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For this study two short stories were chosen for comparison. The first one is Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne and the second one is Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog by Mark Twain. These two were chosen because they have different takes on American culture but at the same time there are similar elements that can be seen in the story, particularly when it comes to religion. The two authors used different approaches to telling a story. Mark Twain likes to keep it light and funny while Hawthorn loves to use a serious tone when telling his story. In Mark Twain the characters are enjoying themselves but in Hawthorne’s story the characters are fearful and unsure of themselves. They seem to be in a bad dream and struggling to break free from the stranglehold of a dark foreboding. In contrast Twain’s characters are simply doing what they feel like doing.
These different approaches were applied generously in dealing with an important topic in American culture and this is none other than religion. These stories tell the readers that Americans of the 19th century were greatly influenced by religion whether they acknowledge it or not. There are also different ways of expressing their personal views of religion. On one side of the extreme is the legalistic type where dread is felt at the mere mention religious objects and rituals. On the other side of the extreme are those who find it frivolous and every time they talk about religion they cannot help but make fun of it.
A Happy Experience
If the goal of Mark Twain is to make readers happy then he has succeeded. Even in the opening scene the reader gets the warning not to take this story seriously but everyone who dares continue with the journey will be amply rewarded in the end. The author dropped some hints that this one is going to be light reading. One of the opening statements said it all: “If that was your design, Mr. Ward, it will gratify you to know that it succeeded” (Twain, 1865). It was a prank played on a friend.
But make no mistake, Mark Twain was not simply writing about a funny story, he was also describing the culture of the South. We know that the setting is in the American South because of the use of the names Andrew Jackson a famous general of the U.S. Civil War, and a venerated figure in the South. There was also the language used by the author. We know it is English but it some sort of a dialect that can only be found in the South. For example, he used words like ketch, feller, sorter, and resk.
A Terrifying Experience
When it comes to Young Goodman Brown the reader is being led into a dark narrow path where the first emotion that one can feel is sadness, loneliness, isolation, and then abandonment. Afterwards, the story started to pick up pace but the journey became more scary each passing moment. This is how Hawthorne painted the picture:
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. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude (Hawthorne, 1835).
The reader cannot breath and for the most part of the story there is no way to relax. After the terrible experience on the way to the meeting, the next scene was more intense. There was a gathering of members of his community. These were respectable men and women of society but in that gathering, Goodman Brown could not believe his eyes when he saw them transform into their real self. They were not pious men and women but servants of the devil, masquerading as good people. The story ended with a far sadder note when Goodman Brown died disillusioned and with a broken heart.
The major differences in these two stories can be seen not only in the desired effect of the author but also on how they dealt with the subject of religion. In the first scene of Mr. Twain’s short story, the author wrote: “I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley—Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley—a young minister of the gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of this village of Boomerang” (Twain, 1865). The fictitious character was a reverend with a funny name – Smiley. The author already said that this was a fictitious character in the first paragraph and so it became clear that this was a prank the moment he mentioned that he was looking for a reverend and not just an ordinary fellow.
Contrast this to the rather serious treatment of religion in Hawthorne’s work. In the opening lines alone the author said that Goodman Brown is from Salem village. The name itself conjures ideas of wicked women with magic spells and witch hunts where many felt the scorn of religious leaders. Hawthorne is very serious while Mark Twain led his readers to a place where they can talk about religious figures without fear.
Another major difference is how the authors described the behavior of their characters. With Hawthorne the characters were very pious and it is important for them to appear religious and to follow the norms of society. With Twain’s characters on the other hand one will find them in taverns, in a horse race, in dog fights where people bet which dog can defeat the other in mortal combat. These vices are absent in Hawthorne’s short story because everyone there is preoccupied with their obligation to appear pious in public.
After reading the Twain and Hawthorne’s works it is easy to conclude that there are different kinds of culture that existed in 19th century America. There are those who are like the Puritans and there are those who are not so concern with their religion. There are those who are mindful of what others will say about their character and there are those who will indulge in the sins of the flesh without feeling a little bit of remorse.
These two different and yet compelling works of fiction also reveal different world views. Twain sees the world as a place where one can pull a prank against a friend and at the end that friendship blossoms even more. Hawthorne on the other hand saw the serious side of life wherein there are faithful men and there are hypocrites. Hawthorne is saying that there are religious men and women in American society who only appear good in the outside but deep down they are rotten as the dead bodies found in tombstones. These two contrasting views are needed to fully understand American culture in the 19th century. It is a country shaped by religion and yet at the same time there are people who react to the transforming force of religion by questioning its authority while others simply make fun of it in a non-offensive way.