for a valid reading of the tale. I cannot believe he has become "Badman Brown" on his return. After all, he has done an act of virtue, even though he does not recognize the error he had allowed to enter and never will. His stance becomes, therefore, that of the man who opts for the wrong by seeing the wrong as right. And the decision does not remove ambivalence, because all the rest of his life is spent in pursuing the knowledge he has denied himself. He habitually ascribes to others what he suspects they are guilty of (here is his evil: he does not forgive nor sympathize, but then how could he?—he is not sure). His state becomes one of doubt, a concomitant of ambivalence.
But the elements of the ambivalence have changed. In the beginning Brown was torn between Faith and the Devil. Now the ambivalence is rarefied and psychologized. Its object is Faith and all the other human beings in the village. He can never know their evil, and yet he is drawn toward them; he judges, but always on doubt. Fletcher describes the state:
This "chronic coexistence of love and hatred, both directed towards the same person," becomes something more subtle when it is transferred to the sphere of doubt and certainty. Along with the emotions that are ambivalent, when this coexistence is in full force, there are likely to be intellectual equivalents in the form of extreme doubt as to the good and/or evil of the loved object.
The terrible thing about Brown is that his customary spirit is that of the "hanging-judge," but never with assurance; he vacillates and in his vacillation suffers. Drawn toward wife and fellowmen, he can be only a begetter of children rather than real husband and father, and he is never a companionable fellow among fellows. He is always searching, scrutinizing, judging, condemning. The "loathful brotherhood" can never become a loving brotherhood, either in evil or in charity, because his suspicion isolates him. He had refused knowledge of sin because he had thought its possession was evil, and his lifelong imperception then casts him into a second ambivalence more harrowing than the first, because he lives in it in a state of righteousness concerning himself and of condemnation of others—but always agonizing because never complete.
Hawthorne's allegory presents a common human situation which occurs when a man is in possession of only partial knowledge and is torn between opposing goods and feelings. He can—and in "Young Goodman Brown" does—choose wrongly, either knowingly or not. In either case he must pay the price. If the choice was a mistake, the price can cause the spectator to complain: "But it really wasn't his fault! He was trying to do right." No matter. The intolerance of the whole rests on the shoulders of each. That is why I do not read Hawthorne as completely condemning Brown or completely approving him. Brown is Everyman on his uncertain pilgrimage, wanting both good and evil at the same time and not being alert enough to keep them from getting confused. He pays the price in his own unhappy life. In other words, "Young Goodman Brown" is an artistic presentation of an ambivalence all human hearts and heads may be subject to and that some, probably many, fall prey to.
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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Explicator, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, January, 1971, item 44.
[In the following, Dickson notes that Goodman Brown lacks charity, the greatest of the Christian virtues.]
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is the story of a youth's initiation into the knowledge of the universality of the evil in man's heart. The story is ambiguous on the question of whether this newfound knowledge is trustworthy or illusory, though it is perhaps significant that the only guarantor of the authenticity of Brown's experience is the Devil, himself the father of deception. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of Brown's psychology, the inherent truth of falsity of the knowledge is unimportant anyway. What matters is first that he accepts it as true, and second that, having done so, he becomes "a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man. . . ."
Now it is interesting that a person raised in a Puritan culture should be traumatized by the realization that evil is a universal feature of human nature. After all, that this is so is a prime tenet of the Calvinist theology. There are several possible explanations. Perhaps Brown's hitherto academic knowledge of evil had just now been personally borne home to him. Perhaps he had become convinced that evil was not just an ingredient of human nature, but the main ingredient. Since this still seems insufficient, I would like to suggest that at least one other factor is involved, a weakness in Brown's own character.
In I Corinthians, XIII, 13, the Apostle Paul establishes a hierarchy of Christian virtue: "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." Hawthorne seems clearly to have this verse in mind when he writes, "'But where is Faith?' thought Goodman Brown; and as hope came into his heart, he trembled." The omission of charity is conspicuous—not just its verbal omission in this passage, but also its absence in fact from Brown's life. The concept of charity was understood in Hawthorne's day to mean the disinterested, altruistic, forgiving love that forms the basis of Christian character. It is apparent that Brown lacks this virtue. He is unwilling to grant his neighbors the benefit of a reasonable doubt let alone the grace of forgiveness in the face of known sin. He accept at face value the experience the Devil has prepared for him, but he is unwilling to offer to even his close friends the chance to defend themselves or to explain their actions. The penalty for such a failure of charity is again hinted at by St. Paul, who says, "[If I] have not charity, I am nothing." Hawthorne puts it a little differently: ". . . they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."
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SOURCE: " 'Young Goodman Brown' and the Failure of Hawthorne's Ambiguity," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 8, December, 1971, pp. 425-31.
[In this essay, Humma argues that the ambiguous ending of "Young Goodman Brown" reveals Hawthorne's artistic failure rather than his triumph.]
Most critics of "Young Goodman Brown" consider it one of Hawthorne's finest short stories. Richard H. Fogle, for instance, says [in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952] that in "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne has achieved that "reconciliation of opposites which Coleridge deemed the highest art." Daniel Hoffman [in Form and Fable in American Literature, 1965] ranks it as "one of Hawthorne's masterpieces." To Roy Male "Young Goodman Brown" is nothing less than "one of the world's great short stories" [Hawthorne's Tragic Vision, 1957]. In spite of such accolades (or perhaps because of them), few critics are agreed as to the story's precise meaning. In general, the criticism falls into two broad categories: to the first belong such critics as Male, Fogle, and Harry Levin, who feel the story reveals Hawthorne's sentiments about the essential iniquity of mankind [Levin, The Power of Blackness, 1958]; to the second belong those who contend that it is not humanity at all that Hawthorne indicts, but Brown himself. For both groups, the question of whether Brown experienced or dreamed the events in the forest assumes paramount importance. Paul J. Hurley, for one, states [in "Young Goodman Brown's 'Heart of Darkness'," in American Literature XXXVII, January 1966] that "if Young Goodman Brown did not have a nightmare or experience hallucinations, Hawthorne has created a fearful indictment of humanity."
Mark Van Doren, on the other hand, arguing [in Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1949] that these events are in fact dreamed by Brown, writes that Brown "sees evil where it is not." F. O. Matthiessen and W. B. Stein also insist upon Brown's guilt, arguing with Van Doren that Brown perceives evil where is does not exist. One of the more recent apologists for this viewpoint is Hurley, who contends that the evil Brown sees is "the product of his own fancy with no reality save that supplied by his depraved imagination." Outside the pale of both groups of critics is David Levin. He argues [in "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature XXXIV, November 1962] that Brown neither dreamed nor hallucinated but was instead the victim of the devil, who ingeniously conjured the apparitions, or "specters," of Brown's fellow villagers. Levin remarks that Brown commits the same error as that committed by the good Salem residents in 1692: "He lets the Devil's true statements about the maltreatment of Indians and Quakers prepare him to accept counterfeit evidence, and he fails to insist upon the difference between a person and a person's 'shape' or specter." Levin goes on to say that the majority of modern critics have fallen into the same error.
I will risk repeating their mistake (and Brown's) and argue that those elders Brown encounters in the forest are present in the flesh. The plain facts of the story warrant no other conclusion. Moreover, I would contend that the probes by Hurley and Levin are valuable for their weaknesses as well as their strengths. These weaknesses lead to an understanding of Hawthorne's real intentions in the story. After examining first Levin's article and then Hurley's, I would like to turn to the evaluation by Fogle of the story's literary merits, which he believes derive in good measure from the ambiguity in the story. Fogle argues that the ambiguity is the result of Hawthorne's reticence to express what in his heart of hearts he felt to be true of humanity, an ambiguity which Fogle says results in the "highest art." It seems to me that this ambiguity results rather in an art that is contrived and finally dishonest.
David Levin's analysis can be quickly dispensed with. He states that Hawthorne clearly recognized the significance played by "specter evidence" in the actual trials. Hawthorne, in fact, says Levin, in two stories ("Alice Doane's Appeal" and "Main Street") "explicitly mentioned the devil's ability to impersonate innocent people." But then how does Levin explain Hawthorne's failure to mention this ability in "Young Goodman Brown"? When Hawthorne errs it is generally in the way of overstatement, not understatement. He almost always overexposes—almost never underexposes—his tales. It seems unreasonable therefore to be asked to believe that Hawthorne would use the device of specter evidence without first establishing his intentions. Nothing else in his writings suggests he would do such a thing.
One also wonders why Hawthorne, if the reality in the story is indeed spectral, would pose the question of Brown's dreaming the event. Levin seems to feel that Hawthorne was concerned that some nineteenth-century readers might be too sophisticated "to take devils seriously even in historical fiction" and therefore felt called upon to fabricate an alternative possibility. This is a possibility, but it appears at best to be a precariously tenuous one.
According to D. Levin, the devil stage-manages the entire performance on that fateful night in the wilderness, from the moment Brown first sees Goody Cloyse until the moment at which he apparently passes out from shock. Levin's theory has the advantage of plausibly accounting for Faith's pink ribbons, a detail whose "literal existence" Matthiessen found objectionable [F. O. Matthieson, American Renaissance, 1941]. But it has the larger disadvantage of being unable to explain Hawthorne's treatment of the "appearances" of the minister and Deacon Gookin. Although Brown hears their voices and the sounds they make as they pass, he cannot see them. Concerning this phenomenon, Levin writes that "Brown cannot see 'so much as a shadow,' but he 'could have sworn'—as witnesses in 1692 did indeed swear—that he recognized the deacon and the minister in 'the voices talking so strangely in the empty air'." One has to ask why Hawthorne, since he gives his other specters flesh and blood embodiment, fails to do the same with the apparitions—as Levin contends they are—of the minister and the deacon. If these figures are in fact what Levin asserts they are, the devil plainly has little reason for making apparitions of apparitions. For this reason and those stated above, it seems best to go back to the original alternatives of dream and reality.
Like David Levin, Hurley believes that Hawthorne intended his story to be read as an account of a single individual's perversion and not as an indictment of the moral nature of man in general. But neither should the story be read as an account of the masterful talents of the devil: "To take guilt away from human beings in order to place it on infernal powers is not a satisfactory explanation of the story." Very true. (Levin argues, of course, that Brown is not absolved from guilt, that he should have seen through the devil's improvisations.) Yet one wonders why Hurley should feel Brown is not morally responsible in the one instance (when he is tricked by the devil) but is in the other (when he hallucinates). In both cases apparently Brown took what he saw as reality.
Like Levin, Hurley treads shaky ground when he argues that the passage in which Brown thinks he hears the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin proves Brown's willingness to see what is not there. Hawthorne's passage, however, leaves little doubt that something is there:
On came the hoof tramps and the voices of the riders, two grave old voices, conversing soberly as they drew near. These mingled sounds appeared to pass along the road, within a few yards of the young man's hiding place; but, owing doubtless to the depth of the gloom at that particular spot, neither the travellers nor their steeds were visible. Though their figures brushed the small boughs by the wayside, it could not be seen that they intercepted, even for a moment, the faint gleam from the strip of bright sky athwart which they must have passed. Goodman Brown alternately crouched and stood on tiptoe, pulling aside the branches and thrusting forth his head as far as he durst without discerning so much as a shadow. It vexed him the more, because he could have sworn, were such a thing possible, that he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin, jogging along quietly, as they were wont to do, when bound to some ordination or ecclesiastical council. While yet within hearing, one of the riders stopped to pluck a switch.
Hurley writes that "Fogle has alluded to this passage too as evidence of Hawthorne's ambiguity, but there is no ambiguity in the fact that Goodman Brown actually saw nothing at all. Nevertheless, he stands 'doubting whether there really was a heaven above him'." There are two objections to Hurley's argument: First, there is no ambiguity about the fact that the voices Brown hears are actual voices; nor is there any ambiguity about the fact that the "figures" brush against the vegetation. Hawthorne does not after all say seem. Second, if Hurley's conclusions are based on the fact of the literal invisibility of the deacon and the minister, then why has he not acknowledged the literal visibility of the devil, Goody Cloyse, Faith's famous ribbon, Faith herself, and all those elders present at the diabolical ceremony before the stone altar?
Hurley argues further that if Hawthorne's theme had been the "universality of human sinfulness" he would have manifested a greater evidence of it: yet "the only scene in which such a manifestation occurs is the Devil's communion, but that takes place after Goodman Brown has declared his loss of faith." Perhaps Brown has made such a declaration: earlier he had proclaimed that his faith was gone, that the world was the devil's. But again, perhaps he has not: after all, his last words in the forest are "Faith! Faith! look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one." But really, what difference does it make? Why should Brown be less inclined to see evil in people while he still has his faith—and Hurley does contend that Brown is searching for evil at that point—than after he has lost it?
Hurley is convinced that had Hawthorne wanted us to believe in the literalness of the events, he would not have confused us with the dream possibility—unless (as he goes on to qualify) Fogle's theory is correct, and Hawthorne was attempting to escape the implications of his own suspicions about the iniquity of the human race. The latter alternative, which Hurley rejects, would appear to be more nearly the right one. But one can nonetheless turn Hurley's supposition around and ask why, if Hawthorne had wanted us to believe that Goodman Brown was dreaming, did he confuse us with the possibility that the events might be real? In actuality, there is no good reason to believe that Brown dreamed or hallucinated anything. The only occasion in the story when he can be observed to lose consciousness occurs after he has viewed the assembly at the "communion" ceremony. It is, incidentally, for this reason that Hurley is careful to hold out the possibility that Brown perhaps hallucinated instead of dreamed. Hawthorne's own reply—"Be it so if you will"—to his question as to whether Brown had "only" dreamed a wild dream certainly implies a negative response, as if he means to say, "Go ahead and believe it a dream if, for reasons of your own, that is what you must believe."
Fogle considers this ambiguity the "very essence of Hawthorne's tale." He says that Hawthorne wishes to propose, not flatly that man is primarily evil, but instead the gnawing doubt lest this should indeed be true" and concludes that the ambiguity which Hawthorne deliberately affects is integral to this purpose. I could not agree more wholeheartedly. The "multiple choice" device, as Matthiessen called it, does yeoman work in "Young Goodman Brown." But I must part company with Fogle when he proposes that the use of this device results in an artistic triumph, adding "depth and force to Hawthorne's thin and delicate fabric." Fogle contends that "above all, the separate instances of this 'multiple choice device' organically cohere to reproduce in the reader's mind the feel of the central ambiguity or theme, the horror of the hero's doubt. Goodman Brown, a simple and pious nature, is wrecked as a result of the disappearance of the fixed poles of his belief. His orderly cosmos dissolves into chaos as church and state, the twin pillars of his society, are hinted to be rotten, with their foundations undermined. The yearning for certainty is basic to his spirit—and he is left without the comfort even of a firm reliance in the Devil."
It should be noted that Fogle fails to consider Hawthorne's criticism of Brown—more than just implied, it seems to me—in the story's concluding paragraph. This criticism is hardly in keeping with the possibility that the events Brown witnessed were real, for if so, as even Hurley admits, Brown cannot very well be held at fault for the gloom of his later behavior. How else is he to react to such a total indictment of human nature?
In The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger, through the relentlessly honest eyes of Holden Caulfield, is able to impeach all those sorry details of human behavior that he—Salinger—apparently despises. Yet at the end of the novel Holden finds himself impeached for the damning indictments which the author has framed, with so much evident relish, in his hero's language. Is Salinger having his cake and eating it, too? It would seem that Hawthorne is attempting to both have his and eat it: for the multiple choice device permits Hawthorne to condemn humanity in the instance of the one possibility (the events as real), and to condemn Brown in the instance of the other (the events as figments of Brown's imagination). The question is whether such a method is art or trickery. Should we admire the story as a genuine treatment of the human condition or rather as an ingenious precursor of the O. Henry short story (sans the happy or wistful ending)?
A comparison might be helpful in this respect. Melville, in "Bartleby the Scrivener," portrays an individual who, like old Goodman Brown, lives in isolation from the rest of humanity. Like Brown's isolation, Bartleby's appears to be both willful, on the one hand, and the result of an unfortunate experience, or an accumulation of unfortunate experiences, on the other. The primary difference between the two stories lies in the authors' treatments of the protagonists' situations. In Melville's story, there is perhaps an implied criticism of Bartleby though it is difficult to know for certain. But more significantly, there is the great—and one senses, genuine—flow of sympathy that goes out from Melville toward Bartleby and for the tragedy that this bereft man has wrought for himself. "Ah Bartleby, ah humanity," the narrator sighs at the story's end. Yet the narrator, as well as Bartleby, represents Everyman, and one can see that in spite of the pronounced differences in their situations, there is not finally so great a distance between them.
Although Melville sympathetically comprehends Bartleby's condition, Hawthorne on his part appears to have but little appreciation for the tragic circumstances in which Brown finds himself. Hawthorne prefers to give us after all a pair of alternate possibilities. And if, as in the one alternative, Brown actually witnessed the events in the forest, then he is faced with a situation to which he cannot possibly accommodate himself (the standard Hawthorne remedy). Hawthorne's failure to deal with the sad plight of old Goodman Brown in the light of this alternative represents nothing less than a failure of art, a failure to responsibly cope with a problem he has deliberately allowed to surface. Brown deserves not so much censure as understanding. For the reality he confronts, like that Bartleby thinks (at least) he confronts, does not for once admit of adjustment. Adjustment here for Brown would mean complicity in evil. Hawthorne's refusal, however, to confront the dilemma into which he has thrown Brown signifies more than an artistic deficiency. It also signifies a deficiency in the author of the one quality that could have brought justice to both the hero and the story: compassion. "Young Goodman Brown" then does not represent, as Fogle claims, the triumph of art; it represents rather the failure of the artist's vital responsibility toward his material.
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SOURCE: 'The Woe That Is Madness: Goodman Brown and the Face of the Fire," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1973, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1973, pp. 177-82.
[In the following essay, Morsberger contends that Goodman Brown's loss of faith in others reflects the beginnings of American political and social paranoia.]
Hawthorne, if any one, was equipped to write the definitive novel on the Salem witchcraft delusion; but he never confronted it head on. "Alice Doane's Appeal" conjures up the victims from the graveyard, Grandfather's Chair and "Main Street" give the barest bones of a synopsis, "Sir William Phips" merely hints at it, and The House of the Seven Gables fictionalizes its heritage of guilt. But nowhere does Hawthorne give the dramatic account in depth of the trial and tragedy of Rebecca Nurse, George Burroughs, John Proctor, Giles Corey, George Jacobs and the other courageous victims, nor the damnable game of the "afflicted" girls, the admission of spectral evidence by autocratic judges, nor the sinister attempt by paranoid theocrats to maintain their power through terror. It remained for lesser writers to deal with such matters, for Hawthorne was not so much chronicling our history as he was molding the legend of our past. Thus the wholly fictitious "Young Goodman Brown" is our most effective literary work in recreating the atmosphere in which the witchcraft hysteria occurred.
"Young Goodman Brown" is Hawthorne's most successful story. Here he is free from the authorial editorializing that makes some other tales excessively didactic. Nowhere does the author intrude; such moral generalizations as the story contains are spoken by the devil, who is, of course, unreliable. The reader is spared such obvious guidelines as, "and this shall be a moral unto you," that seem too contrived; and their plots are sometimes inadequate for their meaning. But in "Young Goodman Brown," there are no poisoned Gothic gardens, no bosom serpents, Faustian laboratories, or other unnatural devices; the supernatural terror is not of Germany but comes from authentic American history; its folk-lore quality is not from flights of fancy but from an actual episode that has become a part of our heritage. As Hawthorne says elsewhere of the Salem burial ground, for every Bunker Hill monument in our history, there should be a Gallows Hill. As he says of democracy that it "comes from the nature of things," so does the situation in "Young Goodman Brown"; it is not superimposed from without but corresponds to the psychology of Puritan belief and of the Salem witchcraft delusion.
Yet the very absence of editorializing has caused considerable ambiguity. In their introductory notes to the story, Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long explain its meaning as Brown's "corruption through his loss of simple faith in the goodness of mankind. . . ." This comment has stood in the widely used The American Tradition in Literature since 1956; but in the context both of Hawthorne's fiction and of 17th-century Puritanism, it is misleading. For Brown, as a Puritan, would have been indoctrinated with the Calvinistic concept of total depravity, according to which mankind is utterly corrupt and deserves no better than damnation. In the orthodox Calvinism of Michael Wigglesworth's doggerel "The Day of Doom," men of good works are damned to hell, and so are they
Who dy'd in infancy,
And never had or good or bad effected pers'nally,
But from the womb unto the tomb were straightway carried. . . .
They are damned not for sins of commission but simply for their humanity in being born with "Nature/depraved and forlorn."
Accordingly, Perry Miller maintained that "It is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan; no matter what misfortune befell him, no matter how often or how tragically his fellowmen failed him, he would have been prepared for the worst, and would have expected no better" [Perry Miller and Thomas N. Johnson, The Puritans, 1938].
In Goodman Brown, Hawthorne did conceive of a disillusioned Puritan, but Brown's tragedy is not the loss of his simple faith; rather it is that his faith is too simple to begin with. He is, of course, aware of evil from the start, for he is concerned lest a dream have warned his wife "what work is to be done tonight" as he sets forth on "his present evil purpose." But at this stage in his development, evil is still a notion; he may believe in it intellectually as dogma, but he has not yet experienced it. So his leaving his wife for an evening of diabolical revelry at the witches' sabbath is merely an untested young man's first (and he expects final) fling. One might compare him to the youth who thinks he will just once try drugs, prostitution, or some sort of perversity—just once, to see what it's like, and never again—and who gets hooked into addiction or shocked into fanatical reaction. Goodman Brown is like the person who from perverse curiosity experiments once with LSD and has a bad trip.
His trip into the forest is indeed a bad one, so traumatic that he concludes by disbelieving in any goodness. Though he cries out to Faith to "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one," and is whisked away from the black mass, he still believes Satan's claim that "Evil is the nature of mankind" and blights the rest of his life by acknowledging, "Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." His discovery of the hypocrisy of the catechist, clergy, ministers and magistrates of Salem has destroyed his faith in the Calvinist elect, who if they persevered anywhere should have done so in the new Zion of Massachusetts. With the participation of his wife Faith in the devil worship, there are not brands spared from the burning; the depravity is indeed total.
It is too simple to consider the story an unqualified attack on Calvinism. Though Hawthorne deplored the Puritans' grim bigotry, he respected their strength and commitment and wrote in "The Old Manse" that he preferred the warmth that their writings once had to the anemic frigidity of 19th-century liberal theology. It is true that one element of "Young Goodman Brown" is a criticism of Puritan self-righteousness; the devil points out to Brown that he has "a very general acquaintance here in New England" and proceeds to cite numerous instances of bigotry, persecution, and hypocrisy.
