Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of those rare writers who drew great critical acclaim during his own lifetime. To his contemporaries—Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville—as well as to the next generation of writers, Hawthorne was a genius. Poe said in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales that Hawthorne has “the purest style, the finest taste, the most available scholarship, the most delicate humor, the most touching pathos, the most radiant imagination.” Hawthorne’s work, consisting of over 50 stories and sketches as well as such classic novels as The Scarlet Letter, continued to draw attention after his death and experienced a particular resurgence of interest after World War I. His writings attract readers not only for their storytelling qualities, but also for the moral and theological ambiguities Hawthorne presents so well.
The Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges and the eminent American scholar Harold Bloom both agree that Hawthorne’s shorter works are his best. Foremost among his stories in popular appeal and critical respect is “Young Goodman Brown,” which tells the story of a young Puritan drawn into a covenant with the Devil, despite his attempts to resist. In the course of one evening, Brown’s illusions of the godliness of his society are shattered as he discovers that his fellow townspeople, including religious leaders and his wife, are attending a Black Mass. At the end of the story, Brown is left to wonder whether his vision was, in fact, a dream. Yet the delineation between the imaginary and the real does not matter, because the mere ability to see such evil in his loved ones destines Brown thereafter to a life of desperate gloominess. The prose is powerful, prompting Melville, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales to delight in this “strong positive illustration of that blackness in Hawthorne.”
“Young Goodman Brown” has been analyzed through many lenses, including the psychological, historical, sociological, theological, and semantic. Critics still disagree over fundamental questions such as whether Brown is a victim or has only himself to blame for what befalls him. One feature that does stand out in the work is the accurate portrayal of Puritan society. Hawthorne clearly understands the demands of the Puritan faith, and it is no surprise to find that he has a legitimate claim to this heritage—among his ancestors number a constable who “lashed [a] Quaker woman so smartly” and a military officer who engaged in the destruction of an Indian village. Hawthorne also includes in his story the characters of Goody Cloyse, who taught Brown catechism, Martha Carrier, who had been promised to be “the queen of hell,” and Goody Cory, all of whom were real people accused of sorcery during the Salem Witch Trials. Deacon Gookin also figures in Puritan history, as does, of course, Salem village. Such details challenge the reader to analyze Hawthorne’s intentions: is he trying to influence us through his use of history to believe that Brown was not dreaming? Is he trying to cast doubt on historical figures and thus show that no one is beyond suspicion? Whatever the answers may be, Hawthorne effectively places us in the story, illustrating the social milieu which produced the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Though “Young Goodman Brown” is sharply steeped in Puritan history and culture, like all great works of literature it can be viewed on a more universal level as well. “Young Goodman Brown” takes the form of an allegory, which uses certain elements of a story (characters, plot, etc.), or the entire story itself to symbolize something else. Brown represents Everyman (“Goodman” was a title for those who were beneath the social rank of “gentleman”), while Faith, his wife, represents his religious devotion. In leaving Faith, Brown forsakes his belief in the godliness of humanity. He immediately enters into a wood “lonely as could be,” which is enshrouded in “deep dusk … deepest in the part” through which Brown walks. These woods are the physical location in which he will explore his doubts and conflicting desires. That he feels ambivalent about forging an alliance with the Devil is clear from his first entry into the forest, when he tells his companion that”Faith kept me back awhile.” Yet though he pledges to return to Faith—or to his belief in humankind—several times, he continues his journey toward the Black Mass, which symbolizes his descent into Hell. Whereas many times a predominantly allegorical story fails in other areas—characterization, plot, or simply engaging the reader—Hawthorne succeeds at this double task remarkably.
