Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hawthorne renders Brown’s deterioration plausible by a blend of means, one of them being his surprising ability to adapt to his purposes a fictional mode seemingly much better suited to the purposes of medieval and Renaissance authors than those of nineteenth century novelists. Normally, allegory is sharp and clear as far as it goes, the limits of its applicability plain. Hawthorne’s story portrays the traditional Christian conviction that when a good man forsakes his Faith, he is liable to Hell. When the Devil taxes Brown with being late for his appointment in the forest, his answer, “Faith kept me back a while,” is as purely allegorical as it can be.

Hawthorne, however, goes on to complicate this idea. Not only are presumably pious people—guardians of the faith such as the minister and deacon—on the way to a satanic communion, but also the character who symbolizes faith. It may not be noticed at the beginning that Brown seems more protective of Faith than she of him. It may even pass unnoticed that Brown identifies Faith by her pink ribbon, a very fragile and decorative artifact for a character representing such a presumably powerful virtue. At the climax of the story, however, for the good man to counsel faith, rather than the opposite, is an incongruity that can hardly be missed. Then Hawthorne has them separated in a way that casts doubt on whether she, and indeed the whole diabolical crowd, were ever there. Brown was certainly there, but whether he has dreamed all or part of the night’s events cannot be determined conclusively. Finally, he is reunited with her again for the duration of his life, but unhappily, his only alternative to full-scale evil is a life of gloom and misanthropy. However, the story offers nothing more effective than faith to combat moral debasement.

Unlike the authors of the medieval morality plays, Edmund Spenser, John Bunyan, and other moral allegorists, Hawthorne employed allegory not to demonstrate a moral proposition or the effects of accepting or rejecting the proposition but to establish a moral context in which good and evil deeds remain identifiable while their causes, effects, and interrelationships become mysterious and problematic. To abandon faith is still evil; to rejoin faith is not so obviously good. The sins remain the traditional ones: lust, murder, worshiping false gods. No one, however, seems to remember how to live cleanly and charitably.

Hawthorne accentuates the ambiguity of his allegory by frequent use of such expressions as “perhaps,” “as if,” “seemed,” “as it were,” “some affirm that,” and “he could have well-nigh sworn.” Thus hedged about, the full meaning of his story is as shadowy as his forest. In addition, he poses a number of unanswered and often unanswerable questions, such as whether Brown had somehow dreamed his lurid adventure.

Such techniques suggest that while Hawthorne delighted in posing moral questions and examining the moral content of human behavior, his main interest here, and in his fiction generally, was plumbing the psychology of the moral life. Looking back on the Calvinist heritage, he wrote of the pressures it exerted on the psyches of believers. He was no amateur theologian but rather an artist. He does not say what Young Goodman Brown should have done or indeed whether he could have done other than what he did; rather, the author portrays a condition that is felt to be intolerable and yet irremediable.