On the question of evil, the issue is more complex. Hawthorne rejected Emerson's bland dismissal of evil as mere illusion that will vanish when one rises transcendently into the world of spirit: "So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies, vanish. . . ." But how far did Hawthorne go in the opposite direction? Melville [in "Hawthorne and His Mosses"] asked of Hawthorne "whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom" and concluded (later citing "Young Goodman Brown" as an example) "that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to the Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free" and that "this black conceit pervades him [Hawthorne] through and through."
Though the lack of editorial explanation makes the story ambiguous, Goodman Brown's morbid misanthropy is not Hawthorne's. Henry James commented [in Hawthorne, 1879], "The magnificent little romance of "Young Goodman Brown" . . . evidently means nothing as regards Hawthorne's own state of mind, his conviction of human depravity and his consequent melancholy; for the simple reason that if it meant anything, it would mean too much." James further observed that the gloomy subjects of Hawthorne's tales "were not the expression of a hopeless, or even of a predominantly melancholy, feeling about the human soul."
To find Hawthorne's own position, we must turn to other works, for he is one author whose writings can profitably be cross-referenced. What Goodman Brown experiences is an inversion of Jonathan Edwards' statement that it is one thing to have an opinion that God is holy and ought to be worshiped and quite another thing to have a sense of that holiness in one's heart. Thus in The Marble Faun, explaining the pure Hilda's reaction to discovering the crime of Miriam and Donatello, Hawthorne comments on "those tears (among the most chill and forlorn that gush from human sorrow) which the innocent heart pours forth at its first actual discovery that sin is in the world. . . . They may have heard much of the evil of the world, and seem to know it, but only as an impalpable theory. In due time, some mortal, whom they reverence too highly, is commissioned by Providence to teach them this direful lesson; he perpetrates a sin; and Adam falls anew, and Paradise, heretofore in unfaded bloom is lost again, and closed forever, with the fiery swords gleaming at its gates." As a Puritan, Brown would have a knowledge of evil but a notional knowledge only until his ordeal in the forest. Then he falls into what William James [in The Variety of Religious Experience] calls "really insane melancholia . . . desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception of intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one. . . ." Apropos of Hilda, Hawthorne explains further "that dismal certainty of the existence of evil in the world, which, though we may fancy ourselves fully assured of the sad mystery long before, never becomes a portion of our practical belief until it takes substance and reality from the sin of some guide, whom we have deeply trusted and revered, or some friend whom we have deeply loved. When that knowledge comes, it is as if a cloud had suddenly gathered over the morning light; so dark a cloud, that there seems to be no longer any sunshine behind it or above it . . . as if the catastrophe involved the whole moral world."
Clearly Hawthorne had a perspective that Brown lacks. His own position is perhaps best seen when he describes young Phoebe Pyncheon's distress upon discovering the evil in her respectable kinsman, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon:
A doubt of this nature has a most disturbing influence, and . . . comes with fearful and startling effect on minds of the trim, orderly, and limit-loving class. . . . Dispositions more boldly speculative may derive a stern enjoyment from the discovery, since there must be evil in the world, that a high man is as likely to grasp his share of it as a low one. A wider scope of view, and a deeper insight, may see rank, dignity, and station, all proved illusory, so far as regards their claim to human reverence, and yet not feel as if the universe were thereby tumbled headlong into chaos.
This final view was Hawthorne's own. It is matched by Melville's statement in Moby-Dick: "Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye."
But Goodman Brown resembles Ishmael in "The Try-Works" chapter, Melville's equivalent of a witches' sabbath, during which as helmsman Ishmael is terrified by the thought that like Brown in the dark forest, he "was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern." Recovering his senses after almost capsizing the ship, he makes a statement that can serve with uncanny accuracy as a comment on "Young Goodman Brown."
Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! . . . Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler relief. . . . Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp nor Rome's accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. . . . But even Solomon, he says, "the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain" (i.e. even while living) "in the congregation of the dead."
This is what happens to Brown on his return to Salem. Ishmael therefore concludes, matching the judgment of both Melville and Hawthorne, "Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee. . . . There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness." This is the woe that afflicts Brown. He has departed from Ishmael's "insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy," into "all the horrors of the half known life"; and as Ishmael says, "Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!"
Brown's physical return to Salem poses a number of problems. If his experience is taken literally, then everyone else who had participated in the black mass would know that he too had been there. Yet no one else appears unchanged. Is it because the others did not renounce Satan, as Brown did? Faith would know that he knows she was there, and he would know that she knows he knows. At the beginning she has a knowledge or at least a premonition of "what work is to be done tonight" and urges him to stay as much for her sake as for his own on "this night . . . of all nights in the year." Yet Faith greets him as if nothing amiss had occurred. She has not been overwhelmed with gloom; and if the rest of her days are blighted, it is because Brown's never-lifted depression turns their marriage into suttee on the psychological level.
On the other hand, if the experience is a dream, it is not clear where the dream begins, unless it does so before the story starts. The tale opens factually with Brown setting out on his journey; and while it very effectively shifts into the supernatural, there is no transition from actuality to dream. Yet the dreamlike quality of the night-journey is essential for the mystery of iniquity. Like Dante at the opening of The Inferno, Brown "came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost. . . . I cannot rightly tell how I entered it, so full of sleep was I about the moment that I left the true way." The forest is that of the soul, and there Brown learns like Melville, that "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."
If one assumes that Brown literally drifts into a dream, other technical problems arise. Did he simply walk into the forest and fall asleep like Rip Van Winkle? Did he spend the night uncomfortably under a tree? If so, would he not realize upon waking that he had been asleep? On the level of motivation, why should he go into the forest to spend a night sleeping out, if he was not on his way to a rendezvous? The only way in which the dream version can be seen logically is for the entire story to be a dream, and such a reading still does not provide for a transition out of the dream at the end.
Yet the dream alternative is necessary for modern readers who do not believe in witches. Despite the loose ends, the final ambiguity allows for a psychological or spiritual rather than a literal experience. There was no actual witchcraft at Salem, but twenty people died there as witches, and Hawthorne's story provides the atmosphere in which such hysterical delusion could take place. As Alan Simpson states [in Puritanism in Old and New England, 1961], "The Puritan was always obsessed by his sense of sin. Taught to expect it everywhere, and to magnify it where he found it, he easily fell into the habit of inventing it." Though the story makes no mention of witchcraft trials, it is not difficult to imagine Goodman Brown as an accuser and prosecutor of his neighbors. In his profound suspicion of evil on the part of everyone save himself, we see here, as Salem showed in actual history, a parable of the beginnings of American paranoia in society and politics.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7513
SOURCE: "Young Goodman Brown' as Historical Allegory," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1973, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1973, pp. 183-97.
[In the essay below, St. Armand analyzes Hawthorne's short story as "an historical parable, pure and simple."]
In his 1964 Centenary essay, "On Hawthorne" [included in Beyond Culture, 1965], Lionel Trilling declared that:
. . . in the degree that he does not dominate us, Hawthorne cannot wholly gratify us, moderns that we are. He is an exquisite artist, yet he suggests to us the limitations of art, and thus points to the stubborn core of actuality that is not to be overcome, and seems to say that the transaction between it and us is after all an unmediated one. . . . He has no great tyrant-dream in which we can take refuge, he leaves us face to face with the ultimately unmodifiable world, of which our undifferentiated human nature is a part.
Trilling's use of the word "exquisite" has heralded a new phase in the history of Hawthorne criticism and the remarkable Hawthorne revival which came to a rich culmination in the 1950's of Neo-Orthodoxy and the New Criticism. We are now in a period marked by modification and repetition, if not by absolute retrenchment, and more and more Hawthorne is being read not as a bold explorer of "a blackness ten times black" but rather as a more muddled nineteenth-century Robert Lowell. Trilling's "exquisite" means, indeed, that we are confronting a Genteel Tradition in Hawthorne scholarship, as a large territory of old ground is gone over again and the works of the Salem master seem to perform the same function as those creeds and points of early Christian doctrine endlessly refined by numberless councils of Nicaea and Trent.
All of a sudden, Hawthorne is "irrelevant." That he has no great "tyrant-dream" means, in an age just as conscious of political means and ends as the 1930's, that he can no longer move us. For how can his obtrusive didacticism jibe with the ethical relativism of the present? Trilling's final judgment of Hawthorne is that "he is not for us today, and perhaps not even tomorrow. He is, in Nietzsche's phrase, one of the spirits of yesterday—and the day after tomorrow." But, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, for Trilling's judgment only echoes what Newton Arvin had to contend with many years ago when he replied to the standard charge that Hawthorne seemed even then somehow alien and remote. In a 1928 essay on "The Relevance of Hawthorne" [in American Pantheon, 1966], Arvin wrote:
For certainly, at a distance, it is difficult to see that Hawthorne is anything but a fine and attenuated voice out of the past. He was, as Mr. Mumford says, "the afterglow of the Seventeenth Century": and how unmitigably foreign to all our most urgent concerns seems that moribund and tormented Puritanism which, superficially at any rate, was the imaginative setting for his work. Compared with Emerson's gospel of self-assertion, or with Whitman's hearty empiricism, how archaic appears Hawthorne's preoccupation with the morbid "case of conscience," how dry and toneless that romantic "atmosphere" which he so sedulously exploited! What possible relevance to our own needs have these tenuous tales of ministers wearing black veils and scarecrows transformed into men of fashion, these dusky romances of hereditary guilt, of concealed crime and its retribution, of spooky "influences" and clashing "spheres"? Is this an imaginative world in which we can find ourselves ever so slightly at home? Or, to put the question in perhaps its sharpest form, is the experience of which Hawthorne's work is the product and the record an experience in which we can recognize any general and persistent representative quality? Did he celebrate an adventure that all Americans, or any large number of them, have had, and that is still, in any way, a portion of our destiny?
Like Arvin, but for different reasons, I should like to hold that Hawthorne does, indeed, chronicle "an experience in which we can recognize [a] general and persistent representative quality." The adventure which he records, I would further maintain, has precisely to do with the idea of American destiny, both national and individual, for in Hawthorne's work the forces which determine the contours of history are inseparable from those which determine the shape of the individual soul.
The short fiction which deals most prominently with the idea of destiny, as does The Scarlet Letter among the longer romances, is "Young Goodman Brown" and while its charting of the precarious state of the individual soul has often been analyzed, never to my knowledge has it been fully taken as Hawthorne first intended it to be taken: as an historical parable, pure and simple. The story was initially included as one of the author's proposed "Provincial Tales" (1829), dealing with native American themes, which were in turn raked from the ashes of a still earlier collection, Seven Tales of My Native Land, burned by Hawthorne in manuscript. Naturally, "Young Goodman Brown," because its raw material is the Puritan mind cast in the setting of the Salem witchcraft delusion, has often been seen as a skillful exposition of the extremes of that mind itself. Yet few modern critics have explicated it as a tale of and about Hawthorne's own native land and of what can happen in and to that native land, no matter what its exact spiritual persuasion.
The particular spiritual persuasion of Puritanism remains of prime importance for the story since it provides Young Goodman Brown with the same mental set that New England Calvinism has forced on the American mind: an overwhelming sense of destiny, for either good or ill. As Robert N. Bellah has reminded us forcibly in his essay on "Civil Religion in America" [in Daedalus: Religion in America, Winter 1967], this sense of destiny remains with us even today and, in some respects, is an indigenous part of our political rhetoric and the way in which we think of ourselves, in spite of several recent shocks to our own self-image as Americans. Bellah writes:
Behind the civil religion at every point lie Biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all the nations.
It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need—as is any living faith—of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight.
It does not make any decision for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being, in Lincoln's fine phrase, an "almost chosen people." But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.
We are still, then, in the same situation as is Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, lost in the ambiguous wood of doubt and devotion. And it is precisely his burden of Puritan belief which has been bequeathed to us, his more immediate heritage of Biblical archetypes and abiding sense of apocalyptic responsibility. The confident, even benignly bumptious inaugural addresses of a Jefferson or a Kennedy only seem to echo in their confident enthusiasms William Stoughton, the pronounced Puritan and unrecanting Chief Justice of the Salem tribunal who wrote of "New England's True Interest" in 1668 that:
As for our advantages and privileges in a covenant state: here time and strength would fail to reckon up what we have enjoyed of this kind. If any people in the world have been lifted up to heaven as to advantages and privileges, we are the people. Name what you will under this head and we have had it. We have had Moses and Aaron to lead us; we have had teachings and instructions, line upon line and precept upon precept; we have had ordinances and Gospel dispensations, the choicest of them; we have had peace and plenty; we have had afflictions and chastisements in measure; we have had the hearts and prayers and blessings of the Lord's people everywhere; we have had the eye and hand of God; our adversaries have had their rebukes; we have had encouragements and a wall of fire around us. What could have been done more for us than hath been done?
Of course, we still have the eye and hand of God with us-on the backs of our dollar bills, where He looks over the pyramid of His republic, as we have God's name on our coinage, still hoping against hope that He trusts as much in us as we profess to trust in Him. But, even for those who feel that God has died or disappeared, Stoughton's earlier contention that "The name and interest of God, and covenant-relation to Him . . . hath been written upon us in capital letters from the beginning" holds true. Americans still cherish great expectations. The portentous outline of God's determinations remains with us, thrusting us into a gloomy state of introspection when our national election to grace is no longer rewarded by sanctifying signs or divine providences. It is then that the concluding words of Stoughton's sermon come back to torture and reprove his chosen people. "Thus it hath been with us as to grounds of divine expectation," he writes:
And therefore let us in the fear of God learn the great truth today, and receive the instruction thereof sealed up unto all our souls: That the great God hath taken up great expectation of us, and made great promises to Himself concerning us, and this hath been—and is—New England's day and season of probation. ("New England's True Interest")
The portentous outline of America's personal expectations as a nation and the vague sense of Jehovah's promises as a God add up to exactly what Puritanical pietism left to a decadent posterity: an essentialist mind and a prevailing sense of destiny. "Young Goodman Brown" gets at the heart of this American dilemma of destiny, manifest or otherwise, by examining precisely the same things which television newscasters consider in their nightly dissections of the course of recent American history: the effects—the disturbingly real, physical effects—of a belief in such a destiny.
For, the knowledge of one's own destiny, be it either eternal election to God and His saints or eternal damnation to Satan and his devils, has at least certain real consequences. One acts out the part which has been assigned by the cosmic stage manager and gives him glory and praise for the grandeur of his design in spiteof any individual travail of soul. As D.H. Lawrence says for Melville's Captain Ahab [in Studies in Classic American Literature, 1961], "Ah, well, if my day is doomed, and I am doomed with my day, it is something greater than I who dooms me, so I accept my doom as a sign of the greatness which is more than I am." In the later history of American pietism, this particular theory that God's sovereignty gains by the individual's "willingness to be damned" was to be known as Hopkinsian Calvinism, though it is an idea implicit in the structure of the entire theology.
One can never quite be sure even of this dismal glory, however, for the conversion may come at the penultimate second, the apocalypse may somehow—through the operation of amazing grace—be replaced by a magnificent apotheosis. What is left from all of this is the travail of soul itself—an intense watching, and listening, and waiting, and testing, an agonizing combination of "fear and trembling" and "the sickness unto death," to use Kierkegaard's terms, produced by the greater overbelief that something very definite and cosmically meaningful is going to happen.
It is just such a travail of soul which Young Goodman Brown is experiencing at the beginning of Hawthorne's story although he is reasonably sure of his own election, as he is reasonably sure of the validity of his faith—the outward evidence of an inward security of grace, of "things not seen," as Jonathan Edwards phrased it [in "Religious Affections," in Representative Selections, ed. Faust and Johnson, 1962]—imaged by the pious appearance of his wife and fellow townspeople. The sun of Brown's soul, however, has entered into a dusky decline for reasons Hawthorne does not bother to explain. Melville called the story "deep as Dante" and perhaps Brown, like Dante, has become entrapped in a dark wood of partial doubts and conflicting desires, the natural result of any intensely held belief such as the pietistic Calvinism I have outlined above.
Yet a vital part of that particular belief is the doctrine of original sin, and its definition by Hawthorne during the course of the tale as "the instinct that guides mortal man to evil" is enough, as a basis of belief, to account for Brown's nocturnal departure from his wife Faith and all she represents. By going into these dark woods, he is testing her as well as himself and, like Dante, undertaking a journey which could restore such "Faith" in a more genuine and strengthened form.
Such a journey is also, of course, a descent into the maw of hell itself, the hell that lies within as well as without. Hawthorne even makes it plain to us that Brown's purpose in attending the Witches' Sabbath is "evil" in nature, though whether "evil" by intent or result remains part of the ambiguities of the fable. Surely it is a dark and dangerous purpose, made even more sinister by the fact that Brown has no guide, as Dante had his Vergil, the symbol of balance and reason, to keep him from going over the brink as he loses himself more and more in this wilderness he has willfully chosen to confront alone. "He had taken a dreary road," Hawthorne writes,
. . . darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.
Young Goodman Brown is about to struggle with just such an unseen multitude, what Cotton Mather called the "Wonders of the Invisible World," yet at this point in his quest Brown is no more a bad Puritan than was Mather himself. His suspicions of spirits in the air reveal rather the sense of immanence and drama which composed the psychic terror of Puritan life at its most intense, a terror Mather reveals in his Discourse on Witches, that sermon written during the winter of 1688-1689, "after Goodwife Glover of Boston was hanged for bewitching John Goodwin's children," Mather writes,
I am now to tell you, That these eyes of mine have beheld all these things, and many other more, no less amazing. Christian, there are Devils: and so many of them, too, that sometimes a Legion of them are spared for the vexation of One Man. The Air in which we breathe is full of them. Be sensible of this, you that obey God: There are Troops of Tempters on every side of thee. Awake, O Soul, Awake, those Philistines of Hell are upon thee. Upon the least affrightment in the dark, many simple people cry out, The Devil! the Devil! Alas there are Devils, thronging about thee every day. O let the thought of it make thee a careful and watchful Man. And be sensible of this, you that commit Sin: The Lord Jesus hath said of you, Ye will do the lusts of your father the Devil. How often do many of you make a Mock and a Jeer of the Devil, while you are drudging for him? But know, that there are dreadful Devils to seize upon thy forlorn, forsaken Soul at its departure hence. O become a new Man at the thought of this.
Goodman Brown indeed wants not only to be a good man but also to become as well a new man or, if already hopefully converted, at least renew his personal experience of a divine and supernatural light. Yet, Mather's preceding words to the passage I have just quoted—"is there not a Devil whose Agency must account for things that are so extravagant?"—indicates the only foundation on which Brown is prepared to judge his faith and that of others. For him, as for Mather, "The Effects are [and must be] dreadfully real" [Mather, Letter to John Richards, in What Happened at Salem by David Levin, 1960]. We will see that this corollary of belief has a double edge of meaning but, for the moment, it is enough to observe that Brown is forced immediately into still another doubly ponderous dilemma. Like the Salem judges and Cotton Mather, he must determine the validity of the spectral evidence which is about to unsettle and bewitch him and, like the afflicted themselves, he is about to suffer a torment so real that he cannot dismiss it as mere irrational phenomena. Once again, as Mather, writing to John Richards, said of the victims of witchcraft,
Albeit the business of this Witchcraft be very much transacted upon the Stage of Imagination, yet we Know, that, as in treason there is an imagining which is a Capital Crime. & here also the business thus managed in Imagination yet may not be called Imaginary. The Effects are dreadfully real. Our dear neighbors are most really tormented. Really murdered, and really acquainted with hidden things, which are afterwords proved plainly to have been Realities.
In attempting to discern true witchcraft from false witchcraft, Mather and the Salem judges were confronting exactly the same problem faced by every believing Calvinist who attempted to determine which of a congregation had experienced a true conversion experience and which a false one. More than half a century later, Jonathan Edwards was to struggle with the problem in his "Treatise on Religious Affections" and come to much the same anguish and inconclusion, placing the burden of a test of faith on its behavioral effects rather than on the immeasurable inward exaltation. And almost a century after Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson was to announce, answering the objection of the orthodox [in Self Reliance], that "these impulses may be from below, not from above. They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's Child, I will live then from the Devil." Had Emerson been a contemporary of Cotton Mather and made the same statement under the "Cross & Swift Questions" of chief examiner John Ha[w] thorne, he most assuredly would have been hanged for a witch, with little or no protest on the part of the community.
Given a modus operandi which puts such weight on "dreadful effects," Brown's experiment with evil in the depths of the forest is doomed to failure if we also are given the nature of the forest itself—dusky, dark, and pervaded by an uncertain light. The pragmatic insistence on concrete evidences and black or white realities allows present ambiguities to vitiate—to poison—the past. Mather had quoted Jesus to the effect that "Ye will do the lusts of your father the Devil" and had exclaimed that "Alas, we should every one of us be a Dog and a Witch too, if God should leave us to ourselves" [Mather, "A Discourse on Witchcraft"]. Thus the Devil whom Brown meets in the forest bears such a considerable resemblance to his own self that both figures together "might have been taken for father and son" and, when Brown protests that "My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him," this satanic father-figure (who in Puritan theology is also the "Father of Lies") answers:
I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. 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 pitchpine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.
What occurs progressively throughout the unravelling fabric of Hawthorne's tale, then, is a systematic defamation of Brown's idealism, based as it is on a convenant theology which assumes as its first premise the integrity and good will of the Puritan founding fathers. Brown's defensive assertion that "We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness" is steadily enfeebled by the Devil's mustering of spectral evidences to prove his counterproposal that "I have a very general acquaintance here in New England." And so a designedly pernicious destruction of the Elders is accomplished, reaching its acme in the revelation that Goody Cloyse, whom Brown had long taken for granted as "a very pious and exemplary dame" and "who had taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual advisor" is also in league with the revisionist Devil of the serpent-staff. In the unequal cross-lights of the dim forest, even she appears to be nothing more than a lecherous and hypocritical old hag, smearing herself with wolf's bane and the fat of a newborn babe in order to enjoy diabolical power in general and carnal delights in particular.
The minister of the Salem community itself and the worthy Deacon Gookin are soon added to the Devil's roster of secret sinners. But, even though "Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and over-burdened with the heavy sickness of his heart," he yet retains his "Faith" and does not slip entirely into the slough of despond. "With heaven above and Faith below" (that is, both Brown's over-belief in God's continuing and invisible covenant and "Faith," the wife of his bosom, the physical evidence or "effect" of that covenant), he exclaims, "I will yet stand firm against the devil."
Still the dark traveller with the twisted staff uses his general acquaintance to such a spectral extent that not only is Brown's faith in his ancestry subconsciously undermined but so is his general trust in governmental authority: "The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me," this Devil further reveals, "the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interest. The governor and I, too—But these are state secrets." "Can this be so?" cries out the amazed Goodman Brown, expressing his confusion and sense of betrayal at the greater widening of his Puritan credibility gap.
