Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown - Moral and Philosophical Considerations

Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown - Moral and Philosophical Considerations

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Young Goodman Brown:  Moral and Philosophical Considerations

The terror and suspense in the Hawthorne story function as integral parts of the allegory that defines the story's theme. In allegory (a narrative containing a meaning beneath the surface one), there is usually a one-to-one relationship; that is, one idea or object in the narrative stands for only one idea or object allegorically. A story from the Old Testament illustrates this. The pharaoh of Egypt dreamed that seven fat cows were devoured by seven lean cows. Joseph interpreted this dream as meaning that seven years of plenty (good crops) would be followed by seven years of famine. "Young Goodman Brown" clearly functions on this level of allegory (while at times becoming richly symbolic). Brown is not just one Salem citizen of the late seventeenth century, but rather seems to typify mankind, to be in a sense Everyman, in that what he does and the reason he does it appear very familiar to most people, based on their knowledge of others and on honest appraisal of their own behavior.

For example, Goodman Brown, like most people, wants to experience evil, not perpetually, of course, for he is by and large a decent chap, a respectably married man, a member of a church, but he desires to "taste the forbidden fruit" ("have one last fling") before settling down to the business of being a solid citizen and attaining "the good life." He feels that he can do this because he means to retain his religious faith, personified in his wife, who, to reinforce the allegory, is even named Faith. But in order to encounter evil, he must part with his Faith at least temporarily, something he is either willing or compelled to do. It is here that he makes his fatal mistake, for evil turns out to be not some abstraction nor something that can be played with for a while and then put down, but the very pillars of Goodman Brown's worldhis ancestors, his earthly rulers, his spiritual overseers, and finally his Faith. In short, so overpowering is the fact and the universality of evil in the world that Goodman Brown comes to doubt the existence of any good. By looking upon the very face of evil, he is transformed into a cynic and a misanthrope whose "dying hour was gloom."

Thomas E. Connolly, in "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism" (American Literature, 28 [November 1956], 370-375), has remarked that Goodman Brown has not lost his faith; he has found it.

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That is, Goodman Brown believes that he understands the significance of the Calvinistic teaching of the depravity of man; this realization makes him doubt and dislike his fellow man and in effect paralyzes his moral will so that he questions the motivation of every apparently virtuous act. But this is surely a strange conclusion for Brown to reach, for he has violated the cardinal tenets of Calvinism. If Calvinism stressed anything, it stressed the practical and spiritual folly of placing hope or reliance on human beings and their efforts, which by the very nature of things are bound to fail, whereas God alone never fails. Therefore all trust should be reposed in Him. It is just this teaching that Brown has not learned. On the practical plane, he cannot distinguish between appearance and reality. He takes things and people at face value. If a man looks respectable and godly, Brown assumes that he is. And if the man turns out to be a scoundrel, Brown's every standard crumbles. He is in a sense guilty of a kind of idolatry: Human institutions in the forms of ministers, church officers, statesmen, and wives have, as it were, been his god. When they are discredited, he has nothing else to place his trust in and thus becomes a cynic and a misanthrope.

Thus, rather than making a frontal attack on Calvinism, Hawthorne indicted certain reprehensible aspects of Puritanism --- the widespread "holier-than-thou" attitude; the spiritual blindness that led many Puritans to mistake a pious front for genuine religion; the latent sensuality in the apparently austere and disciplined soul (the very capstone of hypocrisy, because sins of the flesh were particularly odious to Puritan orthodoxy).

It will perhaps be argued that Calvinism at its most intense, with its dim view of human nature, is quite likely to produce cynicism and misanthropy. But historically, if paradoxically, Calvinists have been dynamic and full of faith; they have been social and political reformers, educators, enterprisers in business, explorers, foes of tyranny. The religious furnace in which these men's souls were tempered, however, is too hot for Goodman Brown. He is of a weaker breed, and the sum of his experience with the hard realities of life is disillusion and defeat. He has lost his faith. Whether because his faith was false or because he wished for an objectively verifiable certainty that is the antithesis of faith, Hawthorne does not say. He does not even say whether the whole thing was a dream or reality. Actually, it does not matter. The result remains: Faith has been destroyed and supplanted by total despair because Brown is neither a good Calvinist, a good Christian, nor, in the larger sense, a good man.

As we have seen in our discussions of these works, the traditional approach in literary interpretation is neither rigidly dogmatic nor unaesthetic. It is eclectic. And although it has its rationale in the methods discussed in this chapter, it does not eschew insights from any other critical approach; it does however, insist on its own fundamental validity. Those other critical approaches, however, do provide insights not stressed in the traditional, such as the appreciation of form, to which we now turn.

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