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Literary Significance of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 20th, 2022

American Gothic works present a unique cultural phenomenon in the literature of North America. Namely, it is different from European Gothic since the newly emerged American Republic had not ever entered the Middle Ages period to which the Gothic literature references. Yet, the texts of American writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries are penetrated with medieval “European myth and fantacy” (Ringel 16). American Romanticists embued their short stories with national ideas and relevant historical and cultural phenomena. Namely, themes of irrationality and anxiety dominated the economic instability period in American society, the crisis of Puritan ideals, and the sinfulness of the humans realized in mystic conditions.

As such, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nightmarish literary world embraces the issues of “the loss of identity and the dissolution of the self” (Bendixen 38). Specifically, in “Young Goodman Brown,” the author explores the dual nature of Puritan New England people’s personalities: “freedom and democracy” value contradicting with “intolerance and persecution” practice (Bendixen 38). “Young Goodman Brown” reflects the ambiguousness of identity and the inevitability of sinfulness, the common themes of the Gothic literature of the era.

“Young Goodman Brown” presents complex ideas that underlie the work and supply nourishment for readers’ speculations. One of the literary elements that connect the story with reality and convert it into a conceivable one is the setting. Namely, the events of the short tale are placed in Salem village, remembered for its ferocious religious persecutions of the 17th century both to the modern readers and Hawthorne’s contemporaries.

Some people inhabiting the place are not entirely fictional characters but instead incorporated in the story historical figures. For example, the author includes deacon Gookin, the “moral and spiritual adviser” of the main character, and depicts him firstly as a pious man and, at the end of the narration, as a fiend, Satan’s worshipper (Hawthorne 348). Such personalities are brought to the work to summon associations with the “witchcraft trial” processes (Levine 348). However, the author uses the “external setting” to create his own fictional world and allegorical representations that Americans could understand (Levy 384). Thus, the imaginative depictions of the existing people, location, and historical events such as witch hunts are invoked to testify of the relatedness of the story to the real issues of the Gothic era America.

Next, Hawthorne constructed a plot distinctive of its growing phantasmagorical nature and mirror-like composition. The narrative begins with commonplace dialogues of a religious pair and rapidly evolves into allegorical nightmare vision. As Brown, an innocent young man, deepens into the forest with his diabolical companion, he becomes aware of the sinful deeds of his ancestors and countryman. The Devil knew Brown’s grandfather, and he made the “pitch-pine knot” of Goodman’s father (Hawthorne 347).

The story’s culmination contains the recitation of the villagers’ sins, murderous and hidden from others thoroughly, witnessed by the silent observer only. After this, the narration continues on the realistic turn of Brown’s life and his death, allowing the reader to decide on whether the forest Sabbath was a dream or reality. The most significant change of the character shown by the plot is that he “has lost his Faith, that is, his religious faith, his faith in his fellowmen, his faith in his wife” (Stoehr 400). Consequently, the well-organized plot is aimed to be confusing and yet contain the main idea of the story, which is the gloom conspiracy toward the external world.

Considering the enigmatic content of the story, determining its theme, and interpreting the author’s main idea is a tedious task, if not futile. Such authors as Levy attempted to include multiple readings in his “The Problem of Faith in “Young Goodman Brown”.” He claims that “the story is… a dream vision, a conventional allegory, and finally an inquiry into the problem of faith,” reflecting the multilayerness of the work (375).

Among the numerous religious issues of the narrative, one the most crucial and expected for the writings of the authors of the American Gothic period is the vicious determinations of the human soul. Satan proclaims that “evil is the nature of mankind,” welcoming young Brown in his community of sinners (Hawthorne 353). This act may be the initiation process that awaits every man who enters the world of choices and consequences. Humans ought to decide whether to accept their ill spiritual composition or deny the common malevolence pretending to be pious and rightful. Therefore, the thematic insertions of the story are diverse; sinfulness and acceptance of other people’s imperfectness is a vital issue depicted by the author.

Another conceptual flow of the work concerns the different aspects of faith presence in human life. More specifically, the loss of faith and concomitant trust and compassion to people are highlighted in “Young Goodman Brown.” Levy observes this theme in the depiction of “serenity,… a dehumanizing dogmatism, or to intense suffering of spirit” that leads to the decline in belief (386). The intricate spiritual experiences are unique for each person, and each human being has their own religious way. Some invert the traditional religions such as Christianity to excuse their sins and continue being with a lightened heart.

Others ignore their vicious acts or cannot fully discern them as corrupt and wicked if they follow their church recommendations. Yet another group persecutes people who live somewhat inappropriately the common standards, such as Salem “witches.” Meanwhile, Brown presents a type of personality that abandons faith due to disappointment in the community practicing it. The author depicts old Brown who “shrank from the bosom of Faith” to demonstrate the “gloom” fate of those unbelieving (Hawthorne 354). In brief, the work contains imaginative representations of distinct spiritual experiences and their consequences.

In conclusion, Hawthorne created an elaborate story that reflected the dominant cultural phenomena of his age and imaginatively interpreted the historical events. The extraordinary result of the author’s work includes multiple attempts of literary analyses and approaches to defining the theme of the story. However, “Young Goodman Brown” is a product of its epoch so that it resembles the works of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe.

Moreover, the influence of the story on Poe’s works could be observed. Thus, the tale added representation of the issues important for the writers of American Gothic literature philosophically and gave rise to the debates about them. The events such as Salem persecutions were viewed in a new light, and the Sabbath received conceptual meaning along with specifically negative connotations. Contemporary mass media may derive inspiration for horror movies from the literature of this period. Additionally, the popularity of witchery and inquisition is linked to Hawthorne’s initial source to Americans’ think tanks.

Works Cited

Bendixen, Alfred. “Romanticism and the American Gothic.” The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Cambridge UP, 2017, pp. 31–43.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine et al., 9th ed., RedShelf ed., vol. 1B, W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 345–54.

Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 74, no. 3, 1975, pp. 375–87. Web.

Ringel, Faye. “Early American Gothic (Puritan and New Republic).” The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Cambridge UP, 2017, pp. 15–30.

Stoehr, Taylor. “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Hawthorne’s Theory of Mimesis.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 23, no. 4, 1969, pp. 393–412. Web.

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