In such a way does Brown's contention that "We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs" shatter and crumble, at the same time foreshadowing the present demoralization of America's liberal interpretation of its own history as written by the pipe and tweed historians of FDR's administration and the so-called consensus historians, who followed in their optimistic footsteps. In the dim forest of contemporary life, has not a similarly dark figure, who bears the lineaments of our founding fathers, as well as the marks of their exploitation and willful evil, pointed to a past racist history as well as to a present racist society? And has it not shaken us to repeat stubbornly, as did Young Goodman Brown, "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil"?
Brown's own faith itself, however, cannot possibly stand against such a Walpurgisnacht of the soul. The effects are much too real, the revelation too overwhelming, when the young man sees the very wife of that soul (or at least the spectral flutter of her pink ribbons) abroad in the same dark forest of doubt and temptation. His reaction is one we have been prepared to expect: "'My Faith is gone!' cried he, after one stupefied moment. 'There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given'." If one cannot be an angel of light, or one of the shining elect, one can at least be an active devil or one of the shimmering damned. The dream of apotheosis gives way to the nightmare of apocalypse, as Brown himself becomes "the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors":
"Ha! ha! ha!" roared Goodman Brown, when the wind roared at him. "Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fears you."
In truth, all through the haunted forest there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course, until, quivering among the trees, he saw a red light before him, as when the felled trunks and branches of a clearing have been set on fire, and throw up their lurid blaze against the sky, at the hour of midnight. . . . Goodman Brown cried out, and his cry was lost to his own ear by its unison with the cry of the desert.
This is one possible reaction to the loss of Brown's Puritan dream of election: meeting madness with madness, and violence with violence—a covenant of despair rather than of hope. This nausea is not exactly existential despair, however, for the covenant is also with the devil, so that its fruition remains cosmic damnation rather than meaningless absurdity, a massive sense of failure rather than a prelude to active commitment. It is the absolute despair or sickness unto death of a Kierkegaard, the sinking of the soul as defined by that arch-Puritan apologist, Jonathan Edwards, in the sermon he entitled "Future Punishment of the Wicked":
This is the death threatened by the law. This is dying in the highest sense of the word. This is to die sensibly; to die and know it; to be sensible of the gloom of death. This is to be undone; this is worthy of the name of destruction. This sinking of the soul under an infinite weight, which it cannot bear, is the gloom of hell. We read in Scripture of the blackness of darkness: this is it, this is the very thing. We read in Scripture of sinners being lost, and of their losing their souls: this is the thing intended; this is to lose the soul: they that are the subjects of this are utterly lost.
Most immediately, we are left once again with the effects of such a sinking of the soul, and those effects I should like to consider at the conclusion of this analysis. But, on the larger scale, what also emerges, I think, is a pattern which held true for the Puritans and still holds true for American intellectual history as a whole: in psychological terms, a manic-depressive syndrome, and, in political terms, a violent swing from elective idealism to apocalyptic pessimism. It is the change from the Kennedy years, with their unlimited sharing of a divine and supernatural light ("The torch has been passed . . .") and re-establishment of the covenant theology to the grim despair and moral introspection of Viet Nam, the Pentagon papers, and Water-gate, when America peered beneath the robes of its judges and seemed to find nothing but ugliness and duplicity. The gap was seen to be in both credibility and generations, with the tablets shattered and the contract broken as far back as history itself could tell. This swing could just as well be, however, the change from pre-Civil War millennialism to post-Civil War reconstruction, with the attendant rise of Naturalism in literature and Social Darwinism in politics.
The events differ but the terms remain the same. For, if the heavenly city is lost, history becomes a mechanism pulled by the same iron puppet-strings of environmental and hereditary law, that same "death threatened in the law" of which Edwards warned. And the reaction of men caught in the downbeat of determinism would remain much the same as that of Young Goodman Brown in Hawthorne's story—impotent rage, black despair, and an overwhelming sense that the Father had somehow cheated the son of his elective birthright. The problem remains that Young Goodman Brown is a representative American even more than he is a representative Puritan. While Brown can see his former and present ideals shattered, he cannot shake off the portentous outline which is the result of those ideals that Herman Melville, in his review of Hawthorne's "Mosses from an Old Manse," called "that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free" [Melville "Hawthrone and His Mosses," in The Portable Melville, ed. Joy Leyda, 1961].
Yet in abandoning the possibility of a divine and holy communion of the saints, Brown perversely proceeds to substitute absolute despair for absolute faith, being fully as Puritanical about his defection as he was about his former trustfulness. As Chadwick Hansen [in Witchcraft at Salem, 1969] explains about the Puritan obsession with arriving at absolute opinions":
What was expected was absolute consensus—discussion would proceed until opinion was unanimous, and the final product was therefore seen as a truth as absolute for the Puritan as any Papal Bull for the Catholic. If the matter were secular, or like the present one [i.e., witchcraft], a matter for secular decision with strong religious issues at stake, then business would proceed through normal governmental channels, with the clergy being called on for advice. Again, it was expected that final opinions and decisions would be absolute and unanimous.
In Young Goodman Brown's case, the consensus is a consensus of one, but his decision is just as absolute and just as final as any arrived at by a congregation of Puritans determined to achieve a perfect unanimity. Brown's conversion is a conversion in reverse to an all-or-nothing Jansenism rather than to the more immediate Puritan heresies of either Antinomianism or Arminianism. It is appropriate, therefore, that the words of his diabolical baptism into a hellish knowledge of mankind's absolute depravity be spoken by the revisionist Devil, who now truly becomes his master and his father. This satanic historian re-consecrates the substance of Brown's new-found faith with the dread words "Ye have found this young nature and your destiny."
"Lo, there ye stand, my children," said the figure in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. "Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now ye are undeceived. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again, my children, to the communion of your race."
The millennium has been lost, so now all are doomed, all wear the black veil of sin and damnation. Young Goodman Brown has swung over to the other side of the manic-depressive syndrome and sees the entire community as damned. Yet, Brown, because of his training, his catechizing at the knee of Goody Cloyse, cannot quite face the ultimate horror, which is an existential horror of pure nonbeing, of the void, of nothingness. He continues to be an essentialist, whose only religious possibility is the dark one of a general Day of Doom, a thundering apocalypse.
Inviting the revelation of the forest night as a test of faith, Brown finally cannot cope with the consequences of that revelation. He still clings to the idea of destiny, but the design behind that destiny is now one precisely like that which operates in Robert Frost's famous sonnet "Design": a "design of darkness to appall." To be sure, Hawthorne also suggests, like Frost, that the design is not a design at all, that it is a mere trick or conjunction of events and images, more phenomenal than metaphysical. But the American mind has been catechized to accept a cosmic conception of such design, and the obtrusive narrator's ironic query—"Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?"—disturbs too many universes with its multiplicity of answers.
Once again, we are invited only to evaluate the effects of the revelation, the physical evidences of the experience itself. This has "real" repercussions in the "real" world of men and things, for, quite specifically, Young Goodman Brown no longer acts as if he were elect, never mind the state of his soul or heart. In fact, Young Goodman Brown hardly acts at all, for he becomes afflicted with that paralysis of will which is a characteristic of what Rollo May and others have recently termed the "schizoid personality," but which Jonathan Edwards had long ago defined as the "hell within of the natural man." "So it will be with the soul in hell," he explains in the sermon already quoted ["Future Punishment of the Wicked"]:
It will have no strength or power to deliver itself; and its torment and horror will be so great, so mighty, so vastly disproportioned to its strength, that having no strength in the least to support itself, although it be infinitely contrary to the nature and inclination of the soul to sink; yet it will sink, it will utterly and totally sink; without the least degree of remaining confort, or strength, or courage, or hope. And though it will never be annihilated, its being and perception will never be abolished, yet such will be the infinite depth of gloominess that it will sink into, that it will be in a state of death, eternal death.
The effects remain very real and very dreadful. In not acting at all, in not making religion the chief business of his life nor persisting in holy practice till the end of his days, Brown becomes an example of this paralysis of will, proving Edwards' further orthodox contention in his treatise on Religious Affections that "Christ is not in the heart of a saint, as in a sepulchre, or as a dead saviour, that does nothing; but as in his temple, and as one that is alive from the dead." Brown is already dead, lost in a hell of his own making, having united his heart with the Devil rather than with Christ and the persevering saints. Of the effects of Brown's dream of ill omen, if in fact it were after all a dream, Hawthorne writes in the famous conclusion:
A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become 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 ears 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. Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And, when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.
William James might have said that Goodman Brown had somehow lost the will to believe and, with it, the possibility of belief itself, insuring that his universe become closed rather than open. What, then, are we left with at the gloomy conclusion of Hawthorne's tale, if my charting of its historical and native American themes is an acceptable one?
If Goodman Brown is even more of an American Everyman than a Calvinist Pilgrim whose progress is grievously arrested, then three distinct possibilities present themselves as means of coping with the "realities" which afflict the American consciousness. Two of them are indigenous and we have already seen both illustrated in the context of the story. One is the cheerful naiveté of believing in one's own election so securely that the dark woods of the frontier, be it the desert west of the Mississippi or the jungle north of the Mekong, pose no threats until they are deeply entered and the dusk of twilight confuses the pietistic mission which seemed so obvious and benevolent to the clear light of day. This is closely allied to an American myth which I have not considered here, yet which is just as Calvinistic in essence as any theology preached by Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards: the idea of applied morality, the Franklinian virtue of industrious benevolence, the bumptious confidence of Walt Disney's Davy Crockett, with his incredibly simple and incredibly appealing declaration of a national and individualistic faith—"Be sure you're right; then go ahead!" The second possibility is the manic-depressive syndrome I have sketched as the natural result of the loss of the first possibility. This is the feeling of cosmic doom, of the hand of Providence or of God being drawn away from our enterprises as a chosen people with a received tradition of supernatural history. The reaction itself takes, in turn, two forms: indiscriminate violence, a running amuck in the haunted and ambiguous forest, a sense of shame and guilt after eating the revisionist apple of unholy knowledge. And then follows the rejection of a liberal faith in any possibility at all of meritorious election—the defamation of our fathers and of "Faith" in general; the paralysis of will or isolationism which causes us to abandon all ideals and so, in not acting, act as if we were damned.
There is, of course, a third option which remains open for the American consciousness. It is the very simple way out by becoming existentialist rather than essentialist, giving up the idea of being for the idea of becoming. Walt Whitman seems to approach this in Leaves of Grass when he talks of the philosophy of the "Open Road" and of himself as the man with "no past at his back":
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querelous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient, . . .
Yet no one was more of a promoter and propagandist of the idea of American destiny than the good gray poet. Thus, this buoyant first section of his expansive "Song of the Open Road" ends with the qualifying parenthetical statement that:
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me, wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill'd with them; and I will fill them in return.)
Really to take to the "Open Road" would entail a pure, calm, and unflinching acceptance of the nothingness which might lie beyond it. In other words, the road might not have any end at all or it might not even be a road in itself. This heroic nothingness is at least one alternative to a cosmic conception of election or damnation—the idea of a destiny bequeathed to us by sainted or satanic fathers. Yet, for Whitman, as for Young Goodman Brown, these possibilities are somehow necessary for Americans to fill and be filled with; they are delicious but also terribly dangerous burdens.
I readily admit that in stating the American dilemma in these terms I have actually said no new thing but only explicated a text through the use of still another gospel, which generally and traditionally has been given such names as "The American Dream" or "The Mission of America." And turning to that text itself, I also confess to having read Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" in exactly the same sense in which Edgar Allan Poe read and then summarily dismissed it: as an intolerably mystical allegory, conceived in the peculiar spirit of metaphor run mad. I could quote for some support here Thomas Connolly's observation [in his introduction to "Young Goodman Brown," 1968] that "'Young Goodman Brown' appears to me to come as close as a story can to being a 'perfect allegory.' It exists at all points on two levels at once without any failure on either the naturalistic or the allegorical level." I would also have to contend with him, however, that the allegory is not so much one of sexual infidelity, which welds together theological and naturalistic (i.e., sexual) levels, as it is an allegory of the uncertain pilgrimage of the American consciousness, where the infidelity violates not simply marriage vows but that covenant theology which has forced the American mind to cleave to the very idea of "Faith" itself.
In my own mind, the dilemma of the story, and the dilemma of the American Everyman which it illustrates, finally remains one of dreams. Hawthorne himself continually brings our attention to the paradoxical nature of dreams throughout the course of his tale. Faith tells Goodman Brown that she does not wish him to stray "this night . . . of all nights in the year" because "a lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afeared of herself sometimes." Brown does cast off his "Faith" but then broods that "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." And at the initiation ceremony of the witches' sabbath, the Devil himself reminds his two proselytes that "Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream."
What Hawthorne contrasts is the daydream of the future with the nightmare of the past, showing us that both are dangerous extremes which depend in too large a measure on the effects perceived in the present. Liable to be caught by the revisionist Devil, who is outside the believing community, in any part of the ambiguous forest through which he journeys, Young Goodman Brown, torch-bearer of freedom and the American Way, sooner or later must come to a point where the choice is to abandon all his dreams, or reject all specter evidence, or give up that very quest which has provided so much which is both vital and destructive in American life and American history. There is the "Open Road," but there is also the path which leads, as in Robert Frost's sonnet "Into My Own," toward "those dark trees" which stretch "away unto the edge of doom." To take that path also seems to entail an acceptance of the cosmic consequences of a belief in Providential destiny, with its corollaries of eternal damnation or eternal salvation. Frost could confidently assert, with Young Goodman Brown at the beginning of his journey, that after its completion,
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
"I do not see why I should e'er turn back," he declares, but Hawthorne has already shown us that if things go from bad to worse and keeping "Faith" at home becomes as dubious an effort as keeping "Faith" abroad, that we, too, can expect neither hopeful verses on our tombstones nor a contented posterity to read them, for the "death threatened in the law" will be already upon us.
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SOURCE: "'Young Goodman Brown and Puritan Justification," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 200-03.
[In this essay, Johnson examines "Young Goodman Brown" in terms of the Puritan doctrine of justification, in which "God might open the hearts of certain men, allowing them to descend within in order to know themselves."]
Criticism of "Young Goodman Brown" has traditionally been divided into speculations about the nature of the hero's journey. Was it a dream? Or was it reality? Newton Arvin is usually cited as representative of the view that Goodman Brown received a true vision of human depravity in the woods, and F. O. Matthiessen is representative of the view that the sins witnessed by young Goodman Brown were creatures of his own making [Newton Arvin, Hawthorne, 1929; F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 1941]. Almost no modern critic supports Arvin's view, however, so the old argument rarely arises in the old way. Questions about the reality of the story and Brown's relationship to it continue to interest critics, however. A new dimension is given the problem of Goodman Brown's relation to a special kind of reality in the light of what we know and what Hawthorne knew about the Puritan doctrine of justification, a belief which has to be understood in terms of Covenant Theology. The Puritan believed that, since Adam broke the first covenant with God in the Garden of Eden, man labored under the burden of God's wrath. However, God had made a second covenant which gave man hope for some respite from God's wrath during man's life on the earth; at a time of His choosing, God might open the hearts of certain men, allowing them to descend within in order to know themselves. All things on which they had depended and all pride were mortified. Only when they had lost self in this experience would they turn to God who, subsequently, lifted the sinners up and justified them, changing their relationships to God and making their lives on earth a little easier without the burden of God's wrath.
The Puritan minister gave considerable attention not only to what justification was, but to what it was not. He knew that many sinners had convinced themselves that they had made the justifying descent when, in fact, they had not. It was the Puritan minister's duty to urge self-scrutiny in this matter. If the sinner believed that he had been completely helpless in initiating his descent and had been utterly reduced by a "sense" of sin, then he had probably known a "true" descent. If, on the other hand, he thought that he had been in some small way responsible for initiating the descent, if he had been aware of an iota of goodness within himself at the time of descent, or if he had only "known" his sins without "having a sense" of them, then his had been a false or a mock descent. He could not, therefore, expect that he would be justified.
Young Goodman Brown's journey is just such a mock descent in the Puritan tradition. Like the Puritan sinner, he begins what seems to be a journey into an inner inferno. The landscape through which he travels is but a hellish externalization of his own heart. He encounters the fiend, who also rages in his own breast, and fiend worshippers. He hears hell's "awful harmony" of inhuman sounds and perverse hymns. He sees the "lurid" red blaze against the sky. The witches' sabbath is, like Milton's picture of hell, an inverse heaven: the harmonious music of heaven is discord here; the light, unlike that of heaven, is "as one great Furnace, flam'd yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible. . . ." The once-angelic company is transformed, and the gathering in "Young Goodman Brown" is like the gathering of the fiends in Pandemonium around the throne of Satan to discuss the fate of Adam and Eve.
As if he were in the traditional Puritan descent, Goodman Brown's various "props" or "crutches," those things on which he has depended, fall from under him. The father, the teacher, the state, the community, the church, the concept of womanhood are all challenged during his journey. But Goodman Brown's journey is far from being a genuine justifying descent. The story is, rather, similar to the Puritan minister's detailed description of the false descent, and young Goodman Brown is a paradigm for Hawthorne's negative definition of the unregenerate man whose incomplete experience with hell perverts his vision and warps his life.
Regeneration is only possible if one's sense of his own sin is as profound as that which the Puritans described in the genuine humiliation: the man in the throes of a true descent must feel that he is the most wretched creature on the earth and must know a mortification of pride in particular. To be sure, Goodman Brown knows despair and feels his own rational limitation in coping with the universe, but in no way would this hellish journey to a witches' sabbath be construed by the Puritans as a genuine descent, for Goodman Brown feels the depravity of others but not the full extent of his own.
Although the reader sees Goodman Brown as "the chief horror of the scene." Goodman Brown has no such vision of himself. In his decision to rage toward the witches' sabbath, he sees himself as choosing through pride to outdo the devil: "Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you'." His descent does not bring him to a vision of his own helplessness and sinfulness. Rather, from motives of despair and revenge, he initially believes that he can willingly choose to combat evil. It is Faith's sinfulness that embitters him, not his own. Furthermore, his return to the village finds him piously snatching little children from the clutches of their teachers as if he, alone, were untainted.
Momentarily he feels, with repugnance, a sense of brotherhood with the community, but that which keeps Goodman Brown in gloom is the vision given those who partake of the devil's baptism: that he would ever be "more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought," than he could ever be of his own. This is conclusive evidence that Goodman Brown's descent was not genuine.
The point is not that a vision of dark reality (of either himself or of others) has warped his life. What he has seen is not a true vision of others or himself. His has been a mock journey, a false vision. Though the landscape of his heart was available to him, he never saw the true extent of its terrors. Like the passengers on the Celestial Railroad, he never exposes himself to the landscape and is, thus, never sufficiently humiliated to ascend in love to a new life. The dark vision he saw was not nearly so dark as the one he should have seen but did not see. Like the stock example of the deluded, self-satisfied man of the justification sermon, young Goodman Brown stands as a negative definition of the true regenerative descent.
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SOURCE: "The Concluding Paragraph of 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 29-30.
[In the essay below, Gallagher illustrates how the conclusion successfully completes the circular plot of "Young Goodman Brown."]
In the concluding paragraph of "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne uses the forest experience to its fullest effect, moving Brown through another series of separations to the ultimate separation, from life itself. To some critics, in fact, the concluding paragraph itself has seemed a separation, breaking the neat circularity of Hawthorne's plot, moving in linear fashion through time from Brown's figurative death at the threshold of his house to his literal death at the threshold of the grave. Yet I agree wholeheartedly with Richard Abcarian, though for different reasons, that the paragraph is not anticlimactic, a digression, an example solely of Hawthorne's penchant for heavy moralizing, or a violation of the neatly unified circular form [Abacarian, 'The Ending of 'Young Goodman Brown'," Studies in Short Fiction III, No. 3, Spring 1966].
First, the paragraph is replete with echoes, especially verbal echoes, which tie it to incidents in the forest experience while the effect of that experience reaches its highest peak. That Goodman Brown has become permanently stern and sad as a result of his one night in the forest is linked to his stern and sad look into Faith's eyes on his return, and is further linked, ironically, to the soft and sad plea she whispered into his ear on his departure. That Brown has become "darkly meditative" contrasts his "pleasant and praiseworthy meditations" after the meeting with Goody Cloyse. The "anthem of sin" that he henceforth hears at Sabbath service in the meeting house corresponds to the "dreadful anthem" swelling out of the forest at the beginning of the Black Mass. The blessed strain of the holy psalms is "drowned" by this anthem, recalling that Faith's scream of resistance was "drowned" by laughter in the black cloud. The minister's pointed reference to "saintlike lives and triumphant deaths" suggests Brown's proud reference to his pantheon of ancestors: "We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs." Brown as a "hoary corpse," just described as shrinking from the bosom of Faith, ironically resembles the "hoary-bearded elders of the church [who] have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households." Even death provides no escape for old Goodman Brown. He is borne to the graveyard, the site of the good old minister's morning promenade, where no hopeful verses are carved on his tomb, recalling the "verse after verse" of the lore of fiends sung in the wilderness, for his dying hour was gloom, final verification of the black man's prophecy that "Evil must be your only happiness."
Second, the concluding paragraph in a subtle way actually cements the circularity of the plot by reaching back to complete, ironically, images set forth in the introduction. Since this completion is done with irony, the paragraph satisfies a sense of achieved form by the artist without subordinating the sense of havoc wrought on the chief character. In the introduction Faith invites Brown to her bed, and in the conclusion we see him shrinking from her bosom at midnight. In the introduction Brown asks, rhetorically, if Faith doubts him; and in the conclusion, in response, we see that it is Brown who doubts her. Faith hopes that Brown will find "all well" when he returns, and, of course, he finds all evil. Brown's reply to Faith includes an admonition to "say thy prayers," but in the conclusion he continually turns away "at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer." In the beginning Brown affirms that it would kill Faith even to think of the evil in the forest, but in the end the evil in the forest has killed Brown, and it is his death that we witness. The last thing Brown says before plunging into the forest is that he will return after this one night, cling to Faith's skirts, and follow her to heaven; the last thing in the story we see is Faith following Brown, on another journey which "must needs be done," to the edge of the grave.
One image in particular, however, haunts the reader, momentarily threatening to explode the somber periodicity of the concluding sentence. After seeing Brown ignore his wife's embrace on the morning of his return and shrink from her bosom time and again later, the presence of his "children and grandchildren" here at his death inevitably suggests moments at least of consummate union with Faith. The average reader probably wants a happy ending, or at least a spark of happiness at the ending, but any expectation of that kind quickly evanesces. The suggestion really only enforces the terrible beauty of Brown's position between two worlds. The evil process in the forest has disqualified Brown from relation with the "goodly procession" which follows him. He must live in the village with the sight of the forest, till death calls him. In the symbolic terms of the story, Brown literally has no place else to go, and even death provides no escape. Hawthorne treats Brown's death neither as the time of triumph for the godly, nor as the time of the solace of annihilation for the tortured; and his sonorous but studiedly objective language here simply does not encourage emotional commitment. So, gloom inevitably has the last word.
