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Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: Facing the Darkness Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 16th, 2021

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is a chilling exploration of how a man could project upon others his own darkness. Through a pact with the Devil, Goodman Brown becomes obsessed with the supposed sins of the townspeople. Hawthorne utilized many symbolisms to depict how Goodman Brown transformed into “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become”. To use a word descriptive of many people today, Goodman Brown became a cynic. So when he died, the townspeople “carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom”. Reading through the passages of the story, the reader seems to undergo the same experience as the character. We will discover that we all have come to grips with the nature of things in the deep, dark, pathless wilderness of night and determine the powers beyond our will and desires.

At the start of the story, Goodman Brown was a naive young man who has just been married. He has a dream in which he sees all the best people in the village, including his wife. Presumably, in his experience with sex in his newly-married state, the sexuality — the human quality — of everyone, including his wife, his parents, his minister, and his teachers, dawns on him in a traumatic way in that he has always been taught by his Puritan teachers that the flesh is sinful. However, Goodman Brown had seen both the best and the worst in human nature. In this process, Goodman loses his “faith” and his love. This is why he chooses to believe the worst.

The story did not tell everything as easy because readers are enjoined to assume that Goodman Brown’s former innocence had been derived from ignorance, as knowledge comes to him with so much intensity that he is not able to excuse himself for the ignorance that he had. And he blames everyone else because none of them told him these things before. In short, he wants to have had divine knowledge, and he thus challenges the way of things in every respect. Just by being human, people he sees through his loveless eyes transform into witches. Those who have this loveless view of others have already, ironically, partaken of the devil’s baptism. Like Brown, they forever after will be “more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own”.

It is not difficult to realize that Hawthorne’s intention in “Young Goodman Brown” is to force the reader to experience the temptations which Brown himself must endure and that he is made to see the world through Brown’s eyes in order to have to make his decision with only this evidence available to him. Hawthorne makes it appear that the reader is made the central character in the story, and it is his moral vision with which Hawthorne is concerned and his moral choice which Hawthorne challenges.

According to Liebman (1975), Hawthorne uses “three principal devices: (1) diverting ambiguity, (2) dilatory exposition, and (3) dissimulated point of view”. Hawthorne employs this kind of exposition wherein he diverts the reader’s attention “from significant ambiguity, important events whose ambiguity derives from a conflict between appearance and reality, by drawing the reader’s attention to insignificant ambiguity, incidental events whose ambiguity derives from a conflict between the natural and the preternatural”. The result is usually irresolvable and the reader is inclined to believe that all other ambiguity is similarly irresolvable. Moreover, Hawthorne frequently presents his exposition of characters in a dilatory manner. That is, he reveals the evidence very gradually and typically saves the most important information for last. Characters introduced surprisingly in the story and are veritably described at the end. As the narration continues, the initial terms of description are reversed, but the reader has already committed himself and has some difficulty extricating himself from his original view. Lastly, the “dissimulated point of view” is Hawthorne’s characteristic mode in his short fiction. The point of view shifts imperceptibly from narrator to character so that the reader sees through the character’s eyes even when he thinks he is seeing through the narrator’s. Liebman (1975) explained that the shifting perspective is accomplished in three ways:

First, dialogue is presented as if it were narration. What purports to be the language of the author is really the language of the character whose point of view is dominant. Second, subjective events are presented as if they were objective. The fictional world of the story moves from the imagination of the author to that of the character, and the line between appearance and reality is blurred if not eliminated. Third, events are presented as if they were both natural (that is, of nature) and spontaneous, whereas in fact they are connected almost causally, each originating in the mind of the character, each made possible by its predecessor, and each becoming more substantial as the character becomes more committed to the objectivity of his subjective impressions and more accustomed to confusing concepts. In this way the logic of compulsion replaces the logic of nature, and, unbeknownst to the character, his thoughts take on the potency not only of events but of causes of events.

