The Style of Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown
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- Length: 3380 words (9.7 double-spaced pages)
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Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty and E. Hudson Long in “The Social Criticism of a Public Man” state: “Beyond his remarkable sense of the past, which gives a genuine ring to the historical reconstructions, beyond his precise and simple style, which is in the great tradition of familiar narrative, the principal appeal of his work is in the quality of its allegory” (49). The style found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” contains the features quoted in the above passage, as well as many others – which will be discussed in this essay.
The “precise” style mentioned by Bradley above may be the “detailed” style stated by Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography”; she says: “In his journal – a kind of artist’s sketchbook – he recorded twenty-five thousand words describing people and places in detail” based on two brief visits (18). The author’s attention to detail may be the reason that every word seems to be meaningful in his sentences. Can you discard any words from the opening sentence without sacrificing some meaning: “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.”
The reader can notice right away that Hawthorne writes in a well-read and cultivated style, avoiding the use of profanity, vulgar language, or words offensive to the ear. Consider his precise word selection from an enormous vocabulary:
They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path, discoursing so aptly, that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor, than to be suggested by himself. As they went, he plucked a branch of maple, to serve for a walking-stick, and began to strip it of the twigs and little boughs, which were wet with evening dew
Even the most emotional outburst in the entire story does not contain any language remotely displeasing or uncultivated: "’Ha! ha! ha!’ roared Goodman Brown, when the wind laughed at him. "Let us hear which will laugh loudest! Think not to frighten me with your deviltry! Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powow, come devil himself! and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you!’"
Though he has obviously read widely, where are the references to the works Hawthorne has enjoyed? It is a feature of his style in “Young Goodman Brown” that he does not allude to a single author or literary work. It would be so easy for him, as well read as he is, to do so, and yet he restrains himself – for whatever literary reason.
Hawthorne’s style in this tale is imaginative. A. N. Kaul says: “It is true that often he deliberately, even perversely, shrouds his narratives in a sort of nameless, dateless archaism, and delights too in calling up figures that seem to belong anywhere but in the real world (1). . . Hawthorne lacked the realism with which the novel was coming to be increasingly identified” (5). Consider his description of the second traveller and his staff:
As nearly as could be discerned, the second traveller was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still, they might have been taken for father and son. And yet, though the elder person was as simply clad as the younger, and as simple in manner too, he had an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and would not have felt abashed at the governor's dinner-table, or in King William's court, were it possible that his affairs should call him thither. But the only thing about him, that could be fixed upon as remarkable, was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.
The powerful poetic imagination behind that description! Charles Feidelson, Jr. in “Hawthorne as Symbolist” states: “Perhaps his [Hawthorne’s] books are to claim an aesthetic reality; perhaps they merely constitute an “unreal” opposite of the physical world; perhaps they must take refuge in a noncommittal parallelism between Imagination and Actuality” (70).
Next, the author employs both “show” and “tell” styles. Abrams distinguishes between the showing approach and the telling approach. In “Young Goodman Brown” about half of the time the reader is left to infer from the talking and acting just what the motives and dispositions are that lie behind the words and actions of the characters (33). It can thus be said that the author uses the showing and telling techniques about equally. An example of the showing technique alternating with the telling technique follows:
“And now, my children, look upon each other."
They did so; and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.
"Lo! there ye stand, my children," said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad, with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. "Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream! Now are ye undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again, my children, to the communion of your race!"
Consider his observation of the magic ride of Goody in the following passage, wherein the narrator uses the “tell” style:
So saying, he threw it down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life, being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to Egyptian Magi. Of this fact, however, Goodman Brown could not take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and looking down again, beheld neither Goody Cloyse nor the serpentine staff, but his fellow-traveller alone, who waited for him as calmly as if nothing had happened.
At the outset of the story, when the author wishes the reader to feel the love between Goodman and his wife, he uses a warm style:
"Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, "pr'ythee, put off your journey until sunrise, and sleep in your own bed tonight. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she's afeard of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!"
"My love and my Faith," replied young Goodman Brown, "of all nights in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee. My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise. What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married!"
Consider the author’s use of warm, loving language like: “dearest heart,” “whispered,” “softly,” “lips close to his ear,” etc.