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SOURCE: "The Reader in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1975, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1975, pp. 156-69.
[In this essay, Liebman argues that Hawthorne's concern in "Young Goodman Brown" is to challenge the reader's own morality and to force the reader to choose between conflicting possibilities of meaning. ]
Like "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and "The Maypole of Merry Mount," "Young Goodman Brown" begins at dusk, and the journey on which its hero embarks is ventured among diminishing lights and growing shadows which signify a world of moral uncertainty and announce the coming of a moral crisis. In "the heart of the dark wilderness," as in so many of Hawthorne's stories, a young man is given the opportunity to see nature as it really is, illuminated by no lights other than its own and observed by his eyes only. Like Reuben Bourne, Goodman Brown enters a "dark and gloomy" labyrinth in which the only knowledge he can gain is personal, and the only resources at his disposal are his own heart and mind. He must come to grips with the nature of things in the deep, dark, pathless wilderness of night and determine to his own satisfaction and on the basis of his own observation whether the universe is, beyond the power of his own will and desire, divine or demonic or both.
Of course Brown concludes, though only implicitly and uncertainly, that the world belongs to the devil and its inhabitants to the devil's party. As a result of his experience in the forest he turns away from Faith, his allegorical wife. He lives as if no man is to be trusted, as if no one is what he seems to be, and he dies a "darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man." Yet what Brown has seen is never clear, as his own uncertainty suggests. He does not leave the village of his birth; he does not abandon his wife. He continues to live as a respectable member of the community despite his doubts and fears. To the very end of the story Hawthorne refuses to illuminate the facts.
There can be no doubt that young Goodman Brown is confused by the ambiguity of his experience. Perhaps more important, however, the ambiguity of the story has confused its readers as well. For this reason I intend to examine "Young Goodman Brown" not only in terms of Brown's relationship to the events of his life but also in terms of the reader's relationship to his experience of reading the story. In my view Hawthorne has managed his material in such a way as to challenge his reader's credulity and powers of analysis as much as Brown's, and thus the ambiguity of the tale is directed primarily at the reader, whose task it is to distinguish between appearance and reality by way of determining what happens in the story and why.
"Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?" This question raises the issues which Hawthorne always dramatizes in his best stories: what do we know and how do we know it? The critical history of "Young Goodman Brown" is, in relation to these questions, suggestive of the complexity of the tale, the subtlety of Hawthorne's method, and the difficulty of the reader's role: as observer, seeing through Brown's eyes, and as actor, judging the evidence as Brown must and answering the questions with which Brown must deal in the process of laying the moral foundations of his conduct.
Until recently the consensus of critical opinion held that in "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne strikes a balance between the two possible interpretations of the story. That is, he deliberately leaves the issues he raises unresolved, the questions unanswered. For many other readers, however, the ambiguity of the story is neither final nor impenetrable. What does the story mean, after all, if its data remain ambiguous? Does it mean that the facts of life are always and forever confusing? That the central feature of human existence is the irreducibility of its elements? And that therefore man cannot conduct himself in a reasonable way on the basis of his personal experience with the facts of life? With or without these questions in mind, some critics have argued that Goodman Brown actually participates in a witches' meeting, hears a priest deliver an infernal sermon, and sees his wife standing beside him ready to yield to the devil's temptation. More recently, readers have concluded that Brown merely dreams in the forest and that his experience is entirely the product of his own disturbed imagination.
The critical history of "Young Goodman Brown" is worth reviewing because it suggests that if recent critics are right in believing that Brown is mistaken, then Hawthorne's story has eluded its readers for more than a century. It is almost as if Hawthorne has so contrived the events in the tale, so manipulated the point of view, that readers have been led to conclusions contradicted by the facts. It seems, in short, that Hawthorne has purposely led his readers astray or has at least allowed them to go astray.
The possibility is purely conjectural of course. Yet such an interpretation rests squarely on a number of important points. First, the ambiguity of the story is real. Whatever one may conclude about the meaning of the story, one is given a choice among three possible interpretations: (1) that Brown dreamed, (2) that he did not, and (3) that it is impossible to tell one way or the other. Second, as the record of Hawthorne criticism shows, each of the three choices has been made at one time or another. Third, and most important, the reader's choices are precisely those available to Brown. And it is more than interesting that most of the story's earlier critics chose precisely as Brown chooses.
One might conclude then that Hawthorne's intention in "Young Goodman Brown" is to force the reader to undergo the temptations which Brown himself must endure and that he is made to see the world through Brown's eyes in order to have to make his decision with only this evidence available to him. In this way the reader is made the central character in the story, and it is his moral vision with which Hawthorne is concerned and his moral choice which Hawthorne challenges.
In pursuit of this objective Hawthorne uses three principal devices: (1) diverting ambiguity, (2) dilatory exposition, and (3) dissimulated point of view. In many of his stories Hawthorne diverts the reader's attention from significant ambiguity, important events whose ambiguity derives from a conflict between appearance and reality, by drawing the reader's attention to insignificant ambiguity, incidental events whose ambiguity derives from a conflict between the natural and the preternatural. The latter is often unresolvable, and the reader is inclined to believe that all other ambiguity is similarly unresolvable. Hawthorne frequently presents his exposition of characters in a dilatory manner. That is, he reveals the evidence very gradually and typically saves the most important information for last. Characters introduced honorifically are described pejoratively at the end, and vice-versa. As the narration continues, the initial terms of description are reversed, but the reader has already committed himself and has some difficulty extricating himself from his original view. Dissimulated point of view is Hawthorne's characteristic mode in his short fiction. The point of view shifts imperceptibly from narrator to character so that the reader sees through the character's eyes even when he thinks he is seeing through the narrator's.
This shift in perspective is accomplished in three ways. First, dialogue is presented as if it were narration. What purports to be the language of the author is really the language of the character whose point of view is dominant. Second, subjective events are presented as if they were objective. The fictional world of the story moves from the imagination of the author to that of the character, and the line between appearance and reality is blurred if not eliminated. Third, events are presented as if they were both natural (that is, of nature) and spontaneous, whereas in fact they are connected almost causally, each originating in the mind of the character, each made possible by its predecessor, and each becoming more "substantial" as the character becomes more committed to the objectivity of his subjective impressions and more accustomed to confusing concepts and percepts. In this way the "logic of compulsion" replaces the logic of nature, and, unbeknownst to the character, his thoughts take on the potency not only of events but of causes of events.
Hawthorne uses diverting ambiguity throughout "Young Goodman Brown." After Brown first meets the devil he (and the reader) is faced with two incidental ambiguities: the devil's staff resembles the biblical serpent, and the devil himself resembles Brown's father. "As nearly as could be discerned" the devil bears "a considerable resemblance" to Brown's father; "they might have been taken for father and son." The devil claims to have been "well acquainted" with Brown's family, especially his father and grandfather. His staff bears "the likeness" of a snake: "it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent." When the devil laughs, "his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy." These ambiguities dominate the scene. Yet the real question is whether or not the devil, as a living, breathing character, is present at all. And this issue is obscured in Brown's eyes, just as the reader's attention is drawn to ambiguities which are neither important nor resolvable. The reader is tempted to conclude that this irresolution is characteristic of all of the ambiguity in the story. And he becomes accustomed to seeing through Brown's uncertain eyes on more important issues without batting an eyelash.
This device is used again in the next scene, in which Goody Cloyse appears. The old woman reminds both Brown and the reader of the devil's resemblance to one of Brown's ancestors, this time his grandfather. And Hawthorne refers to him as "the shape of old Goodman Brown." The devil touches Goody Cloyse's neck "with what seemed the serpent's tail" and leans "on his writhing stick" when he speaks to her. The real issue, of course, is whether or not Goody Cloyse actually appears, but when she vanishes Hawthorne veils the question of her appearance and disappearance with more incidental ambiguity. The devil throws his staff "down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life." Hawthorne comments: "Of this fact, however, Goodman Brown cannot take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and, looking down again, beheld neither Goody nor the serpentine staff, but his fellow-traveller alone, who waited for him as calmly as if nothing had happened." At the end of the story Hawthorne asks of the baptismal basin at which the priest stands, "Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame?" This too is mere question-begging since the questions assume that the forest is aflame and that "the shape of evil" stands ready to baptize Faith and Goodman Brown. These are the real ambiguities in the story though the reader is given other and not very nourishing food for thought.
Hawthorne uses dilatory exposition in his description of the devil. He is first presented as a man "in grave and decent attire." He is "as simply clad" as Brown is and "as simple in manner." He has "an indescribable air of one who knew the world." More important, he does not reveal to Brown or to the reader the full extent of his vision of despair, at least immediately. He first claims to have known Brown's family as well as any other. He helped Brown's grandfather whip a Quaker woman and helped Brown's father burn an Indian village during King Philip's war. His father and grandfather may have sinned, Brown answers, but he and his Puritan fellows "abide no such wickedness." Then the devil claims acquaintance with many deacons, selectmen, members of the General Court, and even the governor. One might acknowledge that this is so, as Brown does, however, without granting the devil too much. He simply reports that many have sinned, and Brown answers that he has nothing to do with them or they with him. Finally, the devil introduces Brown's religious instructress, the deacon of his church, and his minister. And it is only at this point that the devil suggests by his presentation of Brown's own spiritual guides that a witches' meeting is to take place and that virtually everyone will attend. That is, all men are secretly evil and worship the devil.
The priest's sermon at the height of the Black Mass is developed in the same manner. Just as the devil resembles Goodman Brown, the priest "bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New England churches." And like the devil's, his message is at first by no means inconsistent with orthodox Christianity. He asks the converts, Faith and Goodman Brown, to observe those whom they have always admired and regarded as holier than themselves. They are all sinners, the priest continues, and Faith and her husband will be given an opportunity to know "their secret deeds." In addition, "by the sympathy of [their] hearts for sin," they shall be able to discover crime wherever it is being committed. This is nothing more than what Virgil promises Dante in The Inferno, and it reflects Hawthorne's sentiments at the end of "Fancy's Show Box": "Man must not disclaim his brotherhood, even with the guiltiest, since, though his hand be clean, his heart has surely been polluted by the flitting phantoms of iniquity." Thus, even when the priest announces that "the whole earth [is] one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot," and grants the young couple the power "to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin," neither Brown nor the reader need take offense. It is not until his final words that the priest eliminates paradise from The Divine Comedy and deletes the hopeful lines from the last paragraph of "Fancy's Show Box": "Depending upon one another's hearts," he says, "ye had still hoped that virtue were still not all a dream. Now ye are undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness."
These are no longer Hawthorne's words, of course, but the infernal rhetoric of Satan, the fallen angel, spoken in a voice "almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race." And his followers are indeed "fiend worshippers" who welcome Faith and Goodman Brown with "one cry of despair and triumph." The priest is nothing more or less than the showman in "Ethan Brand" who presents his hand to Ethan as if it were the hand of destiny, the seemingly supernatural power who beckons Reuben Bourne to expiate his sin by killing his son, and the source of Father Hooper's decision to cover his face with a black veil in order to show all men their secret sin. Yet his message is so skillfully developed that more than one reader has taken his words for Hawthorne's own, deceived as Brown is by the dilatory manner of his presentation.
Distracting and diverting as these devices are, "Young Goodman Brown" would still be a masterpiece of ambiguity without them. For Hawthorne's most effective and customary device of ambiguity is his manipulation of the narrative point of view, which is nowhere more powerfully in operation than in this story. The facts with which the reader must deal are complicated by the dual nature of Goodman Brown's journey. On the one hand he encounters a reality outside himself in the forest and the night. On the other hand he travels to interior domains. His experience with the world of nature is also an experience with human nature, both others' and his own. Like Wakefield, he wanders off not only into darkness but also into solitude. "It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in solitude," says Hawthorne: the traveler does not know what he may see or whom he may meet. To journey solitarily into darkness is to lose one's relationship to the community, and one may become thereby "an Outcast of the Universe." It is also to lose one's everyday consciousness and to enter a realm of seld ordinarily closed to those who are fearful of its depths even if they are beckoned by its temptations. As Faith tells Brown, "A lone woman is troubled with such dreams that she's afeard of herself sometimes."
Left to his own resources and entering into a deeper and deeper solitude, Brown comes closer and closer to the untrodden and undiscovered depths of his own being, a world of dreams, fantasies, and unconscious motives. He says to himself in response to Faith's warning, "She talks of dreams, too," suggesting that perhaps he too has dreamed. At the end of the story Hawthorne asks whether or not Brown had "only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?" And thus the reader is drawn into a universe in which things are half-created and half-perceived, in which appearance and reality mingle freely and disconcertingly, and in which the self discovered therein is both observer and observed.
The reader is compelled to assess and evaluate his experience of the story, particularly its language. He must deal not so much with Hawthorne's language and the events which it describes, however, but with Brown's own language and the events which it embodies. Brown's experience is ambiguous to him, and the language of ambiguity is the only appropriate medium for communication under such circumstances. He beholds, discerns, recognizes, fancies, and discovers, as well as sees and hears. Things seem and appear not only as themselves but as semblances of other things, similitudes and likenesses. And events transpire on a plane of imagination so rarified that it is only "as if they happen. In this atmosphere of uncertain vision, thoughts become things and fears become fearful objects.
None of this would trouble the reader if Hawthorne failed to dissimulate the role of omniscient narrator. After Brown leaves Faith, however, and takes the reader into his own imaginary world, Hawthorne maintains his imposture of objective reporter. Events which appear to Brown's eyes only are recorded as if they actually happened. The devil does not appear in the forest to anyone but Brown: he "beheld the figure of a man . . . seated at the foot of an old tree." Nor does Goody Cloyse arrive at this unlikely spot. Brown "recognized a very pious and exemplary dame" in the figure pointed out to him by the devil. Deacon Gookin and the minister are not out riding in the dead of night. It is only that Brown "heard the tramp of horses along the road" and "two grave old voices" which "appeared to pass." "[H]e could have sworn, were such a thing possible, that he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin." Brown "sees" a black cloud, "hears" voices come out of it, and "beholds" Faith's pink ribbon. He "sees" a fire in the distance, sees the faces of his townspeople "appear" and "disappear" in the flames, and "recognizes" many familiar faces, including Deacon Gookin's and the minister's. Finally, the priest "appears," Brown thinks he sees his father and mother, though he is not certain, and he "beholds" his Faith. In this way, the reader is given every opportunity to ignore the dominance of Brown's point of view, and he is tempted to conclude the opposite of what is obviously the case: that Brown really sees what he thinks he sees and that he is disillusioned at the end by the facts of life.
Hawthorne goes so far as to present Brown's thoughts as if they were part of his own narration. He says in his own words, after Brown has promised himself that he will return to Faith and follow her to heaven, "With this excellent resolve, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose." And he says, after Brown has once more promised to return to Faith, "And what calm sleep would be his that very night, which was to have been spent to wickedly, but so purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith!" That Brown's resolve is "excellent" is of course his own idea, and that his second promise is "praiseworthy" is nothing more than his own judgment.
This device is used more subtly by Hawthorne when he follows his own narrative comment with a statement by Brown which reveals that the comment is really Brown's rather than Hawthorne's. The narrator says, "[T]he traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude." That this is actually Brown's thought is suggested by his immediate remark: "There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree. . . . What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!" The distinction is not very important at this point in the story, but it is very significant in a later passage. Hawthorne seems to say,
And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world. . . . The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!
Both the word seemed and the exclamatory tone of the passage suggest that the words might not be the narrator's. But the following statement by Brown—"Faith! Faith! . . . look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one"—also exclamatory, suggests even more impressively that the paragraph in which Hawthorne seems to regard Brown and his wife as the last pure couple on earth is actually Brown's view presented as narrative comment. Evidently, he calls on Faith to refuse communion because he is as afraid of revealing his own evil as he is of seeing hers, and he wishes to avert the "next glance."
This narrative technique is justified by the fact that the middle portion of the story, from Brown's departure to his return, is told entirely from Brown's point of view. Brown creates a devil in the guise of his father and grandfather and substantiates by the evidence of his own eyes a guilt so pervasive as to include not only his righteous forbears but also the leaders, past and present, of his own upstanding community. He conjures up his pious teacher and the foremost members of his church by a power conferred upon him by his commitment to demonic forces. With the devil's staff and laugh he becomes eventually "the chief horror of the scene." He rushes "onward with the instinct that leads mortal man to evil," the full flowering of "the guilty purpose that had brought him hither," the "evil purpose" of which he was "conscious" even at the beginning of his journey. At this point, "nothing could be more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown," though he finds everything more frightful than himself. As Hawthorne explains, "The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of men." In short, Brown has become a "demoniac," like Reuben Bourne and Ethan Brand, and when he approaches the congregation in the midst of the forest, he feels "a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart." So far gone is he in the ways of evil that "he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought." Of course Brown becomes a demoniac not because he is naturally depraved or because all other men and women are but because he encounters the demons in his own heart, denies them, projects them onto others, and thereby creates an imaginary world of witches and wizards who exist in reality only as "echoes" of his own demonic cry of despair and disillusion.
Thus, everything Brown sees in his journey into the heart of darkness is his own creation, even the darkness itself. Having "seen" or "heard" Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the minister discuss the evening's business, he feels "faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart." For consolation he gazes up at the sky, "doubting whether there really was a heaven above him." The night is clear, bright, and windless: "there was the blue arch and the stars brightening in it." Yet Brown's doubt is extreme, and despite his promise to "stand firm against the devil," because heaven is above and faith below, he "sees" contrary evidence. "While he still gazed upward into the deep arch of the firmament and had lifted his hands to pray, a cloud, though no wind was stirring, hurried across the zenith, and hid the brightening stars. The blue sky was still visible, except directly overhead, where this black mass of cloud was sweeping swiftly northward." Moving northward with the devil, this "black mass" eventually becomes a Black Mass: "Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices." Of course the doubt and confusion are Brown's own, and the cloud emanates from his heart, just as Reuben Bourne and Father Hooper are confused and bewildered by their experience and a similarly self-created cloud darkens their respective heavens. Soon, "the dark cloud swept away, leaving the clear and silent sky above Goodman Brown"—as if the cloud, like the devil, were merely the product of Brown's morbid imagination.
The appearance of Faith's pink ribbon, to Brown the final confirmation of the powers of darkness, is simply the last in a series of sensory illusions, from seeing to hearing to touching, which deceive Brown and compel him to say, "Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." He thinks he hears Faith's voice and the cries of her pursuers, but these are, as his own uncertain description suggests, the mocking echoes of the forest which seem to call Faith's name—"as if bewildered wretches were seeking her all through the wilderness." The only bewildered wretch in the forest is Brown himself, for "the wretched man [beholds] his Faith" and later returns to the village "staring around him like a bewildered man." It is Brown alone who is seeking Faith in this most unlikely of places, and it is Brown alone who is both her demonic pursuer and her devout protector. She is nowhere to be found because she exists only in his heart and can appear only after he has exorcized her—"My Faith is gone!"—and made her a demon, one of the voices of the night, intent on evil and tempting Brown to submit to powers (he thinks) not his own.
The witches' meeting itself represents the culmination of Brown's doubts and confusion. In the voices of the dark cloud, he "fancied that he could distinguish the accents of townspeople of his own." But "so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest." And then again "came a stronger swell of those familiar voices." After the appearance of Faith's pink ribbon, the objectification of Brown's fear increases. The wind tolls like a church bell. The echoes of the forest laugh like demons. It is "as if all nature were laughing him to scorn." A rock resembles an altar. The blazing pines are like church candles. The noise of the forest is like the sound of a mighty organ. Brown hears "a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, 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." Yet at the end, after Brown asserts his faith, "he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind"—as if, like the sky which grew cloudy and clear again, the forest returns to itself, and the similitudes created by Brown's image-making mind vanish in the darkness. When he returns to the village, he finds Faith's ribbons where they were when he left, unchanged except by the power of his own self-fulfilling prophecies.
Invariably the dreamer in Hawthorne's stories becomes a madman whose demons become substantial shapes and forms actualized by the projection of self-righteously disowned feelings. The "fiends" who appear in the final pages of "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and "Lady Eleanor's Mantle" are the ultimate expression of a pathological vision which originates in the heart of the young man whose love is shallow and understanding weak and whose encounter with the ambiguities of his experience so bewilders him that he tries to destroy the thing he loves and becomes the demon he has tried to exorcise. In these last moments the young man's vision is illuminated solely by his own demonic imagination, expressed in the torches carried by creatures marching out of his infernal depths. Like Ethan Brand he has stared so long at the fires of damnation that he sees by no other light.
Habituated to a vision both born in and nurtured by his "evil purpose," Goodman Brown sees in the forest "a red light before him"—"four blazing pines." In this typically Hawthornesque scene, the darkness of gloom is transformed, though only fitfully, into the light of splendor. What has been denied and hesitantly resisted is now reluctantly affirmed and even desired. "As the red light rose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the solitary woods at once." Brown is engaged in dialogue once again, but the terms of his internal debate are not faith and infidelity, the subject of his discourse with the devil. Brown is now caught between the infernal emotions of desire and loathing: the faces of the congregation "appear" among the flames, "quivering to and fro between gloom and splendor." Like Giovanni in "Rappaccini's Daughter," Brown is caught between hope and dread: "It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions." Nothing is clear to Brown because his heart is a battleground of conflicting forces, the demonic reflections of pity and terror. "Either the sudden gleams of light flashing over the obscure field bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church members." In these flames he "obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror." Only "in a sheet of flame" are the "fiend worshippers" visible. Just as Brown before could have sworn . . . that he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin," so now he "could have well-nigh sworn that the shape of his own father beckoned him to advance." Finally, "by the blaze of hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith."
Though the reader is tempted to see as Brown sees in this episode, it is nothing more than the fantasy of a deranged man, a demoniac, dreaming a dream of horror and temptation. Any reader might be persuaded by its powerful music and dazzling lights. But just as the voices of the night fade into the sound of the dying wind, the fires of hell disappear at Brown's final invocation of Faith: "He staggered against the rock," before ablaze in "the lurid light," "and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew." From the beginning of the tale, the trees have been "wet with evening dew," though they become "strangely withered and dried up as with a week's sunshine" at the devil's touch. At the end of the story everything is as it was before, except for Goodman Brown. There is no ambiguity in this pattern, and no reader need be as "bewildered" as Brown is even after his return to Salem village. This young man has been asked, and the limits and language of the choice derive from his own infidelity, to choose among the unholy trinity of false faith, loathing, and desire. He chooses loathing rather than affirm a faith in which he no longer believes and a faith which tempts him but will not take him to heaven.
