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Young Goodman Brown: Historical and Biographical Impact
So much for textual matters, paraphrasable content, and genre. What kind of historical or biographical information do we need in order to get the full impact of this story aesthetically and intellectually? Obviously, some knowledge of Puritan New England is necessary. We can place the story in time easily, because Hawthorne mentions that it takes place in the days of King William (that is, William III, who reigned from 1688 to 1702). Other evidences of the time of the story are the references to persecution of the Quakers by Brown's grandfather (the 1660s) and King Philip's War [primarily a massacre of Indians by colonists [1675-1676]), in which Brown's father participated. Specific locales like Salem, Boston, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are mentioned, as are terms used in Puritan ecclesiasticism and government, such as ministers, elders, meetinghouses, communion tables, saints fin the Protestant sense of any Christian), selectmen, and lecture days.
But it is not enough for us to visualize a sort of "First Thanksgiving" picture of Pilgrims with steeple-crowned hats, Bibles, and blunderbusses. For one thing, we need to know something of Puritan religion and theology. This means at least a slight knowledge of Calvinism, a main source of Puritan religious doctrine. A theology as extensive and complex as Calvinism and one that has been the subject of so many misconceptions cannot be described adequately in a handbook of this type. But at the risk of perpetuating some of these misconceptions, let us mention three or four tenets of Calvinism that will illuminate to some degree the story of Goodman Brown. Calvinism stresses the sovereignty of God --- in goodness, power, and knowledge. Correspondingly, it emphasizes the helplessness and sinfulness of man. Man has been, since the Fall of Adam, innately and totally depraved. His only hope is in the grace of God, for God alone is powerful enough (sovereign enough) to save him. And the most notorious, if not the chief, doctrine is predestination, which includes the belief that God has, before their creation, selected certain people for eternal salvation, others for eternal damnation. Appearances are therefore misleading; an outwardly godly man might not be one of the elect. Thus it is paradoxical that Goodman Brown is so shocked to learn that there is evil among the apparently righteous for this was one of the most strongly implied teachings of his church.
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In making man conscious of his absolute reliance on God alone for salvation, Puritan clergymen dwelt long and hard on the pains of hell and powerlessness of mere men to escape them. Brown mentions to the Devil that the voice of his pastor "would make me tremble both Sabbath day and lecture day." This was a typical reaction. In Calvinism, nobody "had it made." Introspection was mandatory. Christians had to search their hearts and minds constantly to purge themselves of sin. Goodman Brown is hardly expressing a Calvinistic concept when he speaks of clinging to his wife's skirts and following her to Heaven. Calvinists had to work out their own salvation in fear and trembling, and they were often in considerable doubt about the outcome. The conviction that sin was an ever-present reality that destroyed the unregenerate kept it before them all the time and made its existence an undoubted, well-nigh tangible fact. We must realize that aspects of the story like belief in witches and an incarnate Devil, which until the recent upsurge of interest in demonism and the occult world have struck modern readers as fantastic, were entirely credible to New Englanders of this period. Indeed, on one level, "Young Goodman Brown" may be read as an example of Satanism. Goody Cloyse and the Devil in the story even describe at length a concoction with which witches were popularly believed to have anointed themselves and a satanic worship attended by witches, devils, and lost souls.
It is a matter of historical record that a belief in witchcraft and the old pagan gods existed in Europe side by side with Christianity well into the modern era. (The phenomenon recurred --- how genuinely is questionable --- in the 1960s and 1970s, ballyhooed by the popular press as well as the electronic media.) There was an analogous prevalent belief in Puritan New England. Clergymen, jurists, statesmen --- educated people generally, as well as uneducated folk --- were convinced that witches and witchcraft were realities. Cotton Mather, one of the most learned men of the period, attests eloquently to his own belief in these phenomena in The Wonders of the Invisible World, his account of the trials of several people executed for witchcraft. Some of the headings in the table of contents are instructive: "A True Narrative, collected by Deodat Lawson, related to Sundry Persons afflicted by Witchcraft, from the 19th of March to the 5th of April, 1692" and "The Second Case considered, viz. If one bewitched be cast down with the look or cast of the Eye of another Person, and after that recovered again by a Touch from the same Person, is not this an infallible Proof that the party accused and complained of is in Covenant with the Devil?"
Hawthorne's great-grandfather, John Hathorne (Nathaniel added the "w"), was one of the judges in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, during which many people were tortured and hanged and one was crushed to death. (A legal technicality was responsible for this special form of execution.) Commentators have long pointed to "Young Goodman Brown," The Scarlet Letter, and many other Hawthorne stories to illustrate his obsession with the guilt of his Puritan forebears for their part in these crimes. In "The Custom House," his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne wrote of these ancestors who were persecutors of Quakers and witches and of his feeling that he was tainted by their crimes. The Devil testified that he helped young Goodman Brown's grandfather, a constable, lash a "Quaker woman . . . smartly through the streets of Salem," an episode undoubtedly related to Hawthorne's "Custom House" reference to his great-grandfather's "hard severity towards a woman of [the Quaker] sect."
Hawthorne's notebooks are also a source in interpreting his fiction. They certainly shed light on his preoccupation with the "unpardonable sin" and his particular definition of that sin. It is usually defined as blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, or continued conscious sin without repentance, or refusing to acknowledge the existence of God even though the Holy Spirit has actually proved it. The notebooks, however, and stories like "Ethan Brand," "Young Goodman Brown," and The Scarlet Letter make it clear that for Hawthorne, the Unpardonable Sin was to probe, intellectually and rationally, the human heart for depravity without tempering the search by a "human" or "democratic" sympathy. Specifically in the case of "Young Goodman Brown," Brown's obduracy of heart cuts him off from all, so that "his dying hour [is] gloom."