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Comparing Dreams: Poe vs. Hawthorne Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021

There are many theories regarding why we dream and what our dreams might mean. Theories have been proposed by Freud, who suggests dreams reflect hidden desires; Jung who agrees that dreams carry hidden meanings, not always desires, that can be interpreted by the dreamer; Cayce, who suggests dreams are the body’s means of developing our mental and spiritual arsenal and Evans, who feels dreams are the body’s means of dealing with daily experiences. While Evans’ theory suggests dreams are storing information, Crick and Mitchinson suggest they are getting rid of this information. The concept of the dream and what it might mean to our lives are treated in Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” as well as in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Dream”.

. In “Young Goodman Brown”, Hawthorne presents the idea that the Puritan religion, because of these beliefs, has lost all sense of meaning to the younger generations as a recently married Puritan man makes a journey through the woods and cannot tell if he is dreaming or awake as he meets with the people of his town at a sacrilegious gathering in the middle of the night. As Young Goodman Brown sets off on his dark journey, his young wife Faith implores him not to go, sensing some kind of immediate peril. The emphasis on young here indicates the journey Goodman Brown is proposing to undertake is a journey to find the necessary conversion experience deemed important in the Puritan religion of Hawthorne’s time. The fear expressed by Faith indicates there is a hidden peril in undertaking such a journey. Her warning, “may you find all well when you come back”, seems to indicate the peril does not apply strictly to Goodman Brown as he sets off on his journey, but for Faith as well in being left behind, alone in the darkness. The entire tale takes place in darkness, giving the idea that this could be a dream, but the sense of foreboding in testing his faith is further emphasized as Goodman Brown enters the forest “on his present evil purpose. He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind”.

This idea of taking a journey through the dark is also brought forward in Poe’s poem as he starts “in visions of the dark night / I have dreamed of joy departed”. The darkness of the night is contrasted with the light of day in terms that seem to evoke the same sense of unreality to both night and day as Poe continues, “But a waking dream of life and light / Hath left me broken-hearted”. As for Young Goodman Brown, the idea that it is nighttime when the visions are seen is the only element that indicates to the speaker whether he is dreaming or awake. Both states of consciousness seem equally real to him and he has difficulty distinguishing one from another. In his comparison between the waking reality and what he understands of the nighttime visions, Poe also alludes to the concepts brought forward in “Young Goodman Brown”, that the night has destroyed any hope for joy and laughter during the day.

As Goodman Brown penetrates deeper into the darkness of the forest, he first meets with a character that resembles him so much in shape and form that “they might have been taken for father and son”. The most blatant indication of the danger of Brown’s journey so far comes with Goodman Brown’s response to the older gentleman when he is admonished for being late: “Faith kept me back a while”. Although the reader knows the younger man is referring to his wife, the name of the lady also serves to warn the reader that a pure faith such as Goodman Brown possessed before entering the wood would have been better off had he simply trusted to its council and remained home for the night. Thus, the dream is taking on elements of symbolism even as it reflects reality, making it even more difficult for Brown to determine whether he is awake or dreaming. The people that Young Goodman Brown sees and hears as he makes his way to the heart of the forest further illustrate the concept that the human soul is beyond redemption, regardless of their good works performed in the light of day. First, he is told of the acquaintance his father and grandfather have had with the wily fellow met in the woods as well as given reason to doubt the goodness of the men and women Young Goodman Brown looks up to in his village life. Then the two men come upon an elderly woman walking through the woods, presumably to the same destination: “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, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin”. Despite her many good deeds in the town and her close association with everything good and honorable, Young Goodman Brown sees Goody Cloyse as a well-versed witch, the evilest creature in creation, as she associates herself with the stranger and unhesitatingly makes use of his serpentine walking stick.

At almost every step along the way, it seems Young Goodman Brown is about to defy the devil’s wishes and refuse to follow along the path of the dream sequence, but each time he tries, another familiar voice, shape, or sign spurs him to continue. Sitting on a stump, catching his strength to return to his Faith, Goodman Brown fancies he hears the voices of his Reverend and Deacon Gookin, both of whom he has looked up to as pillars of the community and faithful leaders of the church. Although he cannot see them, he is sure of what he hears. He loses some heart but determines to hold fast to his Faith. However, when he hears the voices of the villagers in a passing cloud, along with the sound of his Faith being carried along with them, he gives in altogether and determines to find out what lies at the end of the path. Crying “my Faith is gone!”, Goodman Brown suddenly realizes the teachings of his religion allow for no redemption following a good life than that afforded to the bad. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given”. Understanding the teaching of the Puritans that no man may ever escape the evil to which they’re born, regardless of their intentions or daily activities, Goodman Brown loses his faith in a good and forgiving God, giving in entirely at that moment to the despair that must follow such revelations.