If the reader has followed the process of Brown's demonization carefully, he cannot help but conclude that Brown sees nothing uncreated and untempered by his disposition. He not only takes appearances for reality; he not only peoples the wilderness with imaginary sounds and scenes; and he not only draws these voices and visions from his own mind and heart. He actually engenders from his first thought a series of events which follow inevitably upon each other, bound by a logic of their own and linked by an adamantine chain of psychological necessity. He comes to experience with a repertoire of preconceptions, and he is utterly incapable of experiencing anything else. It is as if the ordinary conversion of impression into idea, or sensation into image, is reversed in Brown's experience. For him, thought precedes feeling (seeing, hearing, and touching) and imposes upon it categories not its own. In this way, everything follows from an event which is anterior to the moment of Brown's departure from Faith: his very conceptualization of the devil even before his meeting with him. Thus Brown begins by doubting his faith, and the events which succeed this thought actually derive from it. He calls forth the devil when he asks, "What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!" He thinks of Faith and she reminds him of "his moral and spiritual adviser," Goody Cloyse. He has already thought of "that good old man, our minister," and hears the voices of "good old" Deacon Gookin and the minister. He says, "Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown." Having seen Faith's ribbon fall from the skies, he cries, "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." And later he sees witches and wizards, Indian powwows, and the devil himself, who pronounces Brown's own sentiments in his sermon. In short, each event is prefigured in Brown's mind, each succeeding event is made possible by its predecessor, and all of the events of Brown's night journey derive from the initial confusion in his mind and heart and merely confirm the thoughts and feelings from which they derive.
In "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne plays the part of a showman with a picture-box, a role he adopts in "Main Street," displaying to the reader scenes of long ago which despite their age promise to reflect the present. Fancy's showman in another sketch displays to Mr. Smith reflections of his soul: "In every sense, however dubiously portrayed, Mr. Smith was invariably haunted by his own lineament . . . as in a dusty mirror." In "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne puts the reader in the same relation as Mr. Smith to his own fantasies. For the reader, as Hawthorne knew, comes to a story with as rich an imagination as the author possesses and with which he endows his characters. And Hawthorne knew too, as he suggests in "Fancy's Show Box," that the potential for evil as well as good, the resource of the criminal as well as the artist, is in the human heart, in the imagination. He simply asks the reader implicitly to choose between the roles of criminal and artist and to maintain, in the act of interpretation if he would choose well, the same distance from the work as exists between the author and his subject.
Thus, as if the reader himself were young Goodman Brown, as if he too journeyed with mixed motives into a world of ambiguous lights and shadows and left it dizzied and dumbfounded, he must interpret his own personal experience in the same forest through which Brown wanders and in the equally labyrinthine story which is no less mysterious and no less a test of moral insight, and through which the reader travels, like Goodman Brown, at the peril of his soul. If the reader concludes with Brown that the evidence is ultimately ambiguous, then he stands with that sadly meditative young man at the end of the tale, bewildered by the facts of his experience and uncertain of his faith. If he goes one step further and concludes that Brown has seen something unquestionably real, then the reader has heard the voice of the devil and sipped the wine of the devil's communion.
In doing everything he can to allow the reader to interpret the story in terms of his own values and moral perspective, Hawthorne is less concerned with the meaning of things than with the meaning of meaning. For the story is not so much a revelation of things as they are but of the problem of moral choice, the near inaccessibility of truth, and the power of temptation. To say this is to say nothing more than that Hawthorne was, even more profoundly than his critics have heretofore suggested, a student of Milton and a teacher of Henry James. He is the master of his subject, and his subject is almost always the reader himself, beset by all the difficulties of moral action. This is nowhere more clearly and more challengingly the case than in "Young Goodman Brown."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1493
SOURCE: "Setting and Fictional Dynamics," in Hawthorne's Functional Settings: A Study of Artistic Method, Editions Rodopi, 1977, pp. 128-31.
[In the essay below, Carlson discusses how Hawthorne inverts the symbolic significance of the forest and village settings to initiate the breakdown of Goodman Brown's simplistic understanding of good and evil.]
The most obvious ambiguity in "Young Goodman Brown" (New England Magazine, April, 1835) falls under H.-J. Lang's third classification, . . . the ambiguity of external actions. Was Brown's experience in the forest real, or was it a dream? Certainly, a strong case for this ambiguity could be culled from the implications of the scenic elements, but this is not the ambiguity which I intend to discuss because, clearly, it makes little difference to the ultimate meaning which Hawthorne wished to express. To the reader who asks "[h]ad Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?" Hawthorne answers "[b]e it so if you will."
The ambiguity which is thematically central to the tale is the confusion of good and evil. Beginning with a clearly defined polarity of village and forest, the functional setting reflects the clearly defined separation between right and wrong in Brown's simplistic moral vision. In his uncomplicated schema Faith and Salem represent good, and the forest represents evil. But in the author's system of moral order, the relationship of good and evil is much more complex than this black-and-white paradigm by which Brown seeks to regulate his life. The tale is, therefore, a kind of initiation story in which the child-like innocence of the protagonist is exposed to the ubiquitous power of evil.
When Brown leaves Faith and Salem expecting to encounter evil in the forest, the evil he envisions is a childish concept of an unqualified wrong. Like a child who is irresistibly drawn to a forbidden fruit, Brown evinces an obsessive curiosity about the nature of evil. "[O]f all nights in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee," he says in answer to the pleas of Faith that he remain safely at home. Yet, like a child, he thinks he can return from his escapade in the forest and take up his previous life in Salem with Faith, unscathed by his encounters in the moral wilderness. "Well, she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.'
The events which occur during his journey, however, cause Brown's conception of good and evil to be less rigidly defined as the village becomes less distinctly separated from the forest. Gradually, everyone affiliated with the village—those who personify "good" in Brown's idealistic moral perception—are shown to be tainted with "evil" as they appear in the forest. The presentation of these persons builds in a crescendo of emotional tension for Brown as his idealism is threatened and finally destroyed. He can rationalize the implications of evil in his ancestors, the church, and the Puritan government because they are not a part of his immediate environment. The "black man of the forest" merely mentions their duplicity in order to refute the "scruples," Brown gives as an excuse for not accompanying him deeper into the wilderness. However, Brown feels much more threatened by the concrete and the immediate than by the abstract and the past. The persons presented after this are from Salem and have an intimate relationship with Brown. Consequently, the ambiguity of good and evil becomes more terrifyingly real for Brown as the village population gravitates to the forest. First, there is Goody Cloyse, who taught Brown his catechism; then there are the minister and Deacon Gookin; and finally, at the crest of the crescendo, there is Faith.
Faith's appearance in the forest represents the total breakdown of the division between village and forest, or good and evil. Since this action is a climax in the plot, the accompanying emotive context must be intensified. For this purpose, Hawthorne includes a monstrous scenic inversion which underscores the conjoining of good and evil. When his unrealistic concept of a black-and-white world is threatened by the apparent desolation of so much which he thought incorruptible, Brown searches for some stable division to which he can cling for protection and security. Seeing the night sky with the stars shining through, he thinks he has found a constant in the chaos around him and is reassured in his belief of an ordered moral system. "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil," he says. But at exactly this moment he sees the cloud and hears Faith above him on her way to the witch communion.
While he still gazed upward into the deep arch of the firmament and had lifted his hands to pray, a cloud, though no wind was stirring, hurried across the zenith and hid the brightening star. Once the listener fancied that he could distinguish the accents of townspeople of his own, men and women both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion-table and had seen others rioting at the tavern. . . . Then came a stronger swell of those familiar tones, heard daily in the sunshine at Salem village, but never until now from a cloud at night. There was one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain; and all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward.
The scenic inversion resonates through all facets of the tale, as the excerpt above illustrates. Heaven and earth, "communioners" and "taverners," saints and sinners, Salem and wilderness, Faith and Witchcraft—all are commingled in the chaotic disorder of Brown's night in the forest.
This ambiguity is continued in the inversion motif of the witch-meeting where the scenic images mingling the forest and the village metaphorically signify the merging of evil and good. The dominant image is that of a church service inverted to become a black mass. The congregation is composed of the town members; yet, instead of their faces being illuminated by the soft light of altar candles, they are grotesquely distorted by the undulations of lurid red light from four "blazing pines, their tops aflame, their stems untouched, like candles at an evening meeting" which surround a rock, "bearing some rude, natural resemblance either to an altar or a pulpit." The congregation's song reminds Brown of a hymn sung at the meeting-house, but it is "joined to words which [express] all that our nature can conceive of sin." The satanic leader of the perverse service is similar "both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New England churches." And the baptism will produce not grace but an intimate knowledge of the blackness in the souls of all men.
This fusion of the two dominant scenic components—the village and the forest—is reflected by less prominent constituents in the scenic presentation, thus unifying the imagery of the tale into a pattern of thematic reverberations. As an illustration, the auditory imagery of the story is rich in sounds which blends the attributes of both Man and Nature. When Brown agonizingly shouts for Faith in the forest, the mocking echoes come back to him "as if bewildered wretches were seeking her all through the wilderness." Or, at the witch communion, "with the final peal of that dreadful anthem there came a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice of the unconcerted wilderness were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man." Or finally—reflecting the fusion in a metaphor created by a single word—the forest is described as being "peopled with frightful sounds."
This ambiguity is more than Goodman Brown can assimilate into his childishly simple view of life. Because the village cannot be the sphere of pure goodness which Brown imagined it and because Faith is not the personification of goodness as he had envisioned her, he is repulsed by them. When he would not accept evil in mankind, when he would not participate in "the communion of [his] race", Goodman Brown lost "his hold of the magnetic chain of humanity" just as much as did Ethan Brand who had made the search for evil his life's work. In the ensemble of characters from the Hawthorne canon, these two represent opposite extremes of false perceptions and misguided attitudes toward "the power of blackness" in the human condition. Brand sees evil as a power by which he can over-reach even the mercy of God; Brown sees evil as a power which forces him to question the very existence of a God. Brown withdraws into the egocentricity of isolation, lives a life of frustration, and dies in gloom because he never accepts the fact that man lives in the forest as well as in the town.
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"Young Goodman Brown': Hawthorne's Condemnation of Conformity," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1978, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Gale Research Company, 1984, pp. 137-45.
[In this essay, Matheson asserts that Goodman Brown's resistance to the Devil is based solely on his desire to conform to approved social practices and protect his public image.]
At first glance, it might appear farfetched to see Hawthorne's Goodman Brown as the spiritual ancestor of someone like Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that the same preoccupation with social convention, public appearance, and conformity in general that characterized Lewis's twentieth-century protagonist is behind most of the speeches and actions of Hawthorne's seventeenth-century Puritan. Indeed, if Brown does lose the battle with the Devil for his soul, a case can be made that his lack of self-reliance is the most important contributing factor in his damnation.
Virtually everything Brown says and does stems from a concern with preserving his public image in some form or other. This is first seen as he bids farewell to his "aptlynamed" and obviously allegorical wife Faith. That Faith is Brown's wife, and hence "his," is symbolically just as important to the story as is her name. For this indicates that whatever can be said about her symbolic role actually applies to some aspect of Brown. They speak in a strangely ritualistic and artificial tone, as if their conversation had been rehearsed, neither Brown nor his wife really meaning what each says to the other. They give the impression of speaking not from conviction, but as if reciting lines from a prepared text. Faith's initial comment, a rather saccharine appeal to put off his journey, might appear well-intentioned enough, even though it has a lackluster ring to it. But when Brown refuses absolutely to cede to her request, brushing her off with an unconvincing speech of his own (he gives no reasons, but merely states dogmatically that he "must" go), rather than press the issue, she concludes with "'God bless you.'" This suggests, among other things, that she had not expected him to change his mind and spoke not from conviction but simply because she believed it was expected of her.
Also important is that Faith seems to know why Brown is leaving her. She is plainly aware that his journey, far from being routine and normal, involves danger and perhaps evil as well. Her reference to "this" night—probably Hallowe'en—"'of all nights in the year'," reveals her awareness that no good Puritan would venture forth from the Christian security of his home on this particular evening, unless he was up to no good. In spite of all this, we see only "melancholy" in Faith's expression (rather than sorrow, frustration, despair, or even anger) when Brown, having paid no attention to her, proceeds on his way.
Had Hawthorne wished us to see sincere efforts to dissuade Brown, surely he would have shown her persisting in her appeal. That she does not leads one to suspect the quality of Brown's religious faith generally. It certainly says a great deal about the kind of man we are dealing with, a man whose faith can provide only token guidance in a predictable and uncompelling manner. Clearly, as Brown does not take his wife's plea seriously—there is no reason why he would, so lacking in vehemence is her appeal—so he does not take faith and all that goes with it any more seriously. Religious faith is to him something "pretty" but lacking in substance or strength, something pleasant to possess but of no importance as a guide to his behavior; in a phrase, it is something to pay lip service to.
Brown's opening reply to Faith, that his journey " 'must needs be done'," demonstrates his firm resolve in this matter: despite all that has been said about Brown's naiveté, it is plain that he has a reasonable notion of what he is about to do. He knows his purpose is "evil" and that he is a "'wretch'" to leave her '"on such an errand';" later, we are told his meeting with the Devil is "not wholly unexpected."
Brown then tells Faith, '"Say thy prayers . . . and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee'," advice which says much about his character. First, if he really believes that personal harm can be avoided so easily, he is more than a little naive. But more important, he assumes that all one need do to guarantee salvation is go through the motions of piety by observing a few simple precepts that pertain to superficial conduct alone. Saying prayers and retiring early are far from the most essential means whereby one attains purity of soul. That Brown believes them to be important indicates a serious deficiency in his moral sense. He is unaware that genuine virtue is an inner quality which bears at best only an incidental relationship to one's seemingly virtuous social and religious behavior.
Leaving Faith, Brown reassures himself that '"after this one night'" of sin he will " 'cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven'," an assumption even more vacuous. No intelligent Puritan would ever have maintained that salvation depended on geographical proximity to another, apparently virtuous person; on a literal level, the state of Faith's soul says nothing about the state of Brown's. But the passage also reveals that Brown thinks he can consciously perform secret acts of evil and return, unscathed, to the fold of true virtue; that by creating only an illusion of piety in the community, while simultaneously doing evil things, he can still be virtuous and get to Heaven. Here, the true core of his morality lies only in keeping up appearances. He does not understand true, inner goodness; his only moral criterion consists in conforming to social postures of which his society approves.
Brown's conversation with the Devil supports the above contention. Here, on several occasions he appears to resist the Devil, and on the surface his resistance seems to speak well of him. However, when his reasons for resistance are examined, it is plain that they do not proceed from a meaningful appreciation of the moral issues involved. For Brown's "scruples," at least initially, are only that neither his father nor grandfather ever "went into the woods on such an errand." What bothers Brown is simply that in continuing along with the Devil, he would be deviating from the "virtuous" behavior that he believes his social superiors upheld. The nonconformity and unconventionality of his journey prompt Brown's hesitation rather than any real awareness that consorting with the Devil is intrinsically sinful.
The Devil dismisses Brown's argument with a brief but revealing account of his forefathers' hypocrisies. Strictly speaking, the Devil's reply is weak and irrelevant. First, there is no proof that what he says is true. But even if it were, the evil acts of a man's ancestors could not justify his pursuit of a present evil course, as Brown will soon conclude. To anyone possessing even a modicum of moral awareness, this would be self-evident. But to Brown, for whom conformity has been the whole of his morality, the Devil's revelation and its personal implications are difficult to refute. That Brown is shocked by the eye-opening information is understandable, but that he cannot penetrate its illogic suggests his own moral shallowness and the paucity of his moral principles.
Brown doggedly proceeds in his resistance and asks how he could " 'meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village?' '' As before, Brown's underlying point is his fear of the consequences of deviating from accepted social mores. What also bothers him is the possibility that he could not conceal his soon-to-be-evil, but true, identity in public, before this admired (and presumably admiring) pillar of society, the minister. In a similar vein, he adds that it would break Faith's heart, were he to cooperate with the "elder traveller." Throughout, he fears only exposure to those whose respect or admiration he craves. To underscore this fact, Hawthorne does not allow Brown to make a strong moral point anywhere in his conversation with the Devil. At no time, for example, does Brown ever touch on the intrinsic immorality of the Black Mass. Nowhere does he say, simply, that he refuses to go on because it is morally wrong to do so. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention by Brown of the evil involved in Devil worship, because Brown has no awareness as to why it is evil. His only concern is that to behave in such a manner would be not to conform.
That the Devil recognizes this characteristic and deals with it accordingly is seen in the ail-too coincidental appearance of "Goody Cloyse," who may well be a specter conjured up to drive the young conformist to even greater distraction. Significantly, Brown, always conscious of appearances, takes "a cut through the woods" so as not to be seen behaving unconventionally. There, he is provided with evidence that would seem to put Goody clearly in the Devil's camp. In one sense what Brown hears is understandably disconcerting; a naive young man has been convinced of weaknesses and failings in a person he has hitherto respected from childhood. But, however shocking or disillusioning the experience may be, there should not be quite the "world of meaning" for Brown in his simple discovery that a respected member of the community may have an evil side or be a consummate hypocrite. Hawthorne's suggestion that Brown has been shaken to the core reinforces our awareness that his entire morality has been based on the public behavior of members of his society. Furthermore, when these behavioral models fail him, he will be left with nothing, his conscience having virtually atrophied during his social indoctrination.
Brown does appear to come close to the truth in his final exchange with the Devil:
"Friend," said he, stubbornly, "my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven! Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?"
Although this may well represent Brown's closest proximity to the real issue, his speech is deficient, if not in the argument, at least in the manner of its presentation. First, he speaks "stubbornly" rather than from conviction. Secondly, he phrases his point as a question, suggesting doubt of the argument's worth. Surely, Brown's words are not spoken by a man firmly convinced of what he is saying. He does not put his point forcefully (for example, saying "That is no reason") but phrases it in an indecisive, interrogative form that seems to invite a rebuttal by the Devil.
At all events, Brown has unwittingly stumbled close enough to the central moral issue to cause the Devil to retreat temporarily, there being no satisfaction for Satan in forcing a person into Hell against his will. He retires, and Brown, flushed with smug triumph, does not think of the moral victory he appears to have won, but basks in un-Christian self-satisfaction, complacent about what an upstanding citizen he is. His thoughts are not of how pleased God would be with him, but only with how pleasant his relationship to society has become. Hawthorne refers to Brown's meditations as "pleasant and praiseworthy," the sarcasm reminding us that his victory has been illusory.
Brown hears footsteps and again hides, having "deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest, conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither, though now so happily turned from it." Again, Brown's appearance in the community remains more important to him than the inner state of his soul. His purity, if genuine, should have produced greater openness on his part, since, if the victory were genuine he would have nothing to hide. That he does conceal himself shows where Brown's deepest concerns still lie. Even at this moment of apparent strength, he is plainly fearful of his social superiors seeing him in a moment of unconventional behavior.
Hawthorne creates much ambiguity surrounding the encounter with "the voice like the deacon's" and "the solemn old tones of the minister" to make us question what Brown thinks he sees. But Brown, trained to emulate his elders as paragons of virtue, is disillusioned by his discovery. He despairs, "doubting whether there really was a Heaven above him," despite "the blue arch, and the stars brightening in it." There is no justification for Brown to reach such extensive and dismal conclusions; that he does so reveals again that he has no inner moral principles to fall back on. Brown reacts as if he has seen God Himself on His way to a Black Mass, and indeed in a way he has, for to the unfortunate conformist his human elders have always been his true gods.
We have seen that the only reason for Brown's reluctance to participate at the Mass is his fear of the social consequences should his participation be discovered; there is no evidence that he would not want to go if he knew he could get away with it. Could he be convinced that everyone else was behaving in a similar manner, the only major obstacle would be removed. It is doubtless for this reason that Brown seems at times to be looking for excuses to attend. Hawthorne's comment that the Devil's arguments in favor of attending seemed "to spring up in the bosom of his auditor"; Brown's readiness to believe the worst of his fellows in the light of increasingly flimsy pieces of evidence; Hawthorne's observation of Brown's "instinct that guides mortal man to evil" and his reminder that Brown "was himself the chief horror of the scene": all suggest that Brown has been looking for a way of justifying his participation, by rationalizing that everyone else has done likewise. If so, it is not surprising that Brown's next—and least convincing—vision should involve a cloud that he suspects is bearing all the townspeople to the Mass and sounds of their voices that could easily be "the murmur of the old forest." The vision concludes with the appearance of a pink ribbon out of the sky, presumably linking Faith with the Devil-worshippers. But though the ribbon is by itself no necessary proof of Faith's participation at the Mass, Brown by this point is ready—too ready—to suspect the worst of everyone, and concludes that she "'is gone'." While this conclusion is flimsy, flimsier still is Brown's second conclusion, that "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given'."
Brown reaches this conclusion because, having no concept of moral life as involving a personal relationship with moral values, he can conceive of it only as a social relationship with his community; in short, if others do it, to the conformist Brown it must be "right" or at least permissible. It is significant that he gives in immediately after concluding that all the others are on their way. His ensuing, almost eager rush to the Mass is consistent with his earlier conformity, for he is still doing what everyone else does, literally going along with the crowd, and is as oblivious to alternatives as he is to the evil involved; the voice of his conscience is nowhere to be heard. Hawthorne exposes the true weakness of the conformist's morality, by demonstrating how a man, whose every prior act has been based on the behavioral examples set by his society, behaves when he learns (or thinks he has learned) that this society regularly commits acts of evil. Having always conformed, Brown can have nothing but conformity to fall back on. Rather than see that these superiors in the community are not and never were valid models worthy of blind emulation, given the instinctively evil nature of man, and that mere conformity can never be a valid guide of action for this reason, Brown continues to conform to these same models even though he ought to realize that they are no longer worthy. Why he does so is possibly for reasons of security or habit, or because he simply "wants to." Most important, it reveals his ignorance as to how he might otherwise behave. That Brown is conforming when he rushes to the Mass is evident from Hawthorne's many suggestions that he is actually blending into the atmosphere of the evil forest and becoming indistinguishable from it: his laugh is echoed by the forest's laugh, and his cry "was lost to his own ear, by its unison with the cry of the desert." Brown has become one with his surroundings, the perfect mark of the conformist, by adapting his own behavior to that around him, in "awful harmony."
