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Young Goodman Brown Gone Bad
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story Young Goodman Brown, is filled with symbols and recurring words and phrases. Hawthorne effectively uses the format of storytelling to convey his message. The symbols are so prevalent that unless one has a good understanding of their interconnectedness, the meaning and intent is lost. Some of the recurring keywords and images connecting the themes are: faith, the forest, the serpent, communion, and the dream. They are used to demonstrate themes of good vs. evil, straying from the known, deception, and how experiences can affect one's outlook on life, whether it is a physical occurence or it happens in our mind. A closer look at the passage from the end of the story that begins, "Lo! There ye stand, my children..." exemplifies many of these themes (Norton 584).
The story opens with young goodman Brown entering Salem village and he is depicted as a good-intentioned and faithful husband kissing his wife, appropriately named Faith. Hawthorne uses the generic name "young goodman Brown" for the main character as a representation of anyone who is facing temptations to experience something other than the norm. The name "goodman" is not capitalized except in the title, furthering this representative quality. Throughout the story, Brown refers to "Faith," his wife, which when substituted with a description his beliefs in the known establishment in terms of religion and politics shows his progression towards realizing the unknown, evil, side of human nature. As he first enters the forest and is late to meet his traveling companion, he remarks, "Faith kept me back awhile" (Norton 577). His firm beliefs in the establishment seem to have kept him back from taking a risk and venturing off on his own. After an encounter of finding out that what he had thought to be a "pious and exemplary dame" was really practicing witchcraft, he is first exposed to the hidden evil nature. He exclaims, "What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven! Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?" This experience was just not enough to make him change his beliefs although the aquaintance predicts, "You will think better of this, by-and-by" (Norton 580). Brown is eventually convinced of mankinds evil nature at the turning point where he cries, "My Faith is gone.
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While Faith represents the known establishments surrounding Brown, the forest seems to means lot more than just land with lots of trees. The forest, described as "an unseen multitude" filled with "innumerable trunks and thick boughs overhead," represents the ever complicated unknowns of human nature and the subconscious (Norton 577). The forest is personified in Brown's mind, "peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of trees, the howling of wild beasts...the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him" (Norton 581-82). These descriptions foreshadow Brown's perception of human nature as evil and extend this belief not only to humans but to all living things. On page 584, the figure leaves these parting words, "Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race!" Brown is joining the the anti-establishment version of the typical church communion in the belief that the world is full of evil deceitful people. The term "race" is not exclusive of any humans, re-emphazing that evil is EVERYWHERE, according to Brown's new perspective.
Of great symbolic significance to the story, is the serpent staff carried by Brown's aquaintence which appears to stand for Brown's misconceptions of the unknown. He has been deceived by a highly programmed society to believe that humans are virtuous but he comes to realize that when their cover is blown, their evil nature is seen. The serpent is quite an appropriate symbol for deceit as they can appear one way, then shed their skin and appear differently. Hawthorne gives special significance to important figures in Brown's church. Upon Brown's frightened comment, "how should I meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village? Oh his voice would make me tremble," his companion reacted by "breaking into a fit of irrepressable mirth, shaking himself so violently that hes snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy" (Norton 578). Here the serpent is reacting to Brown's belief in the minister's peity. Not long after this incident, the first attempt is made to show Brown the true nature of humans. He encounters Goody Cloyse, a "pious, exemplary dame" of the church and realizes, after seeing the serpent staff pointed at her, that she is indeed a witch. Brown exclaims that even this is not enough to make him change his mind about his Faith, but he is assured by his aquaintence that he will soon learn better of the true nature of Faith with "his staff to help you along" (Norton 580). He later encounters the minister and deacon Gookin in the forest and overhears them talking about going to a "communion" that night. Little does Brown know that it will be at this communion that he officially gives up his Faith. At the ceremony, the figure is described, "as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race," showing that he was once in the same position of being deceived into believing that mankind is good-natured but learned better of this. He pities those who have not realized the truth of man's evil nature. The figure then claims, "Now ye are undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind" (Norton 584). In using the word "undeceived," Hawthorne gives impact to people becoming more aware of the truth as though it had been intentionally hidden from them. After Brown realizes this evil, the serpent staff is not seen again.
In this realization, Brown joins with the others who have realized the "secret guilt" of others and is ready for the evening's communion ceremony and babtism. He claimed to feel a "loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart" (Norton 583). At the ceremony, the figure (a devil or fallen angel of some sort) establishes his omnicience and a dark,gloomy mood, "'Lo! There ye stand, my children,' said the figure, in a deep solemn tone, almost sad, with its despairing awfulness" (Norton 584). In taking this step, Brown demonstrates his belief in the evil nature of all humans and all living things - quite in contrast to his original mindset before he ventured off into the forest. Brown's new perspective is exemplified by the figure's comment, "Evil must be your only happiness" (Norton 584). This comment on a first reading sounds like the biggest contradiction in the world! I think what he means is "happiness" in terms of coming to an understanding of life and in doing that gaining peace of mind. By knowing the "truth," that humans are evil, Brown can be happy in not being deceived any longer.
For this experience of Brown's to be a dream or a real adventure is of no consequence to how deeply the experience affected his perception of mankind. When the figure says on page 584, "ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream," it is a bit ironic in relation to the story's lack of distinction between what physically took place and what was Brown's dream. Brown is told that virtuous nature is not a reality and can only exist in your dreams, but if he is so profoundly affected by this experience (which is also a dream) that his outlook on life is reversed, than it stands to reason that if he chooses to perceive humans to be virtuous, that would indeed be reality for him.
Brown's original intent, to think for himself and branch out to explore the evil side of the human subconscious was a bold venture into the unknown. The tragedy is that he is tempted by everyone and everything around him being evil that he falls into the same way of thinking. He went through such an extreme change to suddenly perceive everything as evil, it seems there must be a balance somewhere.