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Young Goodman Brown

(American History Through Literature)

Young Goodman Brown, his Wife Faith, and All the Other Prospective Converts are Brought Before the Devil Figure. Illustration from the autograph edition of the Complete Writings of Hawthorne, 1900. GRADUATE LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN "Young Goodman Brown, his Wife Faith, and All the Other Prospective Converts are Brought Before the Devil Figure." Published by Gale Cengage GRADUATE LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

Among the earliest works of the short story genre, "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) is also among the most brilliant. Few can match it in its dramatic appeal, linguistic precision and economy, irony, philosophical depth, or controlled ambiguity. It has lent itself to widely and wildly different interpretations, ranging from being regarded as a Puritan parable to an attack on Puritanism, and from affirming the presence of incarnate evil in the world in the form of the devil and witches, to treating evil merely as a matter of perception. Drawn to the story by its complexity and the demands it places on careful reading, scholarship has made considerable headway in reconstructing its intellectual background and the relationship of the author's biography to it, and in identifying and charting its subtle patterns of structure and effects. As a result, although like any other literary classic it may never be definitively explicated, its area of productive literary interpretation has been considerably narrowed but deepened. Generations of scholars have approached a consensus that in addition to being attracted to, and knowledgeable about, the history of Puritan New England, Hawthorne was a serious student of the psychology of not just the Puritan but also the religious mind. In the final analysis, "Young Goodman Brown" is not only about the Puritans, nor is it only an analysis of what a member of a seventeenth-century American Protestant sect believed and how he acted; it also transcends the particulars of time and place and is a universally valid study of how belief, and especially certitude of belief, can affect the human mind.

Because of the story's ambiguity, even a summary of its plot is not a simple matter, and for that reason plot summary is likely to reveal as little about the true power of the story as a plot summary of Hamlet would of the play. At all levels, the story is highly dramatic and gripping, but readers who take the story line literally find its gloom upsetting and may be moved by it to see Hawthorne as a critic of the evils of society and to conclude that the world that they know is more sinister than they thought. This view, however, would invert the story and mistake the vehicle for the contents it carries. The power and appeal of the story are enhanced by scholarship that demonstrates that the plot is deceptive and the underlying conflicts much more complex and even more compelling than the surface narrative.

TECHNIQUES AND THEMES

Although written relatively early in Hawthorne's career, the story nevertheless contains some of his most characteristic themes and techniques. Had it not appeared six years before Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" (1841), it might have been regarded as a counter or antidote to the radical individualism that essay preaches. Whereas Emerson tends to see things in black and white and as either/or issues, Hawthorne's tale eloquently depicts how inaccurate perception can be and how often ambiguity attends reality or illusion cloaks it and, therefore, how recognition of these complications should discourage simplistic judgments. In the forest with his companion, for instance, Brown is shaken by the revelation that the Puritan community and his own family are not as perfectly virtuous as they seem, and he precipitously leaps to the extravagant conclusion that they are totally wicked.

Technically, the tale is highly sophisticated. The story is told, for example, by an omniscient but unobtrusivelmost to the point of effacementarrator who, with few but important exceptions, is restricted to the limited functions of narrating the plot and channeling the protagonist 's thoughts. The protagonist seems to be a good young man with whom it is easy to identify. Readers are therefore inclined to sympathize...

(The entire section is 3,891 words.)