The entire spectacle of the Black Mass may well be presented by the Devil merely to confirm Brown's own belief in the ubiquity of human evil. It is interesting that despite the Devil's detailed catalogue of the vices and sins of Brown's fellows, he says nothing that Brown has not already determined on his own. For example, when Satan concludes that " 'Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness'," he agrees with Brown's earlier conclusion that there was no good on earth and that the world was given over to the Devil. As for Brown's witnessing of Faith at the Mass, he has already concluded that she is on her way there; doubts about his relatives have occurred very early in the tale. It is not really surprising, then, that Brown does see virtually everyone; he has already determined that he would do so. Nor is it surprising, given his conformity that Brown is initially powerless to resist. Appropriately, "the minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms, and led him to the blazing rock"; as before, since they are typical of the forces determining his every act, they continue to have dominance over him.
Why, then, does Brown resist the baptism, in a final surge of apparent strength? Surely, we have been given little if any evidence that Brown has enough strength to resist. Indeed, we have every reason to doubt his sincerity and to suspect that, even if he is doing the right thing, it may be for the wrong reasons. If Brown's resistance were meant to be seen as virtuous, surely Hawthorne would have prepared us in some way to believe Brown capable of such an act. Instead, he has made every effort to demean Brown in our eyes, presenting him as utterly lacking in moral sophistication or sensitivity. Brown is not merely a naive, but basically good, man: he is superficial, cunning, and consummately hypocritical. Why then this apparent reversal?
The only answer can be that no reversal has been intended by Hawthorne and that no deviation from what we have seen of Brown's character has taken place. Close examination of the passage immediately preceding Brown's resistance makes this clear: "The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance shew them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!" (my italics). We have seen before that Brown's public image and resulting social status mean a great deal to him. Significantly, he does not resist the Devil earlier, when the Devil promises Brown that "'It shall be yours to penetrate, in every [other!] bosom, the deep mystery of sin . . .' '' What bothers him is the sudden realization that such disclosure is to be mutual. It is only at this point, realizing that others will in turn see him as he truly is—a wretch—that he balks, and he resists not in the name of virtue but from the same fear of exposure to the public of his true nature (and the nature of his "faith") that has characterized his every previous action. Still obsessed with the need to protect his public image, even in these bizarre circumstances, Brown resists participation in the loathful brotherhood for the wrong reasons: because he is afraid of revealing himself as he actually is, not because he has seen that such participation is intrinsically evil.
He may also be dimly aware that such resistance would give him a tremendous social advantage over his fellows, for by resisting he becomes himself a pinnacle of apparent virtue, at least in his own eyes. Others may well look up to him, and certainly he will be able to derive great satisfaction from his resistance. Certain events do seem to point to this. Brown was seen before, just after his earlier "victory" over the Devil, as a self-righteous man. Moreover, Hawthorne suggests that this self-righteousness remains with him for the rest of his life, as Brown continues to regard himself as the one pure man in a community of hypocrites. As he shrinks from his wife or shudders at the minister, it is hard not to suspect that he is taking perverse satisfaction from these constant reminders of what a virtuous fellow he is in contrast with other members of his society. If the "goodly procession" of followers at his funeral is any indication, Brown has achieved his goal, having become a respected if not loved member of society. The hollowness of his achievement is, of course, underscored by Hawthorne's brief summary of his joyless life and gloomy death, the latter comment reminding us that he had essentially sold his soul for the social status he enjoyed.
Hawthorne also shows the paradoxical nature of Brown's final relationship to his society. Obsessed by the discovery that his society is unworthy of emulation, he cannot embrace "the sacred truths of our religion" or take succor from the hope offered by "saint-like lives"—true examples of virtue—because there is within his mind no room for such truths to exist, let alone grow. Obsessed with the realization that his society failed to provide adequate moral leadership, he is nonetheless so preoccupied with societal concerns to the exclusion of spiritual ones that any true sense of higher moral purpose is forever beyond him. Brown's relationship to his society, rather than his relationship to God, is still his only concern. Though he turns away from his now-reviled, former social ideals, he can conceive of no higher sphere to which he could turn that would provide him with meaningful, alternative moral knowledge; hence, his despair and gloom and his life-long obsession with his society's hypocrisy.
In a sense, "Young Goodman Brown" becomes as much a criticism of a rigid, conformity-ridden society as it is a portrayal of one man's lack of self-reliance. Surely, had the importance of one's public image and the consequent need to assume social postures not been so deeply impressed on Brown, and had more attention been focused on personal virtue and integrity as things of value, Brown would probably have been able to rise above the Devil's temptation to despair. That he could not is an indictment of both Brown and the society he lived in, a community where the importance of conformity has run rampant, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3047
SOURCE: "Narrative Structure and Theme in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 221-28.
[In the following essay, Hostetler investigates how conflict between the points of view of the title character and the narrator of "Young Goodman Brown" creates an ironic tension from which Hawthorne "develops his criticism of Brown's lack of awareness of the controlling power of the mind."]
One of Nathaniel Hawthorne's major themes concerns conscious awareness of the reality which the mind imposes on external objects. Hawthorne's characters are repeatedly confronted by the need to establish the relationship between their imaginations and the external world. Their ability to make the epistemological distinctions between the products of their mental processes and their sense impressions of the external world frequently governs their ability to develop a sound moral relationship with other people.
"Young Goodman Brown" illustrates especially well the fatal consequences of psychological misjudgment concerning perception and reality. The problem of establishing point of view is central to developing this interpretation. Although Hawthorne's narrator exists outside the story line, the tension between the conflicting interpretations of experience provided by the narrator and Goodman Brown from their different points of view creates the basic ironic tone of the work. From this irony, Hawthorne develops his criticism of Brown's lack of awareness of the controlling power of the mind.
Recognition of this cause for Brown's behavior is essential in order to reconcile the divergent emphases that have been placed on the story. Interpretations have generally concerned themselves with the way in which Brown is deluded rather than with why Brown should make such serious errors in judgment or with why Hawthorne should so sharply and pervasively differentiate the narrator and Brown. Most critics have, of course, recognized that at least a part of Brown's experience is a "dream," "vision," or "hallucination," but they are more concerned with individual choice, often moral or theological (in which case Brown is a deluded individual), or with an introduction to knowledge, usually psychological (in which case Brown's initiation is Everyman's). Brown does destroy himself morally, as the end of the story makes clear, yet as Frederick Crews notes [in The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, 1966], "the richness of Hawthorne's irony is such that, when Brown turns to a Gulliver-like misanthropy and spends the rest of his days shrinking from wife and neighbors, we cannot quite dismiss his attitude as unfounded." By differentiating the points of view of the narrator and Brown, Hawthorne creates the multiple perspective necessary to validate all these critical emphases.
The narrator's description of events is characterized by the ambiguity that Richard Fogle has pointed out [in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, rev. ed., 1964]. The "uncertain light" that plays over everything obscures and confuses all appearances so that it is impossible to ascertain anything objective. Fogle, in fact, does not really go far enough in discerning ambiguities, for he restricts himself mostly to the narrator's literal expressions of doubt and alternative possibilities. He accepts as fact that Brown's conductor into the forest "is, of course, the Devil," and that Brown sees there Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin, among others But the narrator never once refers to them by their names. They are always described as "figures" or "forms." Apparently, they have taken the shape of the persons whose names they use, although the evidence for this position comes only from the highly unreliable testimony of Goodman Brown and from the specters themselves—whose existence has been established only in relation to Brown's perceptions, and not the narrator's.
Brown, indeed, is the only person to whom ambiguity is an impossibility. He is absolutely certain about these identifications, despite the fact that they become progressively more ambiguous as the journey into the forest continues. The narrator first says only that Brown "beheld the figure of a man" which seems to resemble Brown's father or grandfather. But Brown, whose preceding remark ("What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!") indicates the tenor of his thoughts, assumes at once that the figure is the devil, although he scruples against calling him such.
In the next instance, the narrator's carefully restricted construction suggests even less validity to Brown's perception. There appears a "female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary dame." The extent to which this figure can be identified with Brown's real "moral and spiritual adviser" is uncertain at best, but Brown immediately concludes that what he perceived is unquestionably Goody Cloyse, although as soon as he "cast up his eyes in astonishment," he no longer "beheld" her.
The minister and the deacon do not even exist as figures, but merely as disembodied voices—the conversation is supplied only by "the voice like the deacon's" and "the solemn old tones of the minister." With less evidence than before, Brown assumes that he has overheard the real "holy men." Finally, out of the rush and babble of clouds and wind, Brown fancies that he discerns the "familiar tones" of his townspeople, and particularly, "one voice, of a young woman." Yet Brown exhibits no doubt about what he assumes he has perceived passing overhead, crying "Faith!" after his wife.
At this point appears the famous "pink ribbon," which F.O. Matthiessen condemned as too jarringly literal to be accepted into the pattern of Brown's past hallucinations [American Renaissance, 1941]. Fogle rather lamely defends the ribbon as "part and parcel of his dream," like everything else, and, moreover, of only momentary impact. There is a sounder argument for its use, because Matthiessen's assumption of the ribbon's literal existence is contradicted by the pattern of the expanding gap between the narrator's ambiguity of description and Brown's certainty of identification. From figures to voices to clouds to wind, the objects upon which Brown projected his certainties have become more and more vague and uncertain. This incident extends the pattern, for the narrator says only that "something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree" (my italics). Only Goodman Brown "beheld a pink ribbon." Considering the quality of his past perceptions, it would be exceedingly naive to trust his eyesight at this point. The narrator, moreover, has the last word on the subject, his insistence that Faith still wears the ribbon the next morning serving as a final ironic comment on Brown's perception of the "something."
The effect of this divergence of viewpoint is to establish the credibility of the narrator's perceptions and to undermine Brown's. The reader's confidence in the narrator's point of view has been reinforced by the objectivity of the unemotional tone, reflected in the eighteenth-century rhetorical patterns, by the candor that allows him always to present Brown in terms of the latter's current evaluation of himself, and above all by the honesty that results from his refusal to commit himself to a single-minded view of an external reality that he cannot truly know.
The reader, therefore, accepts the narrator as the norm for perception against which to judge Brown, who is beset by emotional vagaries and is blind to his own motivations. Brown's expressed ideas are constantly being undercut by his situation and actions, and yet he is absolutely certain—so certain that it never occurs to him to doubt it—that he knows what constitutes external reality. This fallacious certainty and the unconscious assumption upon which it is based provide for Brown's self-destruction.
Brown's assumption is that an absolute reality actually exists, that it lies in the external world, and that it is finally knowable by man through the perception of his senses. Brown is thus an extreme Lockean in his psychology—he insists on attributing all his mental impressions to external realities which have inscribed themselves on his tabula rasa. It never occurs to him that the source of some of his ideas may lie within himself, in his mind and imagination. Yet through the ironic tension between Brown's ideas and the perceptions of the narrator, Hawthorne has been making clear all along that the source of Brown's only significant ideas—that is, those which actually motivate and control his actions—is Brown himself.
Brown goes into the forest in search of the source of evil (or sin, or knowledge, or whatever moral or psychological term one wishes), fully confident of finding that source in some person or place—that is, in something external to himself. Since it will be external to himself, his relation to it will be subject to his own definition, limitation, and control, as suggested by his reiterated belief that he can stop his journey and turn back whenever he wishes. From the beginning, however, Hawthorne has undercut Brown's belief through the narrator's subtle insistence that Brown has carried all his ideas of evil, and therefore all the evil of which he is capable, into the forest with him. Everybody else who enters the forest has done so, too, but Brown's psychology will not permit him to accept the analogy presented to him by his experiences, whether real or imagined. Brown's exploration of the dark forest of the mind is qualitatively indistinguishable from the one that has been experienced implicitly by all other characters in the story (including the narrator), and explicitly by Faith, who has "such dreams and such thoughts, that she's afeard of herself, sometimes." But Brown refuses to recognize that evil and knowledge and their sources are intrinsic parts of all human nature. In this sense, therefore, it is finally irrelevant whether or not Brown's experiences "really" occurred. The crucial point is that Brown asserts certainty when he ought to be raising questions and doubts.
The narrator notes at the very beginning that all of Brown's good intentions are postulated only in the form of future actions—"With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose." Brown's "companion" appears to him only after he expresses his idea that "the devil himself might be present. Brown exclaims that he has already penetrated "too far" into the forest, but at the same time he was "unconsciously resuming his walk." The devil's arguments are so apt that they "seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor, than to be suggested by himself." While "applauding himself greatly" for determining to resist the devil, Brown hears "amidst these pleasant and praise-worthy meditations" the sounds of the minister and the deacon.
If Brown had any sense of this source of his own perceptions, he might have drawn the correct analogy with the examples of innate depravity and taken his place with Faith in the brotherhood of man. His insistent assumption that all his ideas have a reality external to himself leads him instead to the wrong conclusion. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given." This idea obviously fills him with despair, so that he continues to the witches meeting (or unconsciously permits himself to imagine the experience), but he still has no concept of his own nature, as events at the meeting illustrate. For him, evil is still the province of the devil—that is, the source of it is external to Brown. To that error he adds his Manichaean certainty of the distinctness and absoluteness of good and evil, merely reversing his previous assumption that everybody else is good to the assumption that everybody else is bad.
Once again, however, the narrator has the last word, concluding the first portion of the story with remarks that leave no room for doubt about where the source of evil really lies. Brown rushed into the
heart of the dark wilderness . . . with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. . . . he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors. . . . In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. . . . The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man.
The narrator also leaves no doubt about Brown's relationship to the rest of mankind:
The verse died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together. Goodman Brown cried out; and his cry was lost to his own ear, by its unison with the cry of the desert.
Brown does not hear his own cry for the cry around him, but the narrator hears both.
Although he does not accept the idea, Brown has already joined the congregation of evil, "with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart." He does not need the "baptism" to experience evil but to know its nature and the way it relates him to all people. The devil stresses this point by associating the knowledge of the catalogue of "secret deeds" with the ability "to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power, at its utmost!—can make manifest in deed" (my italics). Every bosom would include Brown's.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the devil is the real hero, trying his best to awaken Brown to the reality of human nature. Hawthorne's ironic ambiguities are much too complex for that. The devil is still one of Hawthorne's numerous false guides, subtly encouraging people to extend partial truths into erroneous absolutes. Although he admits the source of evil lies in the individual human, he does all in his power to foster its development and expression, as was illustrated earlier by the kinds of assistance he had offered Brown and all his friends and relations. Now he will succeed in securing Brown's damnation by encouraging him to refuse the baptism.
Essentially, he plays upon Brown's Manichaean conviction that everybody else is totally committed to evil. If you wish to be fully human, to join "the communion of your race," he in effect tells Brown, you too must commit yourself to evil as "your only happiness." That the devil lies when he says that "evil is the nature of mankind" (my italics) is established by the narrator, who makes a special point of referring to the religious activities the next morning of "the good old minister" and "that excellent old Christian," Goody Cloyse, as well as to the anxious and joyful Faith. Part of the irony of the characterizations may well be turned against the characters themselves, in view of their previous night's associations, but, in any case, their holy activities are certainly no less real than the witches' sabbath, and a great deal more plausible, given the total lack of ambiguity in the narrator's descriptions.
But Brown has already thrown the good out with the bad. Rightly convinced that a conscious commitment to the idea of total depravity would be disastrous, he naively accepts the devil's explanation, which is actually only a necessary consequence of Brown's beliefs, that a commitment to the knowledge of the moral community of human beings means the same thing. By so believing, Brown throws out forever any possibility of sympathetic identification with other people, thus cutting himself off from the only way for him to test the validity of his perceptions. His rejection of brotherhood is, therefore, equally a disaster, for it is ironically based on an unconscious commitment to the concept of total depravity. It is this commitment that allows Brown (and Brown alone, as the narrator stresses) to hear only oaths, anathemas, hypocrisy, and anthems of sin, instead of prayers, blessings, preaching, and psalms.
The narrator insists on this ironic quality by such devices as his remark that Brown is followed "to his grave" by Faith, an ironic inversion of Brown's previous belief that he would hereafter cling to Faith's skirts "and follow her to Heaven." Such a commitment would have succeeded, not because Faith was "an angel on earth" as he originally thought, but because he would be accepting humanity.
Thus the narrator carefully works out the culminating irony of the story. In seeking to cut himself off from the evil in the external world, Brown has committed himself to the evil of his own mind, without hope of understanding or correction. Seeking salvation for himself, he has committed himself to the only course that will guarantee his destruction, for only those who believe in the reality of ideas independent of sense impressions can have hope for any future except the grave. And so "his dying hour was gloom."
One of the consequences of being aware of the nature of Brown's obsession is that the critic can no longer safely dismiss Brown at the end of his analysis as merely a deluded or even deranged person. Brown, after all, clearly retains the ability to behave acceptably in his social relationships. But he has lost the ability to transcend the external forms of these relationships and thus has lost the power to create moral relationships. Hawthorne's structure and theme imply that only through moral relationships can one create a positive human existence. Brown's failure in this regard is at once more subtle than is suggested by the references to "depraved imagination" and "distorted mind" [Paul J. Hurley, "Young Goodman Brown's 'Heart of Darkness'," American Literature 37, 1966] and more universal than is suggested by the historical confinement of the problem to seventeenth-century Salem [as done by David Levin in "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature 34, 1962] or even to Hawthorne's own mind [see ]. Brown's problems with perception and the products of his own imagination are potentially those of every human being. The reader dismisses the possibility of identification with Brown only at the peril of falling into Brown's obsession—another example of the complex ironies Hawthorne leaves waiting to trap the unwary reader who fails to recognize that it is precisely the contrast between the narrator's and Brown's perceptions that allows one to accept the universality of the experience while denying the validity of Brown's response to it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2850
SOURCE: "Six Tales: 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Nathaniel Hawthorne, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 81-7.
[In the following excerpt, Martin focuses on Goodman Brown's incomplete but cataclysmic initiation into evil]
To judge from the title, wrote Herman Melville in his review of Mosses from an Old Manse, one would suppose that "Young Goodman Brown" was "a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to 'Goody Two-Shoes.' Whereas it is as deep as Dante." Readers since Melville's time have agreed that "Young Goodman Brown" is one of Hawthorne's most profound tales. In the manner of its concern with guilt and evil, it exemplifies what Melville called the "power of blackness" in Hawthorne's work. The thrust of the narrative is to move the protagonist toward a personal and climactic vision of evil which leaves in its aftermath an abiding legacy of distrust.
"Young Goodman Brown" takes in a strict if surprising sense the form of a story of initiation; ritual and ceremony dominate the central scene in which Goodman Brown is invited to become an initiate into the community of evil proclaimed by the devil. And although the ritual of initiation is perforce left incomplete, Goodman Brown is ruined for life by all that the devil shows him. In the course of one evening he is given such a monstrous perception of the scope, depth, and universality of evil that he is forever blind to the world as it normally presents itself. As David Levin reminds us in his discussion of "specter evidence" in "Young Goodman Brown," however, the focus of the story remains steadily on the protagonist. The tale is not about the evil of other people in Salem village—Goody Cloyse, for example, or Deacon Gookin, or Goodman Brown's father and grandfather; it is, rather, "about Brown's doubt, his discovery of the possibility of universal evil" ["Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," American Literature 34, 1962]. So corrosive is his experience that anything contrary to the vision he has seen he considers a fraud. Just as surely as if he had ascended to the heavenly choirs and achieved a mystic comprehension of the destiny of all things, he has experienced what is for him an ultimate vision.
What Goodman Brown sees in the forest persuades as well as corrodes; in a scene shuddering with woe yet stabilized by the dignity of fallen grandeur, he hears that the human race is immersed in guilt, that evil is the nature of mankind. "Welcome, my children," says the dark and majestic figure of the devil, "to the communion of your race. You have found thus young your nature and your destiny." Although at this point Goodman Brown is standing beside his wife Faith, he is unaware of her presence. In the assembly behind them, continues the devil, are all those whom they have
reverenced from youth. . . . This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds. . . . [You] shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot. Far more than this. It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children look upon each other.
In such an unhallowed atmosphere Goodman Brown and Faith exchange glances, while the dark figure addresses them again in a "deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race": you have depended upon one another's hearts, says the devil, you have hoped that "virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again, my children, to the communion of your race." And the assembled worshipers repeat the welcome in a cry of "despair and triumph."
There is an element of finality in the scene. Goodman Brown has traveled to the end of a journey from which he can return but never recover. He stops short of the ultimate step of infernal baptism, which would, of course, bring the story to a much different resolution. As he and Faith look at each other, they cannot make the decision which would allow each to see the hidden springs of guilt in the other: "What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!" Offered the power to pierce the veil that (as the Reverend Mr. Hooper knew) covers every human personality, the husband and wife cannot bear the idea of spiritual nakedness. Suddenly Goodman Brown cries out, "Faith! Faith! . . . look up to heaven and resist the Wicked One." Faith's allegorically appropriate name allows here, as elsewhere, for a masterful and openhanded ambiguity of effect. Goodman Brown is obviously addressing the image of his wife, urging her to resist the devil. At the same time he is exhorting himself to have faith, to look heavenward, to withstand the infernal eloquence of the Wicked One. And his cry has a miraculous effect; it obliterates the fiery theatrics of the scene along with the entire cast of demonic characters. "Hardly had he spoken" when he finds himself alone "amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind, which died heavily away through the forest." At the beginning of the scene the minister and Deacon Gookin had escorted Goodman Brown to a "blazing rock." Now he staggers against the same rock and feels it "chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew."
Assumed in "Young Goodman Brown" is a distinction between dream and reality that one must understand in the terms of Hawthorne's presentation. The question proposed to Goodman Brown is into which of these categories good and evil belong. At the outset of the story, Faith asks her husband to postpone his journey until sunrise and sleep in his own bed that night: "a lone woman," she says, "is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afeard of herself sometimes." Mulling over the guilty purpose that has brought him into the forest, Goodman Brown recalls Faith's talk of dreams; he wonders if he detected trouble in her face, "as if a dream had warned her of what work is to be done tonight." In the forest he goes through a dreamlike experience, marked by a series of abrupt transitions and sudden apparitions. The devil introduces a further notion of a dream by saying that Goodman Brown and Faith "had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream." Thus, the counterpoised terms, dream and reality, are shown to depend for their application upon one's prior attitude toward the moral nature of the world.
And it is precisely because of Hawthorne's presentation of spectral or counterfeit evidence that such absolute distinctions founder—along with a protagonist (or reader) who would seek to apply them. For, as Levin demonstrates, the tale offers a choice "between dream and a reality that is unquestionably spectral." In the manner of witnesses at the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, Goodman Brown fails to distinguish between the specter or shape of a person and the person himself, between appearances (fashioned by the devil) and realities (created by God). Hawthorne's language is insistent: Goodman Brown sees "figures," "shapes," "visages" that appear in the guise of those he knows. He hears the voices of invisible travelers (on invisible horses) that, "he could have sworn," sound like those of the deacon and the minister. He gazes at a cloud that hurries across the sky, although "no wind was stirring." At an early point in the journey the devil discourses "so aptly, that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom" of Goodman Brown than "to be suggested by himself." And of course that is the case if Goodman Brown has internalized the source of evil. Michael J. Colacurcio is surely right in saying that according to Hawthorne's "psychological scheme Brown's suspicion and distrust and the Devil's wiles" are two ways of describing the same phenomena ["Visible Sanctity and Spectral Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," Essex Institute Historical Collections 110, 1974].