An example of how Hawthorne used diverting ambiguity throughout “Young Goodman Brown” is when Brown first meets the devil he (and the reader) is faced with two incidental ambiguities: the devil’s staff resembles the biblical serpent, and the devil himself resembles Brown’s father. As nearly as could be discerned the devil bears a considerable resemblance to Brown’s father; they might have been taken for father and son. The devil claims to have been well acquainted with Brown’s family, especially his father and grandfather. His staff bears the likeness of a snake: it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. When the devil laughs, his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy. These ambiguities dominate the scene. Yet the real question is whether or not the devil, as a living, breathing character, is present at all. And this issue is obscured in Brown’s eyes, just as the reader’s attention is drawn to ambiguities which are neither important nor resolvable. The reader is tempted to conclude that not resolving this ambiguity is characteristic of all of the ambiguity in the story. And readers become accustomed to seeing through Brown’s uncertain eyes on more important issues and identify the subliminal meanings of these ambiguities.

This device is used again in the next scene, in which Goody Cloyse appears. The old woman reminds both Brown and the reader of the devil’s resemblance to one of Brown’s ancestors, this time his grandfather. And Hawthorne refers to him as the shape of old Goodman Brown. The devil touches Goody Cloyse’s neck with what seemed the serpent’s tail and leans on his writhing stick when he speaks to her. The real issue, of course, is whether or not Goody Cloyse actually appears, but when she vanishes Hawthorne veils the question of her appearance and disappearance with more incidental ambiguity. The devil throws his staff down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life. Hawthorne comments: Of this fact, however, Goodman Brown cannot take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and, looking down again, beheld neither Goody nor the serpentine staff, but his fellow-traveller alone, who waited for him as calmly as if nothing had happened. At the end of the story Hawthorne asks of the baptismal basin at which the priest stands, did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? Or was it blood? Or perhaps, a liquid flame? This too is mere question-begging since the questions assume that the forest is aflame and that the shape of evil stands ready to baptize Faith and Goodman Brown. These are the real ambiguities in the story though the reader is given other and not very nourishing food for thought.

Another good thing of reading “Young Goodman Brown” is a good motivation for examining point of view — the way we see other people. The result is a reversal of roles between good and evil, which is like the reversal that occurred after the hysteria of 1692 whereby the “witches” were perceived as martyrs and the accusers and condemners were seen as persecutors. Hawthorne is interested in what people’s points of view and judgment tell us about them, so the focus in the discussion of witchcraft is primarily on those who see witchcraft in others. The story is rich in symbolisms that make up what it lacks in physical descriptions, which contributes to its reader’s puzzlement that more often becomes fear. In the story, we only know that Faith has a “pretty head” ; that Goodman Brown is young; that Goody Cloyse is “a female figure” who cackles; that Martha Carrier is “a rampant hag”; that the crowd in the forest is “a grave and dark-clad company”. The reason why Hawthorne avoids particulars in this story is because the unreality and vagueness increase the nightmarish atmosphere of the story.

For instance, why is Faith’s “pink ribbons” is mentioned five times in all? What is the meaning of the appearance of the ribbons in the woods? It would seem to be concrete evidence that something bad occurred to her. Fogle (1964) suggested otherwise: “If Goodman Brown is dreaming the ribbon may be taken as part and parcel of his dream…. This pink ribbon appears in his wife’s hair once more as she meets his on his return to Salem the next morning” (p. 18). What’s more frightening in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is not the devil, the witchcraft or even Brown’s solitary walk through the forest at dusk, but it is the contrast between Brown’s innocence and the evil that he comes to learn is hidden in his very own community.

Ultimately, readers will be compelled to interpret the story based on his or her own values and moral perspective. We will come to terms that Hawthorne is less concerned with the meaning of things than with the meaning of all the ambiguous parts of his short story. Readers will be enthralled by the fact that the story is not so much a revelation of things as they are but of the problem of moral choice, the near inaccessibility of truth, and the power of temptation. Thus, it is only undergoing through the same experience that readers come to understand the theme and resolution of this thought-provoking story.

Works Cited

  1. Fogle, Robert Harter. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and Dark (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1964).
  2. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown, 1835. in Lauter, Paul et al. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 2nd ed. Vol. 1 (pp. 2129-38). Lexington: Heath, 1944.
  3. Liebman, Sheldon W. The Reader in “Young Goodman Brown”, Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal (1975): 156-69.
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