Reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne
’s “Young Goodman Brown.”
“Young Goodman Brown” is significantly set in Salem only a few generations after the infamous witch trials. This historical context is important to the point that Nathaniel Hawthorne makes with this story. “Young Goodman Brown” could be perceived as a horror story without this context. The emphasis on blurry, shifting images and constantly changing symbols (with some religious meaning attached to them) is similar to the way that H.P. Lovecraft assembled his stories. Hawthorne’s personal feelings about his family’s involvement in the witch trials probably influence the ambiguousness of the storytelling.
The story begins with Goodman Brown embarking on a mysterious journey against the wishes of his wife. It is not coincidental that her name is Faith as Hawthorne plays on both the word and concept throughout the story. Before he departs Goodman Brown tells her to “say her prayers” and “no harm will come to thee.” This statement is a summary of his feelings about his own faith as well. On his journey into the woods he will meet the devil and he is confident that his faith (both the person and his own convictions) will emerge intact from the other side. His exchange with his wife is symbolically important because it lays the foundations of his fundamental dilemma.
He believes absolutely in his faith because nothing in his world has ever contradicted it. He naively believes that he will meet with the devil and remain untouched by his influence. Goodman Brown outlines this in his own thoughts about Faith (in both the literal and figurative senses) when he thinks that this journey will only take a single night. Afterward, no matter the outcome, he will “cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.” This statement later proves to be very ironic because when Goodman Brown returns the next day his faith in Faith has disappeared despite all of his internal self-assurances. He doesn’t cling to her or his own faith at all. Though he doubts the reality of the events that transpire in the woods his uncertainty overcomes him. He cannot prove irrefutably that Faith did not participate in the ritual so he abandons his faith in her and the rest of the community.
More irony comes from Goodman Brown’s conversation with the old man. He initially clings to his perceived purity of lineage and claims that neither his father or grandfather had deviated from the Puritanical path. The old man points out that not only were his ancestors acquainted with the deviant path but “well acquainted” with the devil on a personal level. The irony in this passage comes from the devil assisting Goodman Brown’s ancestors in the persecution of Quakers and Indians. The devil graphically details the assistance he’s rendered in acts of cruelty and violence committed in the cause of Christianity. The devil completely destroys the concept of Goodman Brown’s lineage among “a race of honest men and good Christians” with little more than a casual story about aiding them in the destruction of Indian villages and lashing Quaker women. This serves as more proof of the weak and faulty origins of Goodman Brown’s faith.
An interesting side note to the meeting of these two men comes from their meeting with Goody Cloyse who in turn identifies the old man as the devil and as the elder Goodman Brown. The shifting identity of the old man adds another layer of spectral surrealism to the story and serves to increase Goodman Brown’s confusion and distrust. This exchange also serves to highlight the ambiguity of piety and good within the village. The definition of good and evil are relative and shift within different contexts in Hawthorne’s world. Young Goodman Brown is unable to perceive these shifts and refuses to see the world as anything other than sharp contrasts and binary oppositions between absolute good and absolute evil.
The old man’s staff is also symbolically important for several reasons. The staff bears a “likeness of a great black snake” alluding to the snake in the Garden of Eden. This symbol is appropriate because it parallels Goodman Brown’s journey towards disillusionment and an end to innocence. The old man repeated offers his staff as assistance to Goodman Brown when he begins to doubt his ability to finish the journey. The old man doesn’t explicitly state that acceptance of the staff would bind Goodman Brown to finish the journey. The continual offer to make his journey easier instead draws an inference to the serpent’s offer in the Garden of Eden to gain infinite knowledge by eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The eventual result of Goodman Brown’s acceptance of the staff is similar. Adam and Eve were ejected from their comfortable and seemingly permanent home in Paradise after eating the apple. Goodman Brown is exiled (albeit by his own inability to reconcile the differences between his idealized Salem and the reality that remains unchanged in the physical world) from his comfortable known world and into a world of doubt and despair.
Goodman Brown returns to town filled with doubt about his neighbors and more importantly about his faith. Although nothing about Salem has changed Goodman Brown’s perceptions are changed forever. He has lost his faith entirely refusing to trust anyone because he cannot prove that they didn’t take place in the ritual in the forest. This is the final and most penetrating irony. He returns to his life in Salem village and tenaciously holds onto his belief that the other inhabitants of his village are unredeemable. He retreats into his own inverse of faith and refuses to have faith in anyone else.
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