For the devil, of course, virtue must be a dream, evil the only reality. And once Goodman Brown sees the "evidence" for that idea, he can never rid himself of it. It rises within him to cast a shadow over the apparent realities of his life in Salem village that he once took as visible (and comforting) evidence of sanctity:
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 death, 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. Often, awakening suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.
His spectral experience in the forest has affected Goodman Brown as the most dismal, the most horrible, and, withal, the most intransigent experience of his life. Since he cannot believe in Faith, no other reality can modulate he gnawing gloom of a persistent doubt. He has journeyed into the dreamworld of the forest, into the haunted mind now functioning with the full force of history, and confronted a world steeped in guilt (whether projected by his fantasies or conjured by the devil) that makes his return to the village a pilgrimage into hypocrisy. But just as the experience has been personal, so has the effect. Goodman Brown alone is changed. He alone brings the dark vision of the forest to bear on the moral life of the community. He alone, "from the night of that fearful dream," as Hawthorne says, becomes "a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man."
It is difficult to say precisely why Goodman Brown leaves Faith to spend his night in the forest. As we have seen, she asks him to put off his journey and tarry with her; he replies that this night of all nights in the year he must tarry away from her. He does not say what his purpose is, but conveniently uses her term: "My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise." And he chides her for doubting him when they are but three months married.
But he does go on his journey with a guilty conscience, leaving Faith with her pink ribbons behind. His heart tells him he is a wretch to leave Faith, "a blessed angel on earth," on "such an errand." He resolves that "after this one night" he will "cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." Clearly, Goodman Brown wants "this one night." His journey into the forest can be defined as a kind of indeterminate allegory, representing man's irrational drive to leave faith, home, and security temporarily behind, for whatever reason, and take a chance with one (more?) adventure onto the wilder shores of experience. Our protagonist becomes an Everyman named Brown, a "young" man, who will be aged in one night by an adventure that makes everyone in this world seem a fallen idol. But our protagonist is also, and specifically, a seventeenth-century Puritan, a "young" man only three months joined to Faith, whose belief in the value of visible moral evidence becomes inverted rather than discredited. He has made a covenant to meet the devil, who has come from Boston to Salem village in fifteen minutes for the occasion. The simplicity of Goodman Brown's statements to the devil help to measure the extent of the change he will undergo in the forest. "Faith kept me back awhile," he says to explain his tardiness; "That old woman taught me my catechism," he remarks of Goody Cloyse ("and there was a world of meaning," Hawthorne writes, "in that simple comment"); finally, when he beholds a pink ribbon fluttering down from above he cries out, "My Faith is gone." At that frenzied and faithless moment he embraces the devil's premise that evil constitutes the only reality in the world.
Faith has been Goodman Brown's last resource. But the process of consigning people to the devil—or of instantly crediting reports of their wrongdoing—has its genesis in his brittle commitment to the world in which he lives. He has learned with some wonder that the devil knew his father and grandfather. With amazement he has heard the devil claim that the governor and council are firm supporters of his interest. And quickly he dissociates himself: the governor and the council have their own ways, he reasons, "and are no rule for a simple husbandman like me." That Goody Cloyse consorts with the devil—who momentarily assumes the figure of Goodman Brown's grandfather and thereby demonstrates his mastery of appearances—is a blow that strikes closer to home. Again Goodman Brown dissociates himself, this time with the vehemence necessary to cast off one who has earned his respect: "what if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?" He even decides to return to Salem Village and applauds himself greatly for his resolution; then, "conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him hither," he hides when he hears the sounds of horses approaching. The discovery that Deacon Gookin and the old minister are likewise part of the devil's brotherhood shakes him deeply, although his conviction depends on the flimsiest of aural evidence: Goodman Brown cannot see them nor discern "so much as a shadow." The point is that he immediately believes in their perfidy and looks "up at the sky, doubting whether there really was a heaven above him."
Once again, Goodman Brown dissociates himself from persons he has reverenced. Bereft now of saintly company, of father and grandfather, of governor and council, of Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the minister, he can make one final resolution: "With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil." Gone is all sense of community. Already having doubted the existence of heaven, Goodman Brown stands alone, crying out "in a voice of agony and desperation" for a Faith he has deliberately left behind. At that point (let us note Hawthorne's language carefully) "something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon." From a heaven he already doubts comes "something" that this man shouting for Faith sees as a "pink ribbon." Since the pink ribbons of her cap are intact the next morning when Faith bursts into joy at the sight of Goodman Brown, what we have here is best seen as a final, Faith-testing, instance of spectral evidence. Having converted "something" to a "pink ribbon" by an ultimate projection of his guilt, our protagonist is at first "stupefied," then "maddened with despair." He speaks the obvious truth when he says his Faith is gone. He reveals his virtual solipsism when he concludes that "there is no good on earth."
As he rushes through the "haunted forest" to join the devil's congregation, Goodman Brown becomes "the chief horror of the scene." "In truth," writes Hawthorne, holding out the possibility that we might have been witnessing a specter undone by spectral evidence, "there could be nothing more frightful" in the forest "than the figure of Goodman Brown" (my italics). But Brown at the beginning and end of the tale is presented as a character, not a specter. He has (in a far more serious way than Wakefield) deliberately left his place in the moral universe and returned with a perspective that converts everything to evil and hypocrisy. From his dream vision or spectral adventure in the forest, he has received a paralyzing sense that the brotherhood of man is possible only under the fatherhood of the devil. His vision is absolute, unalterable; it turns his world inside out and compels him to live and die in a gloom born of his inverted sense of moral reality.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2923
SOURCE: "The Law of the Fathers: Hawthorne," in Desire and the Political Unconscious in American Literature: Eros and Ideology, St. Martin's Press, 1990, pp. 49-78.
[In the excerpt below, Girgus offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Goodman Brown as a tormented neurotic who represses both his sexual desire for Faith and his doubts about his parentage.]
On a relatively conventional level of Freudian analysis, Young Goodman Brown would appear to be an unhappy neurotic who cannot reconcile himself to his wife's carnality and cannot return or enjoy the love she represents. He cannot appreciate her natural desires: ' "Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, "prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afraid of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year".' Possibly this is a veiled plea from the wife, one that probably was made frequently in the past, to consummate their marriage of three months. Brown, however, leaves her bed to go off into the forest, ultimately to participate in a Witches' Sabbath on All Saints' Eve, a ritual historically associated with licentiousness.
The sexual symbolism of this evening suggests that Brown succumbs to the very force of sexuality that he dreads and resists. However, the source of the resistance is important. In his behavior and beliefs he typifies some key Freudian themes regarding men's attitudes toward women and sexuality. Hawthorne writes: '"Poor little Faith!" thought he, for his heart smote him. "What a wretch am I to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. 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. But, no; 'twould kill her to think it. Well, she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven".' Brown obviously idealizes his Faith as a sexual object. He exemplifies what Freud considered to be the basic ambivalence of modern men toward sexuality and toward women.
As Freud notes in a footnote of 1910 to Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid the stress upon the instinct itself, whereas we emphasize the object. The ancients glorified the instinct and were prepared on its account to honour even an inferior object; while we despise the instinctual activity in itself, and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object.' Two years later Freud proposed that such idealization incapacitates man to achieve sexual happiness and love. In The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life,' he says, To ensure a fully normal attitude in love, two currents of feeling have to unite—we may describe them as the tender, affectionate feelings and the sensual feelings.' For Freud the idealization of the love object tends to guarantee the erection of severe impediments to achieving this confluence of sexuality and tenderness. Idealization prevents men from confronting the sexuality of their love objects. Such men tend to see women, including their wives, as either whores or goddesses. They prove unable to reconcile these differences. Thus, Freud says in Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego, 'A man will show a sentimental enthusiasm for women whom he deeply respects but who do not excite him to sexual activities, and he will only be potent with other women whom he does not "love" and thinks little of or even despises.'
Brown typifies this division of sexual values within Western man. The method of conveying the sexual meaning of the story through metaphor and symbol sustains this division by its indirect expression of sexuality. Some examples of such symbols and metaphors are: the physical penetration of the forest; the sexuality of the Witches' Sabbath; the pink ribbons that signify both domestic femininity and sexuality, especially as they flutter down around Brown in the forest after he hears 'a scream,' itself symbolic of penetration—'"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given"'; the blatant phallic symbolism of the guide's staff—'But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent'; a public ceremony marking '"the communion of your race"' in which the young couple will find ' "your nature and your destiny" '; a ceremony symbolizing the sexual act in the following way: 'And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame?'; the description of Brown's condition following the act of communion—'He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.'
The indirect representation of sexuality through these symbols, metaphors and images re-enforces the psychological division in Brown that his words during the communion ceremony convey: '"Faith! Faith!" cried the husband, "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one".' Brown's words constitute a condemnation of her acquiescence to sexuality. Brown's idea of love places his wife in the impossible position of being both whore and madonna, of satisfying his needs while placating the demands of his obsessed conscience. Moreover, he clearly has become the so-called ' "wicked one",' a man whose anxiety and conflicts turn him into a demon. 'The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds—the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.'
At the core of Brown's attitude towards his wife's sexuality is his resistance to his parents' sexuality and his own sexual connection to them. Brown resists the suggestion that his guide on the journey through the woods represents his father: 'Still they might have been taken for father and son.' He protests, '"Too far! Too far!" exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. "My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him".' However, a witch figure in the woods recognizes both men as part of the same family. She says the guide is ' "in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is".' Moreover, in the communion scene Brown finds himself re-enacting in the forest the psychological turmoil of Hamlet and Oedipus when they are forced to confront their parents' sexuality and to deny their relationship to it. Thus, as Brown and Faith are called to the ceremony, Hawthorne writes, 'At the crowd, 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. He could have well-nigh sworn that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke wreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother? But he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought, when the minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms and led him to the blazing rock.'
Significantly, from a Freudian perspective Brown's thoughts undermine his intentions and raise doubts that derive from the unconscious about his parents. The problem is as much in his mind as in real external events. In addition, his inability to resolve these doubts leaves him unprepared and unable to love. His most important relationships are ruled by his neurosis. He returns from his adventure in the woods with a scowl and harshness for his wife and this remains his basic attitude toward her. Even in his sleep, he wakes before allowing himself the pleasure of indicating unconscious tenderness. 'Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away.' At the same time, we know that in spite of this fear of tenderness and love, Brown did not deny himself sexuality for procreation because he goes to the grave 'a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren.' Thus, Brown embodies a sexual ideology of repressed feelings that forces women into a restricted role and a near-total identification with family and home. Moreover, Hawthorne also suggests that the forces of repression in the unconscious that sustain this ideology have their counterpart in other ideologies as well. Thus, Young Goodman Brown's guide tells him: ' "'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".'
The repression of the ideologies that Hawthorne describes are attempts to deal with the chaos and instability that Brown discovers on his journey through the unconscious. The very language of the story suggests the absence of permanent meaning and of any absolute connection between appearance and reality, between the signifier and what is signified. All experience filters through the unconscious and emerges differently just as Young Goodman Brown leaves the woods a changed man. Brown learns not only to resist sexuality but also to feel the hostility of his social environment because of the ambiguity and uncertainty of the signifiers that greet him everyday. All around him he finds the distortion of signifiers of the unconscious. One scene early in the story especially dramatizes this situation of distorted signification. Hawthorne refers to the guide's staff as resembling a snake. He then adds: 'This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.' In fact, the whole story rests on a form of ocular deception where things never mean what they appear to mean. The pink ribbons seem to represent soft domesticity but also symbolize the fall of Faith. The man who guides the young Puritan through the woods seems like a devil with a mission to tempt Brown, but people keep associating the man with Brown's father. Brown puts all his hope and trust in his wife Faith who turns out to be the vehicle and instrument of his downfall. The irony of her name epitomizes the breakdown of the connection between signifier and signified. Young Goodman Brown's way of dealing with this crisis of meaning constitutes his sexual poetics. His sexual poetics define his relationship to Faith, the memory of his parents and his feeling for the people of the community. Sexual poetics for Brown is how he fills in the gaps of the unconscious that separate words and things.
However, the community itself also suggests a sexual politics that brings everyone together in a kind of conspiracy against the unconscious they all share. Thus, when Goodman Brown returns in the morning from his journey in the woods, he is dumbfounded by the way all the people act as though nothing had occurred the evening before. 'The next morning young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man. The good old minister was taking a walk along the graveyard to get an appetite for breakfast and meditate his sermon, and bestowed a blessing, as he passed, on Goodman Brown.' The other townspeople seem equally at ease and comfortable. The people of Salem evidence exactly the kind of hypocrisy that Freud felt was indispensable to keep society together. It turns out, however, that Brown's own ideology is at variance with this sexual politics of silence. The gap between his sudden appreciation of the chaos at the center of existence and their complacency exacerbates his separation from his family and alienation from the community. The frustration of Brown's own desire emphasizes that the sense of community—or consensus if you will—of Salem rests on a collective distortion of the horror of the unconscious that reveals itself at night. The story, as Claudia Johnson suggests, cannot be dismissed as simply a dream. Or, in other words, the nightmare of the story cannot be separated from the experience of waking during the day. Thus, the description of the secret life of the community suggests that Brown emerges from the woods as one of our country's first lay psychoanalysts, stricken—perhaps plagued as Freud might say—with an insight into the unconscious of the community. Hawthorne carefully documents this secret life of the community in his description of the people at the ceremony in the woods:
Some affirm that the lady of the governor was there. At least there were high dames well known to her, and wives of honored husbands, and widows, a great multitude, and ancient maidens, all of excellent repute, and fair young girls, who trembled lest their mothers should espy them. Either the sudden gleams of light flashing over the obscure field bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity. Good old Deacon Gookin had arrived, and waited at the skirts of that venerable saint, his revered pastor. But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.
The proximity of good and evil people in the crowd externalizes the inner psychological truth of the continuum of violence, love and hate in Brown's psyche. Considering the centrality of the force of the unconscious in Hawthorne's work, it is significant that the vices he lists almost all relate to sexuality:
This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant's funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bedchamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot. Far more than this. It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other.
Both 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'My Kinsman, Major Molineux' concentrate on the theme of the search for a father figure. These last two speeches in 'Young Goodman Brown' justify the sense of insecurity at the center of that search. The story's concatenation of sin condemns everyone in Salem to paternal uncertainty. Thus, both Robin and Brown repeat the plight of Oedipus. Obviously, the Oedipus story externalizes the inner insecurity in the search for identity. As Jane Gallop says [in The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis, 1982], 'Paternity cannot be perceived, proven, known with certainty; it must be instituted by judgement of the mother's word.' Such uncertainty feeds Brown's anxiety and nurses his desire to impose on the society the kind of absolute authority that 'Puritans of Puritans . . . Endicott himself forces on Merry Mount through his symbolic castration of the Maypole.
The absence of absolute connection between signifier and signified that explains the drama of language of the Oedipus complex is highlighted in the last line of 'Young Goodman Brown.' What Elizabeth Wright takes to mean Brown's burial in an unmarked grave like Oedipus'—'they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone'—provides a painful symbol of the fragility of paternal and linguistic relationships. The unmarked grave stands as a silent challenge to the credibility of both law and language, a challenge that is a major theme of Hawthorne's greatest work, The Scarlet Letter.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7165
SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 33-55.
[In this essay, Keil examines "Young Goodman Brown" in terms of nineteenth-century views concerning masculinity and femininity.]
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" traditionally has been read as an examination of crises of faith, morality, and/or psychosexuality. Early readings focused on questions of theology and conduct, but since the opening years of the 1950s, a second category of readings has emphasized the psychosexual elements. Roy Male, for example, argued [in Hawthorne's Tragic Vision, 1957] that "the dark night in the forest is essentially a sexual experience, though it is also much more," while Frederick Crews observed [in The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, 1966] that in his dream experience, the young, newly wed, and still oedipal Brown, fleeing from the sexuality of married love, removes himself to a place where he can voyeuristically and vicariously enjoy that which he directly shuns. The third important category of readings attempts to ground the story in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century documents about witchcraft to which Hawthorne had access. Most significant of these considerations are David Levin's contention [in "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature 34, 1962] that the most important topic of "Young Goodman Brown" is the theological and epistemological issue of "specter evidence" and Michael Colacurcio's thesis [in "Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Essex Institute Historical Collections 110, 1974] that the historical documents from which Hawthorne worked, especially those involving how you tell a saint from a witch or any other sinner, limit the scope of Hawthorne's investigation into Brown's (or his own) psyche to that made possible by the language and content of the Puritan documents. In all three of these critical categories, the authors generally assume, if they address the matter at all, that Hawthorne is concerned with late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century issues and events surrounding American Puritan life. We must recognize, however, that—contra the assumptions that some scholars make about Hawthorne as a Puritan historian—Hawthorne could not re-create Puritan history in his historical tales; he could only construct it, basing his construction upon his readings of Puritan documents and the experience that he, as a nineteenth-century, middle-class New Englander, brought to them.
At least one reader suggests that part of the experience Hawthorne brought to the Puritan documents was his familiarity with contemporary documents. Frank Shuffleton [in "Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement," in American Transendental Quarterly 44, Fall 1979] has pointed out convincingly that, in the climactic scene of the "witches' sabbath," Hawthorne appeared to have been working not only from Puritan archives but also from Frances Trollope's contemporary observations on the demonic aspects of evangelical tent meetings in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Without denying the crises of faith, morality, and psychosexuality that earlier critics had discovered in "Young Goodman Brown," Shuffleton notes that Hawthorne was likely to find those issues in contemporary as well as Puritan documents and events. Moreover, in recognizing that "the story's meaning has an anchor in a specific social situation in Hawthorne's nineteenth-century present, we understand the balancing power of the specific richness of the story's historical knowledge as detailed by so many scholars." If theology, morality, and psychosexuality were a devilish brew for Hawthorne's Puritan ancestors, they were no less so for Hawthorne and his contemporaries. Hawthorne places the story in the seventeenth century in order to explore the nexus of past and present in New Englanders' attitudes towards these central life experiences.
In addition to the Puritan problems of telling the saintly from the damned and the innocent from the corrupt, "Young Goodman Brown" takes as part of its context fundamental changes in gender and gender relations in the growing middle-class world of New England. One aspect of these changes in gender and sexuality with which the story surely is concerned is the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, a discourse developed that sought to divide the world into public and private spheres based on gender. Men and women had lived socially, economically, and politically distinct lives in the Puritan period, but what is significant about the new, nineteenth-century gender ideology is that it constructed a "male" world that was even more and decidedly self-consciously distinct from the "female." Men should be the "sole" economic providers of the household, working, increasingly, outside of it, in the public realm. Women should provide all the other needs of the family, laboring (although it was seldom seen as such) only within the house—a structure that during this period became known as the "home" and became identified primarily with women and their children.
Of particular relevance to Hawthorne's story, however, since its concerns are with transgression as much as catechism, is that in the last two decades historians have come to understand that the clear boundaries between male/female, public/private, and work/home were blurred—that these separate spheres, essential to constructions of the middle-class world and heretofore thought rigid barriers, more accurately should be seen as thresholds through which nineteenth-century Americans frequently passed. Moreover, historians have also confirmed that the 1830s was a critical decade of change. "Young Goodman Brown," probably written no earlier than the initial years of the decade and published anonymously in 1835, chronicles Hawthorne's observations about the anxieties caused by such discrepancies between ideology and behavior. Young Goodman Brown, who has come to believe with religious fervor what he has been taught prior to marriage about the separation of spheres, is disoriented by the behavioral expectations he confronts once he has entered that institution. The ideology of separate spheres was not transgressed, Hawthorne seems to suggest in "Young Goodman Brown," without some psychological and moral costs.
Michael Colacurcio has advised that readers look for the historical contexts of early Hawthorne stories in the opening paragraphs, and that is precisely where this reading will begin. It is here in the opening paragraphs that we are introduced to both a Puritan setting and another of what Shuffleton has called Hawthorne's contemporary "anchors." The story begins with an explicit presentation of issues of gender, sexuality, and intimacy, all of which take place in the doorway between public and private.
Young Goodman Brown came forth, at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown.
In this scene, we learn that the setting of the story is Salem village, the site of many mysterious activities in the minds of Hawthorne's contemporaries, and the time is sunset. The scene takes place in the doorway of the Browns' house, a threshold that both joins and separates not only private and public but, literally in this case, female and male. It is a threshold that both characters violate for reasons of intimacy, although she, as we see, is clearly the more intimate of the two. About the two characters we learn that the man is young, that he is embarking on a nighttime journey, and that, apparently, he is distracted or hurried, since he fails to kiss his wife before leaving the house. Of the woman, we learn that she is married to the young man, is named Faith, is pretty, and, although she modestly wears a cap over her hair, she has adorned it with pink ribbons.
The ambiguity in the description of Faith—is or is not her name a sign of her spirituality or faithfulness? is she modest or immodest?—will recur throughout the story, and this ambiguity is the cause of Brown's great sadness and the subject of much of the scholarship on the story. Here it is important to note that the ambiguity is repeated also in her not waiting for him to return to kiss her, in her thrusting her own head through the doorway and "letting" the breeze animate the ribbons with which she has dressed her cap. Not only is the "letting" ambiguous when combined with the thrusting, "letting" is an activity that itself raises questions about who is in control of the action. Having thrust her head through the doorway in order to give her husband his goodbye kiss, Faith whispers "softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear,"
"Dearest heart, . . . pr'y thee, put off your journey until sunrise, and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she's afeared of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!"
Surely Hawthorne means for us to think of this story as taking place in Puritan Massachusetts. Certain other factors, however—such as the threshold setting, the description of Faith, the couple's bad dreams, the implication that he has failed to sleep in his own bed on other occasions—suggest a more contemporary setting. John Demos [in Past, Present and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History, 1986] indicates that the early decades of the nineteenth century produced scads of literature on domestic life, and the "shrill tone of the new advice betrayed deep anxieties about the evolving shape and future prospects of the family." It is of course the Browns' prospects for the future about which they are most concerned. The family was changing in fundamental ways in Hawthorne's lifetime, and many New Englanders were writing and reading about the uncertainty they felt. That domestic literature was supplemented by sexual advice literature that portrayed men as sexually predatory and—a distinct difference from the Puritan construction—women as virtually passionless. Unlike the Puritan ethos, this same nineteenth-century advice literature also threatened disaster if abstinence were not the rule in all aspects of non-procreati ve sexuality. It is unlikely that Hawthorne was unaware of this new literature on domestic life and human sexuality, but at the very least his story betrays the same profound anxieties about contemporary family and sexual life.
