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Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” states: ”When Hawthorne called his stories ‘romances,’ he meant that they belong within the romantic movement that . . . . emphasize imagination and personal freedom” (18). It is the purpose of this essay to interpret the theme of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and determine where this “personal freedom” leads.
Edmund Fuller and B. Jo Kinnick in “Stories Derived from New England Living” state: “’Young Goodman Brown’ uses the background of witchcraft to explore uncertainties of belief that trouble a man’s heart and mind” (31). It is on that one night of the year when witches have their coven in the deepest woods that the young husbandman, Goodman Brown, takes leave of his wife, Faith: “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 receives a premonition of the impending evil intrigue with Faith’s staement of her foreboding, troublesome dreams:
"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!"
Regarding the theme, the clues increase when Goodman, having left his wife, Faith, all alone and melancholy, enters the woods and encounters a sinister type with whom he has previously made an appointment for this particular evening:
As nearly as could be discerned, the second traveller . . . 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 evil nature of this individual is made manifest, and thus evil enters the story in a significant way.
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As the story progresses the reader sees the progression of evil: It, first of all, consumes the Puritan father and grandfather of the protagonist:
"Well said, 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."
Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty and E. Hudson Long in “The Social Criticism of a Public Man,” say that Hawthorne “was absorbed by the enigmas of evil and of moral responsibility, interwoven with man’s destiny in nature and in eternity. . . .” (47). Then evil consumes the hierarchy in the political government and religious organization:
"Wickedness or not," said the traveller with the twisted staff, have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen, of divers towns, make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interest. The governor and I, too- but these are state-secrets."
“Hawthorne himself was preoccupied with the problems of evil, the nature of sin. . . . But Hawthorne’s interest tended toward the heart and the psychological effects of these moral and ethical issues” (Swisher 13). Next, evil consumes Brown’s own dear religion instructor, who is also deep into witchcraft:
As he spoke, he pointed his staff at a female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary dame, who had taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser. . . . "Ah, forsooth, and is it your worship, indeed?" cried the good dame. "Yea, truly is it, and in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is. But, would your worship believe it? my broomstick hath
strangely disappeared, stolen, as I suspect, by that unhanged witch, Goody Cory, and that, too, when I was all anointed with the juice of smallage and cinque-foil and wolf's-bane"-
Relentlessly, evil advances in the story, casting its pall over even the local Puritan clergy, who are involved with deviltry:
"Of the two, reverend Sir," said the voice like the deacon's, I had rather miss an ordination-dinner than tonight's meeting. They tell me that some of our community are to be here from Falmouth and beyond, and others from Connecticut and Rhode Island; besides several of the Indian powows, who, after their fashion, know almost as much deviltry as the best of us. Moreover, there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion."
There remains but one pure source of faith in the life of the protagonist, and that is his wife Faith: “’With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!’ cried Goodman Brown.” But shortly this last bastion of goodness is consumed by evil, as one of Faith’s ribbons falls from a cloud whence evil voices come:
But something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the
branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.
"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given."
As Terence Martin says in “Six Tales,” “At that frenzied moment he embraces the devil’s premise that evil constitutes the only reality in the world” (92). “As he loses his belief in the reality of virtue in others the scene grows increasingly sinister. . . . “ (Leavis 36). With the capitulation of this last champion of goodness, there is no hope for Goodman who quickly capitulates himself, becoming a monster-type controlled by the evil within:
"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!" . . . Thus sped the demoniac on his course. . .
The following passage ilustrates the words of this critic: “We see Hawthorne making timely use of the traditional Puritan association of trees, animals, and Indians as the hostile powers, allies of the fiend” (Leavis 36):
The road grew wilder and drearier, and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while, sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn.
Once that Goodman has reached the site of the coven his fears of universal evil among mankind are confirmed by his actual sighting of all the best and worst types in the world:
"A grave and dark-clad company!" quoth Goodman Brown.
In truth, they were such. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . 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.
The universal nature of the description given here attests to the author’s intention that the theme should apply to all of mankind: That the whole world is consumed by evil. That everyone has yielded to the inner compulsion to indulge in evil. This journey into gross evil is the one which the multitudes at the coven have already taken, and it ended in their baptism – the very vital, final, clinching step in their total conversion to evil.
In “Young Goodman Brown” it is at this final step of conversion that the climax of the story occurs. The devil is dipping his baptismal dish into the strange fluid in the rock when:
The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!
"Faith! Faith!" cried the husband. "Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!"
R. W. B. Lewis in “The Return into Time: Hawthorne” states: “Finally, it was Hawthorne who saw in American experience the re-creation of the story of Adam and who . . . exploited the active metaphor of the American as Adam – before and during and after the Fall” (72). To this reader it is obvious that Goodman has recovered his lost faith, though not with its original purity, and just at the last moment. Leavis says: “When Young Goodman Brown returns to Salem village with the morning light. . . his eyes have been opened to the true nature of his fellowmen, that is, human nature; he inescapably knows that what he suspected of himself is true of all men. He must live with that knowledge, and he is thenceforward a man of gloom. . .” (37). And indeed: “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.”
But did Goodman’s wife Faith preserve her basic belief in goodness? The narrator tells us: “Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not.” Q.D. Leavis says: “It is a journey he takes under compulsion, and it should not escape us that she tries to stop him because she is under a similar compulsion to go on a ‘journey’ herself” (36). Edward Wagenknecht in Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Man, His Tales and Romances says: “It [“Young Goodman Brown”] is a comparatively brief tale. . . . though I believe firmly in Faith’s innocence (her allegoricl significance vanishes, and her whole role in her husband’s life after his return from the forest makes no sense upon any other hypothesis). . . . “(57-58).
Faith’s conduct subsequent to the coven seems to support her innocence:
Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink
ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him, that she skipt along the street, and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting. . . . Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession. . . .
Regardless of Faith’s guilt or innocence the theme remains: the universality of evil in the world. It is true that Goodman escapes the depth of evil which those around him have succumbed to, but the price which he must pay to live as a lesser sinner in an evil world is steep. It causes distrust and gloom to spoil the inner tranquility which he once possessed before he had knowledge of the universal nature of evil. “Hawthorne has imaginatively recreated for the reader that Calvinist sense of sin, that theory which did in actuality shape the early social and spiritual history of New England “ (Leavis 37).
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.
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
Leavis, Q.D. “Hawthorne as Poet.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Lewis, R. W. B. “The Return into Time: Hawthorne.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Martin, Terence “Six Tales.” In Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1965.
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.