Edmund Fuller and B. Jo Kinnick in “Stories Derived from New England Living” state: “Hawthorne’s unique gift was for the creation of strongly symbolic stories which touch the deepest roots of man’s moral nature” (31). After the grave second traveller, the symbol of evil itself, enters the story, the overtones of evil and danger cause the style to change into an apprehensive one:
"You are late, Goodman Brown," said he. "The clock of the Old South was striking, as I came through Boston; and that is full fifteen minutes agone."
"Faith kept me back awhile," replied the young man, with a tremor in his voice, caused by the sudden appearance of his companion, though not wholly unexpected.
It was now deep dusk in the forest, and deepest in that part of it where these two were journeying.
Notice how an accusatory remark by the evil one introduces the scene. Then the reader finds a “tremor” in Goodman’s voice. The apprehension is reinforced by words like “sudden appearance,” “deep dusk,” “deepest,” etc. In other words, the style in this short story is fluid, adjusting to fit the personalities and situations.
There is a sense of the historic in Hawthorne’s style. A. N. Kaul says: “Simultaneously, recognizing the deep psychological and historical aspects of Hawthorne’s theme, James saw that, Hawthorne’s method being what it is, ‘the historic consciousness’ must operate in him without “the apparatus of an historian” (4). This short story is full of historic figures. Wagenknecht says that three of the women mentioned in “Young Goodman Brown” were accused of witchcraft in 1692, and two of them were hung for this crime (60). Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” states:
William Hathorne was a colonial magistrate involved in the persecution of Quakers, another Protestant religious group. Hawthorne later described him as “grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned,” a hard, dark man. His son John Hathorne was well known as a Puritan judge who condemned women as witches in 1692 during the Salem witchcraft trials, and who later expressed no remorse for his actions. . . . Of his ancestors, especially Judge John, Hawthorne later said, “I . . . hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them . . . may be now and henceforth removed” (14).
These two historic family members are referred to by the devil in “Young Goodman Brown”:
“I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake."
Another feature of Hawthorne’s style is his preference for ordinary characters rather than for aristocratic, elite types. The protagonist clearly states his ranking in the community with a reply to the fellow-traveller:
"Howbeit, I have nothing todo with the governor and council; they have their own ways, and are no rule for a simple husbandman like me. But, were I to go on with thee, how should I meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village? Oh, his voice would make me tremble, both Sabbath-day and lecture-day!"
The devil or fellow-traveller is the most ranking, powerful character in the story, but he resembles Goodman so closely in appearances that: “Still, they might have been taken for father
and son.” At the devil’s assembly there were all classes and types brought together democratically into a single coven:
Among them, quivering to and fro, between gloom and splendor, appeared faces that would be seen, next day, at the council-board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land. Some affirm, that the lady of the governor was there. At least, there were high dames well known to her, and wives of honored husbands, and widows, a great multitude, and ancient maidens, all of excellent repute, and fair young girls, who trembled lest their mothers should espy them. . . . a score of the church-members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity. Good old Deacon Gookin had arrived, and waited at the skirts of that venerable saint, his reverend pastor.
Regarding the above scene in the woods, Henry James in his biography Hawthorne from 1879 testifies in eloquent fashion to the feature of the style of Hawthorne which might be called “democratic”:
Like almost all people who possess in a strong degree the story-telling faculty, Hawthorne had a democratic strain in his composition and a relish for the commoner stuff of human nature. Thoroughly American in all ways, he was in none more so than in the vagueness of his sense of social distinctions and
his readiness to forget them if a moral or intellectual sensation were to be gained by it. He liked to fraternise with plain people, to take them on their own terms, and put himself if possible into their shoes. . . . democracy was the very key-stone of the simple social structure in which he played his part. The air of his journals and his tales alike are full of the genuine democratic feeling. . . .(chap. 2).
So Hawthorne has both social extremes acting together and fraternizing democratically:
But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.
A corollary to the democratic aspect of Hawthorne’s style is the feature that his short story lacks any description of manners. One might expect that the fellow-traveller, in greeting the elderly Goody Cloyse, would have spoken a respectful greeting; instead: “The traveller put forth his staff, and touched her withered neck with what seemed the serpent's tail. ‘The devil!’ screamed the pious old lady.” Likewise, when the two most esteemed citizens in Salem come riding through the woods, the reader might expect some formalities of one kind or another. But Hawthorne has the pair stop to pick and switch – something very mundane – and then utter a commonplace exhortation: "’Mighty well, Deacon Gookin!’ replied the solemn old tones of the minister. ‘Spur up, or we shall be late. Nothing can be done, you know, until I get on the ground.’"