Although much of Brown's anxiety later in the story involves traditional suspicions that women are especially sexual creatures, a failing of which men must beware, Faith herself may better fit an ideal of womanhood popular in the magazine literature of Hawthorne's time. According to Lois Banner [in American Beauty, 1983], Hawthorne "gave [this ideal] epic representation in the dovelike Hilda of The Marble Faun and the manipulated Priscilla of The Blithedale Romance" Such a woman was known as the "steel-engraving lady" both for the "process by which she was created" and her own "moral rectitude": "When her pictorial representation is colored, her complexion is white, with a blush of pink in her cheeks." Attending a gala New York City ball in 1822, James Fenimore Cooper encountered the real-life counterparts of this American ideal: "There is something in the bloom, delicacy, and innocence of one of these young things, that reminds you of the conceptions which poets and painters have taken of the angels.'" The ideal's delicacy and spirituality were important; later in the story, Brown will refer to Faith as a "'blessed angel on earth.'" Another characteristic of the ideal is her youth, which "underscored her purity and reflected both the nineteenth-century romanticization of childhood and its tendency to infantilize women, to view them as creatures of childlike disposition." [Banner]. Such characterizations of femininity contrast quite specifically with Puritan constructions of womanhood, which were based on Eve's seduction by the devil and her deception of Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps as the last in a series of efforts to keep Brown home this night, Faith pleads with her husband not only to stay home but to sleep with her. The young wife's desire for intimacy with her husband could not be more explicit. Brown's reply is no less direct:
"My love and my Faith, . . . of all nights in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee. My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise. What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married!"
In this passage Brown has deliberately conflated his wife's name with a belief system. Hawthorne's construction of Brown's speech in this manner, his association of religion with the role of wife, suggests both Puritan and contemporary possibilities. According to Edmund Morgan, for example [in The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England, rev. ed., 1966] Puritans feared that love of spouse could rival and interfere with love of Christ. On the other hand, in Hawthorne's lifetime women, thought to be morally superior to men, were entrusted with preparing children for Christian salvation. Nancy Cott argues that the evangelicals of the early decades "linked moral agency to female character with a supporting link to passionlessness" ["Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850," in A Heritage of Her Own, ed. Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck, 1979]. If Hawthorne's concerns are as much with contemporary as Puritan gender ideology, then having a wife named Faith seems an appropriate characteristic for his main character. However, except for Brown's distrust of Faith, it is at this point in Hawthorne's story that, although the setting seems Puritan and both periods sometimes confuse sex with "going to the devil," the gender relations begin to have more in common with nineteenth-century ideology and behavior than Puritan history.
In Brown's reply to Faith, there is an element of huffy self-importance, as if Brown were giving a prepared speech. Here we find an indication that the events of the forest are not entirely responsible for Brown's becoming a "darkly meditative, a distrustful" man; for all his youth and inexperience, Brown is already very serious, and this hyper-seriousness is part of his foolishness. In insisting that he must leave Faith this night, Brown misreads her sexual desire and fear of being alone as anxiety about his marital fidelity. Note the irony of Brown's question: he doesn't realize that it is a sexual life with her that he is running away from when he portrays himself to his young wife ("dost thou doubt me already") as a licentious stud who would take other lovers after only three months of marriage, a self-portrait that suggests nineteenth-century manhood.
In the nineteenth century, with many men away from the home for long periods of time, middle-class Americans needed a gender ideology that sanctified woman's isolation among her children. Whereas men had played important roles in the moral upbringing, education, and socialization of children in former periods, in the early nineteenth century such responsibilities all but evaporated for many middle-class men. At the same time, women's important role in the economic production that sustained the household of the eighteenth century was, at least in the discourse, eliminated. "Having required the bourgeois woman to be both elegant and nonproductive," and leaving her on her own with the children all day, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg asks [in "Domesticating 'Virtue': Coquettes and Revolutionaries in Young America," in Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons, edited by Elaine Scarry, 1988], "how could the bourgeois man ever trust her virtue or rest securely in the symbols of his class" (i.e., primarily, in his elegant woman and well-kept children)? What was to keep this consumer, rather than producer, of resources from straying—economically, sexually, morally, religiously? The solution was a socially redeemed image of womanhood: woman as Angel of the Home. Middie-class woman's sole province became the production of "home" life, where the values of the culture could be instilled into the items she produced, her children.
Yet Faith both conforms to and violates nineteenth-century ideology. Standing inside the doorway, she is pretty, modest, discreet, and her name suggests her spirituality and her devotion to her husband. At the same time, she is, within the terms of nineteenth-century ideology, aggressive in her sexuality. The reversal of the expected that we see Brown encounter on the threshold of his own home is probably not unprecedented. His language seems to suggest that marriage may have been a rude awakening for him. Brown's discovery of Faith's sexuality may have shattered his conception of the passivity and disinterest that women were supposed to demonstrate about sex, and this knowledge may have threatened the security of his home. The events that take place in the woods may be nothing more than his playing out of his anxious fantasies about Faith's sexuality and the ideology of separate spheres that he demonstrates in his speech and behavior at the entrance of his home.
The story's introduction, then, describes several threshold experiences, not just because it takes place in a doorway (although that too is important to our understanding of the action of the public/private discourse) but because it is this parting of Faith and Brown that defines their future intimacy. That is to say, from now on they will cross this threshold repeatedly. Intercourse is also physically and emotionally a threshold experience, and the act itself is suggested in the opening paragraphs where Faith and Brown repeatedly stick their heads in and out of a doorway graced by her pink ribbons. There is much about the physical act of sex—the orgasms, the levels of intensity, the sleeping in one's own bed—that involves thresholds, but so too does the emotional aspect, particularly the intimacy that may proceed from as well as contribute to the physical experience. Whatever we may think today, coition and orgasm were not the sine qua non of human sexuality in the nineteenth century; a wide range of intimate activities constituted sexuality. But notice also how those recurrent pink ribbons may have blurred Brown's whole notion of privacy, (woman's) purity, and the sanctity of the separate woman's sphere. Brown encounters these ribbons adorning the public world everywhere he goes: each time he sees Faith sticking her head out of the doorway, he notices them, and later one floats down out of the forest sky to convince him that " 'There is no good on earth'" and to the devil "'is this world given'."
What happens in the woods, then, is also part of this public/private borderland, only here Brown realizes that the divisions are grotesquely blurred, and the sexual theme significantly expands to include the issues of manhood and fatherhood—much to Goodman Brown's chagrin.
As we follow our new husband into the woods, we notice that the image of the threshold recurs when Brown looks back at Faith before turning the corner of the meetinghouse and, presumably, going out of her sight. Upon entering the woods, he finds that the "dreary road" he has chosen is "darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind." The trees seem to cut him off effectively from his life with Faith and from Salem village. He will soon pass a "crook" in the road, which will further isolate him. Or so it would seem. His only emotions at this point are his loneliness—the same emotion his wife is, presumably, experiencing—and his guilt. However, even this guilt and loneliness, we are told on two occasions, may be occurring in the midst of "an unseen multitude". Having left the private sphere for the public as the story begins, Brown now apparently enters another sphere in which the public and private have been completely blurred.
As for Brown's thoughts of his wife and his pangs, if any, about his mission, we read:
"Poor little Faith!" thought he, for his heart smote him. "What a wretch I am, to leave her on such an errand!. . . 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. But no, no! 'twould kill her to think it. Well; she's blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven."
Brown finds it impossible to believe that Faith could imagine her husband so immoral. As we soon learn, however, Faith not only can imagine Brown on such a mission, she herself takes part in one. More interesting, perhaps, is his conviction that later he will "cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." This vision suggests the strength of Brown's au courant identification of his wife as a morally superior "blessed angel." But modern too is Brown's figuring of his wife as a mother to whose skirts he can cling, an image that bears witness to the difficulty Brown has in differentiating love of mother from love of wife, a dilemma with which Hawthorne and his contemporaries were not unfamiliar.
Wife came to replace mother as the moral guardian and disciplinarian of a nineteenth-century, middle-class young man's family. The move from mother's home to wife's, from child's world to man's world should not, then, be all that difficult. Of course, in reality it is far from simple, particularly because the grown son must spend half his life away from mother-wife in the world of men for which his childhood in woman's sphere has not prepared him. Many young men must have found adult life frightening and confusing. T. Walter Herbert believes that Hawthorne did: "Nathaniel maintained a 'childlike' persona because his effort to become a 'man' was complicated by the difficulties of crossing the gap between the maternal/marital sphere and the world beyond" [Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family, 1993].
Faith has referred to what Brown is leaving home for as a "journey," but it is clear that he does not think of it as such. He first refers to what he is about to do as an "'errand'" and two sentences later as "'work.'" There is also no doubt that Brown is both fleeing Faith and setting out to "go to the devil," as he phrases his errand when talking about Goody Cloyse further on. What is it the devil can offer him that his Faith cannot? When Brown meets up with the devil, the gravely dressed man, mentioning the striking of the clock on Boston's Old South Church, reprimands Brown for being a "'full fifteen minutes'" late. In this reference to the clock, the "devil's work" becomes associated with contemporary work—labor of a modern, rational, time-ordered sort—and thus "going to the devil" carries the connotation of "men's business." Here also in this encounter we notice that the devil has been expecting Brown and knows him by name and appearance, as if the two had met before (and we are reminded of Faith's implication that this is not the first night she has spent alone). When to the devil's reprimand Brown replies, "'Faith kept me back a while,'" we realize that he knows the devil well enough to use his wife's first name with him and, further, that he believes the devil will accept the explanation that a woman was interfering with his ability to set to the "errand" or "work" that is to be done.
Brown's morality is Manichean, gendered, as is his religious sensibility, which is reminiscent of the Puritans and evangelicals. He has been catechized to believe in the ideology of separate spheres, and his faith brooks no blurring of them. Figuring the world of wife/mother/home as on the side of good, angels, and heaven, Brown constructs the world of men/father/non-home as siding with evil and the devil. Hence, we meet the devil in the shape of Brown's father and grandfather.
Brown's new traveling companion is described as being "about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features." So similar are their appearances that "they might have been taken for father and son"; indeed, Goody Cloyse later recognizes the similarity immediately. But Brown does not. Within the context of our present concerns, that lack of recognition can be understood as reflecting middle-class fathers' absence from the home. Middle-class mothers and children were not to cross the threshold of the father's soiled workplace (the disaster that could result when masculine space was invaded by the feminine is the subject of Hawthorne's "The Birthmark"), and so increasingly sons' experiences of what fathers did and who they were were limited to a few hours a day. Advice literature even urged that the son's sexual education be supervised by the mother.
Brown's failure to recognize his father and to see the world as anything other than devil's work might also be attributed to the devil-father's magical power: "the only thing about [the devil-father], that could be fixed upon as remarkable, was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself, like a living serpent." In Brown's immature sensibility, in his underdeveloped sense of fatherhood and manhood, the father has never escaped the expression of his mature sexuality, his erect and animated phallus. It is in Brown's mind the most significant feature about him, in fact the devil-father's only remarkable feature.
The devil-father wishes to speed the pace of their travels and taunts Brown, saying: " 'this is a dull pace for the beginning of a journey. Take my staff, if you are so soon weary'." Instead of accepting the challenge, Brown gives his companion his reasons for refusing to take up the staff: "'having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples, touching the matter thou wot'st of." That is to say, the son replies to the devil-father's taunt by challenging his moral authority by virtue of the "scruples" he learned in the woman's sphere to which he now would return.
In this passage we also learn why the appearance of the devil-father was not unexpected: the son had previously agreed to the rendezvous. It is nothing other than the sight and offering of that twisting, writhing, serpentine staff, then, that energizes the newlywed's scruples. As he has done more than once since he walked through the door of his home, young Goodman Brown hesitates, pauses, looks back. Even as he unconsciously walks on, urged forward by the devil-father, identified in all his "evil" sexuality as "he of the serpent," the son objects to proceeding any further; again he renounces his "friend's" paternal relationship to him, claiming that his "'father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him'." The devil-father, smilingly reassuring young Brown that he need not fear being " 'the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path'," confides that " 'I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans. . . . They were my good friends, both. . . . I would fain be friends with you, for their sake'." The devil-father comforts Brown by promising him that he is following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps (which of course he literally is in this scene); he is fulfilling an honorable paternal tradition, and the devil-father would befriend Brown so that the tradition of the fathers might be perpetuated. Of course, the foremost and essential tradition of the fathers of any multi-generational family is the continuity of past, present, and future achieved through the production of a family, through intercourse and sexual intimacy, through the literal blurring of many boundaries between the genders.
When the naive young man insists that none of the patriarchs of his family engaged in '"such wickedness'," all being men of prayer and good works, the devil-father replies that, wicked or not, such behavior is common among all the patriarchs of the colony. In the midst of going about his father's business, Brown next encounters, much to his surprise, a woman intruding upon their forest space; she is not just any woman, this Goody Cloyse, but Brown's religion teacher. Hiding out of her sight, Brown overhears an exchange between his traveling companion and his teacher which begins with the devil-father touching her neck with his staff and the old hag recognizing him as the devil " 'in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is'."
Despite the fact that someone has stolen her broomstick and the old woman must travel on foot, she is determined to get to the meeting because, she says, "'they tell me, there is a nice young man to be taken into communion tonight'." As he had once extended it to Brown, the devil-father now offers his staff to Goody Cloyse to aid her on her journey to the evening's assembly, and she disappears from sight.
Goody Cloyse's interest in things sexual is explicit in this encounter; this and her appearance in the woods break down the supposed barrier between male and female, public and private, work and home, husband and wife. Brown calls it a "'marvel' '' to find Cloyse in the woods at night, and the narrator points out that it was Cloyse "who had taught [Brown] his catechism, in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin." After witnessing her intimacy with the devil-father, Brown reiterates that '"[t]hat old woman taught me my catechism'." Hawthorne's narrator emphasizes that "there was a world of meaning in this simple comment." Hawthorne's association of women and ministers with the religious education and spiritual welfare of the community is another characteristic of this part of the story that is more reminiscent of nineteenth-century gender relations than those of the Puritan period. Goody Cloyse's reference to Brown as that "'silly fellow'" indicates some sense on her part, too, that much of his life Brown may have had trouble distinguishing belief from practice. Moreover, Goody Cloyse, in her references to " 'that silly fellow' '' and the " 'nice young man to be taken into communion to-night'," unwittingly has confused two aspects of Brown's identity: as child/innocent and as man/sexual creature.
As the devil-father and Brown proceed through the forest, the older man breaks off a branch of maple limb and fashions yet another walking staff. When Brown once again refuses to go any further, the devil-father suggests that he rest for a while and, before disappearing, throws the young man his staff. Brown then thinks he hears in the forest the voices of his spiritual patriarchs, his minister and Deacon Gookin, conversing about tonight's meeting. When one of them also stops to "pluck a switch," Brown overhears Deacon Gookin saying that he is looking forward to the impending ceremony, where they will find '"a goodly young woman to be taken into communion'." Shaken, Brown cannot decide whether or not what he is witnessing is real. His doubt is so great that, looking up into the night sky, he cannot make up his mind whether "there really was a Heaven above him."
Brown's belief system, his moral certainty, dependent as it seems to be on the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres with which he has been catechized, is quickly shattering in the heavily peopled forest. The voices of additional fellow townspeople fall on his ears, and it is obvious that all are hurrying to a late-night rendezvous. In the heart of this commotion, Brown hears "one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain" and for which the townspeople "both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward." Brown immediately recognizes the woman's voice as Faith's. But how much more ambiguous could Faith's voice be? She both is and is not a sexual creature in this description of her cries. She both is and is not present. Faith's disembodied voice, as well as Goody Cloyse's ability to fly, to travel effortlessly, without labor, may speak to the nature of Brown's gender fantasy. One recent scholar has suggested about the ideology of separate spheres that as it "engenders and demarcates the spaces of work and personal (as opposed to working) life, both labor and women are divested of their corporeality, defined as different rather than extensive with the body" [Gillian Brown, Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America, 1990]. Brown screams Faith's name out into the night, only to have the forest mockingly echo his "cry of grief, rage, and terror." Brown should indeed be terrorized by this experience, for he has built his entire belief system on the moral rectitude of his mother and wife—and on their rightful place nowhere but in the home.
Surely, Goody Cloyse and his Faith have no business in this forest of moral uncertainties. Brown listens in silence for a response to his cries, only to hear "a scream, drowned immediately in a loud murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept" by. Something substantial floats down out of the sky, filled as it is with insubstantial voices, and Brown snatches it off of a tree limb. It is one of Faith's pink ribbons. Just as the serpentine staff is Hawthorne's synecdoche for the sexual potential of the father, this pink ribbon is, as earlier implied, his synecdoche for the sexuality of Faith. Brown cries out, '"My Faith is gone!' '' It is usually argued that with this outburst, Brown proclaims his lost religious belief, but much more has been lost: his wife Faith is also literally gone; if she is present in the forest, then she cannot, according to his belief system, be who he thought her to be.
Now Brown takes up the devil-father's staff and hurries to the communion. Along the way he encounters a forest "peopled with frightful sounds." And soon the scariest noisemaker in the forest is he: "all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown." Now deep in the heart of the forest, where no trail remains, Brown encounters "a numerous congregation . . . peopling the heart of the solitary woods." In fact, much of the adult population of Salem village has crowded into this space, both the "grave, reputable, and pious people" and "men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes." Most telling is the narrator's comment that it "was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints." Here in the forest private and public spheres blur into one another; or, perhaps, the difference between public and private is nowhere as certain as Brown once thought it was.
As Goodman Brown feels himself called forth with the rest of the converts, he "could have well-nigh sworn, that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance." Indeed, he meets his spiritual fathers when his village "minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms, and led him to the blazing rock" to be initiated. But this "community of men, as we have seen, includes both men and women. Even his mother seems to appear, if only, in keeping with her role as angel of the home, to throw "out her hand to warn him back." The master of ceremonies, a kind of devil-preacher, then invites his "children" to turn around and see "'all whom ye have reverenced from youth' '' for their "'righteousness, and prayerful aspirations'." This night of their conversion, the children will learn of their spiritual leaders' "'secret deeds'":
how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones!—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant's funeral.
These deeds are, broadly speaking, crimes of human sexuality. Clearly Brown's devil-preacher associates sin with sexuality.
The promised knowledge of the secret deeds will give the converts the ability to determine
"all the places—whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and [they] shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot. Far more than this! It shall be [theirs] to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power . . . can make manifest in deeds."
The language of human sexuality is omnipresent: "one mighty blood-spot," "penetrate," "bosom," "fountain," and "deep mystery." Notice also the language of unification, of the "communion of [the] race," and the way in which the devil-preacher contradicts Brown's belief in separate spheres, especially his belief that only certain wicked people, usually men, have "evil" sexual longings.
When Brown is finally face to face with his wife, just as the "Shape of Evil" prepares "to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin," he looks at his Faith and realizes what "polluted wretches would the next glance" mutually reveal them to be. He cries out to his wife to forego this baptism into adult sexuality and to '"[l]ook up to heaven, and resist the Wicked One'." Brown actually reverses roles here, now imagining himself leading Faith up to heaven. But it is all too late. The entire forest scene, including his wife, vanishes. He is alone because he has refused to acknowledge his wife's sexuality in this threshold experience, just as he had refused it in the doorway of his home. He has rejected the blurring of separate spheres that is the reality of adult life. Once peopled with an invisible multitude, the forest around him now is calm and quiet.
The reader is unsure what has happened to Brown, but Brown himself is quite certain that in his last words to Faith in the forest, he has resisted the devil; every inhabitant of Salem village he had formerly trusted, however, is in league with the devil or, at the very least, has secret sins of which each should be ashamed. Brown is quite right, of course, but his very lack of sin is a crime. He returns to a community in which the blurring of the separate spheres is for the first time apparent to him, and he rejects it nonetheless. Deacon Gookin is inside his home now, but his words can be heard coming through his open window. Goody Cloyse, "that excellent old Christian," stands outside her house at the latticed gate "catechising a little girl." Brown's reaction—he snatches away the "child, as from the grasp of the fiend himself"—acknowledges his fears that the little girl could be deceived as he was—not by Goody Cloyse's catechizing, because Brown still believes in what he was taught, but by the old woman's failure to live what she preached. Approaching his home, he sees "the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him, that she skipt along the street, and almost kissed her husband before the whole village." But whatever attractions Brown had to human sexuality when he left the village—as, for example, when he turned back to kiss his wife in the doorway—are now banished by the events he witnessed in the forest. So convinced is he of her sinfulness that "Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting."
Goodman Brown becomes a "stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man . . . from the night of that fearful dream." Whatever huffiness and silliness Brown possessed before leaving home has been tragically transformed by his forest refusal to recognize the blurring of spheres. Brown has "a goodly procession" of children and grandchildren, but clearly there was little joy in those sexual experiences. The initiative was seldom his it seems: "Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith." And when he dies, "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."
When we penetrate the oedipal and sexual anxieties of Hawthorne's early fiction, we tend to divorce them from the historical, and when we unearth the stories' historical concerns, we tend to separate them from the psychosexual and from Hawthorne's immediate social environment. In "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne was not only asking his readers to imagine the synthesis of the historical and the psychosexual; he was investigating for them the relationship between Puritan anxieties about faith, morality, sexuality, and gender and his contemporaries' and his own anxieties about those subjects. A renewed interest during the 1830s in the Puritan experience and what it could offer the present probably led Hawthorne to believe that his ancestral line and his own research into Puritan history uniquely qualified him to contribute to the discourse that sought to construct a bridge between past and present New England.
In addition to recognizing Hawthorne's examination of the nexus of Puritan and contemporary experience in "Young Goodman Brown," we must also consider the importance of contemporary gender issues. Nina Baym has argued [in "Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist," in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Fritz Fleischmann, 1982] that a sophisticated feminist criticism of Hawthorne's work "would be based on the presumption that the question of women is the determining motive in Hawthorne's works, driving [his female characters] as it drives Hawthorne's male characters." Recent works by T. Walter Herbert and Gillian Brown have, while throwing men into the equation, largely heeded this call. But when scholars turn their attention to issues of gender as well as other nineteenth-century contexts in Hawthorne, they tend to focus on the later works. This virtual neglect of the early material is repeated by David Leverenz, Joel Pfister, Richard H. Millington, and the above critics in their recent books focusing on Hawthorne as an observer of contemporary middle-class culture [Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance; Pfister, The Production of Personal Life; and Millington, Practicing Romance: Narrative Form and Cultural Engagement in Hawthorne's Fiction]. It appears, then, that adequately to give Hawthorne his due, we must focus on the whole question of gender—both masculine and feminine—in all of his works—early and late. Such a masterful critic of human nature deserves no less than a fully comprehensive view.
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