Despite Young Goodman Brown’s last-second decision to turn to God before being consecrated in the Devil’s congregation, the fact that he can find no peace in his future life emphasizes Hawthorne’s viewpoint regarding his religion. Although his Faith has been tested, Goodman Brown is no longer able to believe in her. His experience has taught him that all people contain evil in their souls and that no one can be trusted. Even his thoughts are subject to questioning and at no point in time does he ever return to the easy lifestyle with his neighbors he once knew. He is never able to forget the images of his dream and therefore can find no daytime happiness among his friends and relations. Regardless of appearances, his life is now one full of evil at every turn where the slightest evil counteracts even the greatest good and no hope remains that a Godly life might eventually lead one to heaven.

This element of a life destroyed by the potent memory of a dream is echoed in Poe’s poem. Like Goodman Brown, the character of Poe’s poem is not able to take any joy in the sites and experiences of the daytime because he cannot get over the visions he’s had in dreams at night. “Ah! What is not a dream by day / To him whose eyes are cast / On things around him with a ray / Turned back upon the past?”. While the details of the dream that has been experienced by the speaker of this poem are not revealed to the same degree of detail as the dream of Young Goodman Brown, the hint here is that the speaker dreams of things that have existed in the past but that exist no longer and thus his waking life is not able to carry any joy for him at all.

However, while Goodman Brown’s dream is characterized by a great deal of evil and darkness that he is never able to overcome and that shadows him throughout his days, Poe’s concept of the dream shadows his daytime not because of its darkness, but because of its light. This is made evident in the third stanza as he refers to “That holy dream – that holy dream”, echoing the idea that the dream itself has provided him with a reason for being even if he cannot find a means of accessing the images and events he sees there in his waking life. As Goodman Brown experienced, the rest of society is not able to understand the depth of reality that the dream represents for the speaker of Poe’s poem, “While all the world were chiding”, but it is this imagery that emerges as having the greater reality for the speaker as he indicates the dream “Hath cheered me as a lovely dream / A lonely spirit guiding”. While the waking world is unable to provide him with any sense of direction or purpose, the dreamed world serves as his guiding spirit, helping him to cope with the nightmare of waking life in such a way that little else contains any meaning. Like Goodman Brown, the speaker of the poem clings to what he saw in his dream as being the only access to the truth he might find in life: “What though that light, thro’ storm and night, / So trembled from afar / What could there be more purely bright / In Truth’s day-star?”. Because of the lack of other recognizable influences that are hidden by the light of day, both Goodman Brown and the speaker in Poe’s poem conclude that their nighttime visions must contain more truth than their understandings of the day.

It seems clear that the messages passed to the dreamer are defined by what the dreamer knows, what the dreamer understands, and what the dreamer remembers. This begins to suggest that the nature of dreams takes on their shape and mode of communication-based upon the cultural beliefs and knowledge of the individual dreamer rather than being easily defined by some kind of coded dream book. Researchers throughout history have continued to propose theories that seem more or less applicable based upon discoveries and technologies, but little proof is offered as to the nature of the dreams, how to tell dreams from reality, or past baggage from future warning. What we believe about our dreams seems to act in much the same way as a disjointed film in that we are presented with a variety of images and how we choose to connect the dots upon waking seems to determine what the dream meant. However, dreams are provided with an added element that eludes our conscious thought, perhaps through the details that are not remembered, that nevertheless seem to reside in our emotional state. We may not interpret our dreams correctly, or even remember them as such, but we may still suffer the emotional effects of these dreams long after waking, realizing later that these emotional conditions have either saved us from disaster or launched us into a new understanding of the world around us.

Works Cited

  1. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. (Date of publication). “The Young Goodman Brown.” Name of Anthology. Name of Editor (Ed.). Place of publication: Name of Publisher, Date of anthology publication.
  2. Poe, Edgar Allen. “.” Web.
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