| A THREAD OF PURITAN PAST ©
A Critique on "Young Goodman Brown"
Hawthorne, sometimes called the ghost of New England (Moulton p. 366), pulls on his Puritan ancestry, tying religious beliefs and folklore together to spin his spells and captivate his audience. He attempts to communicate with us in "..soliloquies that were meant to be overheard" (Arvin p.vii), leaving us to be the eavesdroppers of his own inner conflicts. He places a tremendous sense of guilt in his characters, almost as in an effort to lift it from himself.
We are to see the passion, emotion, and typology of the characters in Hawthorne's work. He is indeed sympathetic toward what he sets up to be "their sin"—he makes a fine art out of it. New England's sin-and-brimstone Puritan past shapes all of his stories. Perhaps Hawthorne's greatest short story, "Young Goodman Brown," allows us a most frightening peek at man's fallen nature.
The name itself, Young Goodman Brown, is symbolic. He could be anyone... average, a good man, young, on a journey of self discovery. The name tells us that he is the head of a Puritan household. The movement, also is symbolic. He begins in town while it is still light and goes into the forest, at dark. He knew his lonely journey had to happen in darkness, in which he is led into another story, the inner turmoil hidden in the dark and tangled recesses of the human soul.
As Faith, his young wife and the very model of sensuous, young innocence with her pink ribbons, sees him off, she is fearful of what awaits him. She bids him to remain with her, not to go. She could have been afraid that he would see her as she really was. If he were to learn about his wife's duplicity, he also would be accepting his own. Faith knew he was living in denial, so was she. It was a safe place—a blissful place, but nothing ever stays the same. You cannot grow in denial.
Goodman Brown fails to consider that she might know what he does not yet know. He does, at least, trust that she's in tune with God: "I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven" (Norton p. 577).
He is aware of the unseen danger all around him, and is fearful as he continues on toward his appointment with the dark side. The one he met could have been the devil, or his Father, or an older version of himself. When confronted by his counterpart, and told that his Father and Grandfather kept such company, he is driven to protest:
I marvel they never spoke of these matters. Or, verily,
I marvel not, seeing that the least rumor of the sort would
have driven them from New-England. We are a people of
prayer, and good works, to boot, and abide no such
wickedness (Norton p. 578).
Young Goodman Brown is drawn into a journey that shows him the horrible state of all mankind. Once in the forest, he meets up with many of the pious people from his life. All are aware of their spiritual condition. For instance, he hears "....all voices in accordance with the voice of guilty man in homage to the prince of all" (Norton p. 583). Even his Faith, his pure innocent wife is there amidst the evil of the night.
He is drawn through one event after another, like a needle being woven through a tapestry. All these events, meeting the devil, Miss Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, the initiation rite, are all leading him to a final realization.
Before his adventure began, he might have asked, "Is not all what it seems to be, my dear Faith?" In his despair, however, he see's his marital bliss as part of his downfall, his own sexuality as something that must be very perverse. Young Goodman Brown perceives reality as a result of his journey but fails to accept it. He recognizes his own evil at the initiation rites; however, he does not grow from his experience. He sees the dual nature of those around him and suddenly he also becomes suspect. He can trust no one, not even himself. Upon returning in the morning, he is confronted full force with this realization:
Turning the corner by the meetinghouse, he spied the
head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously
forth, and bursting into such joy at the sight of him that
she skipped along the street and almost kissed her hus-
band before the whole village. Goodman Brown looked
sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a
greeting (Norton p. 584).
Young Goodman Brown failed, not because of his own lack of faith, but because of his denial and duplicity. He was more concerned with intellectual curiosity. He wasn't looking to God.
I enjoy the way Hawthorne uses things in nature to symbolize human emotion and am reminded of something Emerson said, "The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind" (Norton p. 450.)
Sheryl Hamilton Chaney
Arvin, Newton. Hawthorne's Short Stories. New York. Vintage
Baym, Nina. (Fourth Ed. Shorter). The Norton Anthology of American
Literature. New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1995.
Moulton, Charles W. The Library of Literary Criticism, Vol. 6 1855-
1874. Gloucester, Mass. Peter Smith. 1959.
Critique On YGB