Why does the author leave it unclear whether Goodman Brown's experience in "Young Goodman Brown" is a dream or reality? Does it matter?

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Early nineteenth-century writers were preoccupied with examining unusual mental states, the power of imagination, and the borderline between illusion and reality. The literary preoccupation with these concepts was symbiotic with developments in philosophy. Beginning especially with the works of Immanuel Kant, and his successor (in some sense) Arthur Schopenhauer, philosophers believed the external world, as we perceive it, is basically a projection of our minds, different from actual, unmediated reality, or the "thing in itself" as Kant referred to it.

Hawthorne is part of this literary trend that sees the outside world as what could be an illusion, or sees the power of the human mind as such that it can create its own reality. His stories generally possess a dreamlike quality even when there is no explicit mention of the supernatural. What is important in "Young Goodman Brown" is the moral concept behind the story; the unanswerable question of literal reality versus dreams or hallucinations is the mechanism by which Hawthorne expresses this theme.

In some way this is true of anything in the gothic or horror genre or in science fiction. The author is not expecting the reader, in any event, to believe this is a transcript of something that actually happened, so whether the supernatural element is real or imaginary is not the point.

It's also highly unlikely that Hawthorne himself believed in visitations by the devil, or in a literal devil at all. Much of his fiction is a reinterpretation of the beliefs of the early New Englanders in the 1600s. What was literal to them, Hawthorne appears to say, is (or should be) symbolic to us. The Puritan leaders believed in the existence, for instance, of witches, and a kind of mass hysteria caused people to see things that didn't exist.

The mysterious stranger whom Brown goes out deliberately to meet represents the perverse wish of some people to turn their backs on those things that are positive and rewarding in life. Brown's wife (named Faith, with quite obvious symbolism) urges him to stay, but he inexplicably goes out to the forest and, in effect, destroys his own life. His nocturnal vision leads him to focus on and to believe in the worst of human nature as the norm which overrides everything of value.

Whether people in general do this because of a figurative demon within themselves or because of a literal one on the outside does not matter, Hawthorne's point seems to be. The result is the same: misjudgment, false judgment, and self-destruction. In addition, purely from a literary standpoint, works such as "Young Goodman Brown" are more interesting, more compelling, when capable of multiple interpretations.

Apart from the illusion versus reality "mechanism," which is central to Hawthorne's work, we find him posing the question of how much in human life is caused by God or fate, how much is the result purely of human intentions and misdeeds, and how much is due to pure chance. Goodman Brown's excursion functions like the catastrophes in "The Ambitious Guest," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "Lady Eleonore's Mantle." As with anything in life, humanity can only guess at what the ultimate cause of misfortune is.

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Hawthorne's narrator does clearly note in the story that it is uncertain whether Young Goodman Brown had a dream or not:

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

The speaker continues to sow doubt, saying,

Be it [a dream] so, if you will. But, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become . . .

To me, it does not matter much if Goodman Brown experienced a dream or reality, because, whichever it was, he believed the truth he thought he saw: that people are secretly evil, behind their outward facades of goodness.

In a time before Freudianism, this story shows a young man maturing from innocence into the insight that all people have a darker side. Today, we might believe that we all repress darker instincts that come out of our id but can't be expressed if we want to get along in civilized society. It is simply a part of being human. It is unfortunate that Goodman Brown was so disillusioned by his experience and had no one to talk to about it.

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It does matter that Hawthorne leaves it in ambiguity. Hawthorne leaves it up to the reader to decide. Let’s say it was real. Brown went into the woods and learned that all those he thought were pious and religiously devout were actually hypocrites: as full of sin as anyone. It was like a nightmare. It completely changed the way he looked at his community. This changed his outlook on faith and life.

Let’s say he dreamt this. It was such a powerful dream that it changed the way he thought about the world. The dream introduced doubt that he never before considered. A dream is an abstract thought process. Although it occurred at night, it could have been more like a daydream: a more consciously directed conception of things. If this dream, daydream or serious contemplation was powerful enough, it could also change the way Brown thinks about the world and thereby, the way he acts in the world.

Either scenario works. One is an actual physical experience that changes him. The other is a mental realization. Brown’s problem is that he cannot reconcile the fact that good people are fallible. He also cannot forgive the ultra-religious for being so hypocritical. So, he’s being unreasonable but also astute in his observation of those who preach but do not practice.

In either case, Brown has metaphorically and then literally lost his faith. The obvious pun is on his wife’s name. In losing his faith, by dream or reality or thought, he loses his trust and connection with others. This includes Faith.

Brown cannot accept the good/bad duality of human nature. Thematically or formalistically, this story also has an inescapable duality. We don’t know if it is a dream or if it is real. Potentially, it could be both. The story itself is an inescapable duality.

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