Not all critics and readers approve of use of the allegorical. Poe, for instance, avows in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales that “In defense of allegory … there is scarcely any respectable word to be said.” Other critics see a purely allegorical reading of the story as far too narrow, and so have used it as a foundation upon which to construct other interpretations. Some psychological allegorists see the story as an example of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the struggle between the ego, superego, and id. The id, which acts on one’s instinctive desires, is represented by Brown’s desire to submit to the evil of the Black Mass. His conflicts arise from his superego, or conscience, which wants no part of the night’s events. The superego, created by the strict Puritan society, is represented by the town and its people. Brown’s indecision characterizes the attempts of the superego to keep the ego, or Brown himself, from going along with the desires of the id. In a Freudian psychological reading such as this, Brown’s journey through the forest is seen as a sexual adventure that ends with the revealing of sexual knowledge when the Devil shares the “mystery of sin” with his congregation.
Still other critics read the story as Hawthorne’s attack on the unredemptive nature of Calvinism, a system of beliefs which emphasizes the power of the Devil, the innate depravity of humans, and predestination—being chosen before birth to enter heaven after death. Such a reading can be supported by Brown’s words, early in the story, that”after this one night I’ll cling to [Faith’s] skirts and follow her to heaven.” Brown believes Faith is an “angel”— one of those selected for heaven. Though Brown rejects final acceptance of the Devil’s proclamation that”Evil is the nature of mankind,” after the Black Mass he only sees the capability of evil in those who surround him, and thus he endures his life under the hand of the Devil anyway. Critics who offer such readings, however, may be equating Hawthorne, the author, with Hawthorne, the descendant of Puritans who assumed the guilt of his witch-hunting ancestors. Author Henry James wrote that “Young Goodman Brown,” “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.”
Though it may be tempting to look upon the story as a simple “tale,” it is without a doubt a difficult one from which to draw conclusions. The ambiguous nature of the story is apparent throughout. For example, in the seeming appearance of Brown’s dead father beckoning him to attend the Black Mass “while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?” One of the more alarming uncertainties, however, lies in the character of Faith. From the very beginning, Faith’s “faith” is called into question—she wears pink hair ribbons, perhaps a sign of frivolity. More important, though, is the suggestion that Faith herself has also agreed to a covenant with the Devil. She asks Brown not to leave that evening, for she is filled with “such thoughts that she’s afeared of herself sometimes.” Yet her voice is sad, as if she has resigned herself to accepting the evil to come. In the end, Brown never knows if Faith also rejects the Devil.
Brown, himself, is an in constant character. He begins as a naive young man believing in his own free will to turn back on his sinful promise. His increasing struggles to resist evil show his development as a man. For example, at one point Brown challenges his companion, the Devil, for “any reason that I should quit my dear Faith.” But when he has reaffirmed his decision to “stand firm against the Devil!” he discovers that Faith is on her way to the Black Mass. Suddenly, finding “There is no good on earth,” Brown turns into a personification of the Devil. Brandishing the Devil’s own staff, he rushes through the forest, blaspheming; and against the fearful backdrop of wild beasts and Indians (the antithesis of civilized Puritan society), he becomes “himself the chief horror of the scene.”
Hawthorne adds ambiguity to the story with his suggestion “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” It is tempting to answer yes since Hawthorne suggests throughout the story that dreams can foreshadow events. Brown realizes that Faith spoke “as if a dream warned her what work is to be done tonight.” Her speech at his leave-taking— “A lone woman is troubled with dreams”—implies, instead, that they may have been having a shared dream as both prepare to embark on the same journey. Certainly, Brown’s understanding of his experiences can be filtered through the lens of a dream/nightmare—in the dark, gloomy forest, in voices so indistinct”he doubted he heard aught but the murmur of the old forest,” and in the Devil’s congregation that “alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow.”
Yet for Brown whether or not his experiences belong to a dream does not matter, because “a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become.” Although Brown did “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one,” he has lost his faith as completely as if he had indeed given himself to the Devil. In church, he cannot listen to the psalms “because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear”; while listening to a sermon he fears “the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers”; he even “shrank from the bosom of Faith”—yet he never knows if evil actually exists in these places. Though Brown succeeds in his rejection of the Devil in physical form—that of the dark figure leading the Black Mass—he allows sin to reside within him when he rejects his belief in humanity. Therefore, Brown comes to represent Hawthorne’s belief in the isolation of the human spirit; Hawthorne acknowledged that every human being is alone “in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 1997.
Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997