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It is impossible to fairly analyze Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Young Goodman Brown" around a single literary approach. American novelist, essayist, and poet, Herman Melville, once wrote about Hawthorn's short story that it over time, like wine, it only improves in flavor and body (The Life and Works of Herman Melville). Hawthorne's short story continues to get better with age, and carries today's readers into a world filled with a plethora of meanings for them to pick from its symbolism. Modern readers have interpreted the meaning of Goodman Brown's experience in many ways, but to pigeon hole the story into one view would destroy its veracity.
In order to grasp the allegory Hawthorne communicated so skillfully, the story needs to be considered in a way that recognizes the blending of its historical background and its relationship to religious symbolism within that perspective.
Hawthorne's tale begins early in the evening, when the young Goodman Brown reluctantly leaves his new wife, Faith (aptly named), and heads toward the forest to embark on an over night journey into the darkness of his own soul, accompanied by none other than the devil himself.
The story is set in Salem, Massachusetts. Hawthorn establishes the story's time frame with the description of the newly wed Goodman Brown as the son of a man who fought in King Philip's War (Hawthorne 200). As this war is fought around 1675, Goodman Brown is entering adulthood and old enough to marry by the early 1690's. The Salem witch trials were in the year 1692 (Scott Atkins). This time period is important because it points out that the village of Salem is in a discriminating and elevated state of religious oppression. The village people of Salem live according to a pleasure-deprived and strict Puritanical moral code, which eventually leads to terror, fanaticism, many claims of witchcraft, and the deaths of innocent people. Any phenomena that can not be explained are accepted as witchcraft and generally questioned by no one. Cotton Mather, a prominent Massachusetts theologian of the time, wrote a manual which was used to prosecute the "witches." This manual spawned an unhealthy preoccupation with witchcraft (Atkins).
Hawthorne writes that as Goodman Brown makes his way through the forest, he is seemingly swallowed up in the gloom of darkness and that he never actually visibly identifies the travelers he "feels sure" are passing him. The mingled sounds "appeared" to pass along the road, and he "could have sworn" that he recognizes the voices of people he knows (Hawthorne 202).
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The analysis of religion-gone-wrong in the darkness that surrounded Salem during the time, by itself, limits the focus of Hawthorne's imagery, and does not allow the reader to comprehend other greater meanings within the story. However, today's modern reader certainly can't deny that it is obvious that Hawthorne's focus is on society and mankind as a whole; not just the extremist townspeople of Salem. The idea that evil dwells in man; past, present, and future is an example of the symbolic meaning the story has in relation to the Fall of Man, the indelible stain of Original Sin, and the ongoing battle against evil transgression.
From what Goodman Brown is told by his traveling companion, the devil, he surmises that in the past the evil one has given his staff to the "Egyptian Magi" (Hawthorne 201), making plain the capacity for man to sin throughout the ages since the Fall. The devil also reveals that he is not unfamiliar with the good man's ancestors, for in the past he has walked through the darkness of the forest with Brown's father and grandfather, leading them toward sin (Hawthorne 199). Brown's fellow traveler further makes known that he presently has a "general acquaintance" with the deacons of many a church as well as important politicians. All of this information is disturbing to the naïve Goodman Brown.
As the devil entices Brown further into the forest, the good man recognizes the "very pious and exemplary dame, who had taught him his catechism" (Hawthorne 200). It astonishes Goodman Brown to learn that this pious woman, who he holds in the highest regard, is no stranger to his evil companion. Furthermore, he learns that she is in fact a witch, on her way through the forest to attend Witches' Sabbath. At this point in the story, Goodman Brown sits down and refuses to go any further, symbolizing his utter disappointment and a loss of hope in mankind ever prevailing over Original Sin. However, he declares "With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!" (Hawthorne 203). He still clings to his "Faith" both literally and figuratively.
It is not until Goodman Brown becomes aware that his young wife Faith is among the village people who are on their way to the unholy meeting that he becomes desperate. Hearing what he perceives to be Faith's voice, the good man calls to his wife to join him three times. But she is swept away, leaving only the pink ribbon from her cap on the branch of a tree, symbolizing tangible evidence of Faith's abandonment. He cries out "My Faith is gone" (Hawthorne 203). Goodman Brown reaches the height of his spiritual crisis and rages on like a madman.
The further he dashes into the forest, the more completely he becomes one with the evil within his own soul, so that by the time he arrives within the dark congregation the good man "felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart (Hawthorne 205). Brown notes that how strange it is that "the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints" (Hawthorne 205), symbolizing the commonality every soul shares in their capacity for evil as a consequence of the stain of Original Sin.
There is a call for the converts to come forward and as Goodman Brown steps forward and joins Faith before an unholy altar, he symbolically steps out of the Eden of his youth and into his married adult life which brings about an understanding of the darkness within the soul of man and the ever present propensity toward sin. At the very last moment before the couple are to be baptized so that "they might be partakers of the mystery of sin" (Hawthorne 206), Goodman Brown cries out to Faith to renounce the devil, but fails to look within himself for deliverance. Brown fails to accept that sin in the name of God is just as evil, if not more so, than sin in the name of the Devil.
Then, with sudden and deliberate ambiguity, the narrator asks if Brown's experience is a dream leaving the reader to their personal conclusion.
Nonetheless, Hawthorne's story continues. The very next day after the Witch's Sabbath, Goodman Brown makes the decision to spiritually isolate himself from his wife and fellow neighbors. Although Brown does not convert to worship the Devil as others have throughout the ages; what he chooses is a greater evil. Brown's continuing sin of judging the transgressions of others, rather than his searching within himself for righteousness, does not allow him to be true to himself. Goodman Brown will not recognize his own imperfections and thereby fails to recognize the kinship he shares with his fellow man, seriously limiting his view of human nature. For the rest of his life he continues to reject the human potential for both good and evil. This leaves him a cynical, acerbic, and unforgiving man, incapable of love which consequently leads him to a miserable and desperate end.
Hawthorne's point that through the ages, religion taken to extreme results in desolation, terror, and in some instances even death, is well taken by today's readers. Nevermore than in today's world are the examples of terror associated with religion-gone-wrong more apparent.
In the end however, through Hawthorne's skillful use of allegory and ambiguity, complete interpretation of "Young Goodman Brown" is left up to the readers according to their own lives, religious convictions, and of course, their understanding of good and evil.
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