Hawthorne’s style of sentence structure and syntax involves no great complexities, using a variety of phrases, clauses, sentences, both short and long:
"Then God bless you!" said Faith, with the pink ribbons, "and may you find all well, when you come back."
"Amen!" cried Goodman Brown. "Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee."
So they parted; and the young man pursued his way, until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him, with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons.
He seems to clarify the arrangement of ideas in longer sentences by the frequent usage of commas:
Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices. Once, the listener fancied that he could distinguish the accent of townspeople of his own, men and women, both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion-table, and had seen others rioting at the
tavern. The next moment, so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind. Then came a stronger swell of those familiar tones, heard daily in the sunshine, at Salem village, but never, until now, from a cloud of night. There was one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain. And all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward.
Regarding the frequency and types of figurative language present in “Young Goodman Brown,” there is a sprinkling of various types:
Synecdoche: "’Dearest heart,’ whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips. . .
“how should I meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village?
“fat of a new-born babe," said the shape of old Goodman Brown.”
“lend me your arm, and we shall be there in a twinkling."
Personification: "’Poor little Faith!’ thought he, for his heart smote him.”
“the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through”
“confronting her, and leaning on his writhing stick.”
“he threw it down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life”
“journeying, so deep into the heathen wilderness?”
“the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind”
“as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn”
Hyperbole: “But, no, no! 'twould kill her to think it.”
“go on; but, prithee, don't kill me with laughing!"
“I would not, for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us, that Faith should. . . ."
"There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name.”
“Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you!"
Metaphor: “Well; she's a blessed angel on earth. . . . I'll cling to her skirts”
"’You will think better of this by-and-by,’ said his acquaintance, composedly.”
Litotes: “caused by the sudden appearance of his companion, though not wholly unexpected.”
“with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say.”
Simile: ”his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake”
“twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.”
“his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy.”
“was as speedily out of sight as if he had vanished”
“he seemed to fly along the forest-path, rather than to walk or run.”
Periphrasis: “This, of course, must have been an ocular deception”
“one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations”
Euphemism: "’Friend [for the devil],’ said the other, exchanging his slow pace for a full stop’”
“’Ah, your worship knows the recipe,’ cried the old lady, cackling aloud.”
Metonymy: "’Sayest thou so?’ replied he of the serpent, smiling apart.”
”shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path”
“He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a Heaven above him. Yet, there was the blue arch, and the stars brightening in it.”
The above list is by no means exhaustive. A last feature which should be considered in the style of the author is the use of irony. It is quite ironic that a “simple husbandman” like Goodman Brown should be the lone Puritan to vanquish the devil, to resist devil-baptism (Faith may also have resisted, but this is uncertain.). It is ironic that the protagonist should be so dependent on the strength of his wife’s faith throughmost of the story, and then at the climax should rebound in a faith-filled resistance to devil-baptism. It is ironic that the morally best man, Goodman, should be the unhappiest character for the rest of his life. It is ironic that the governor’s wife, minister, deacon and other highly placed people should mingle as equals with the devil-worshippers of lower socio-economic standing. It is ironic that the fellow-traveller or devil should resemble a minister. It is ironic that the coven site should be similar to the inside of a Puritan church. There is so much irony in this tale that it drips with it. Perhaps this feature is one of the reasons that James refers to Hawthorne as an “imaginative” writer (chap. 2).
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Bradley, Sculley, Richmond Croom Beatty and E. Hudson Long. “The Social Criticism of a Public Man.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Feidelson, Charles, Jr. “Hawthorne as Symbolist.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Fuller, Edmund and B. Jo Kinnick in “Stories Derived from New England Living.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” 1835. http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~daniel/amlit/goodman/goodmantext.html
James, Henry. Hawthorne. http://eldred.ne.mediaone.net/nh/nhhj1.html
Kaul, A.N. “Introduction.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Swisher, Clarice. “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Man, His Tales and Romances. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1989.