Young Goodman Brown
In Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the tale of a man and his discovery of evil. Hawthorne s primary concern is with evil and how it affects young Goodman Brown. Through the use of tone and setting, Hawthorne portrays the nature of evil and the psychological effects it can have on man. He shows how discovering the existence of evil brings Brown to view the world in a cynical way. Brown learns the nature of evil and, therefore, feels surrounded by its presence constantly.
Hawthorne creates a serious and somber tone throughout much of the story. From the start, the audience gets a sense that Brown will go through relentless agony from the devilish stranger. His diction in the opening paragraphs is a good indicator of this. He uses words such as melancholy , evil , dreary , and grave to evoke a certain mood in the reader. There is little relief from this seriousness that would suggest that Hawthorne s attitude about the story be hopeful. Brown s attitude and actions portray a negative view of Salem and its people. He ponders the hypocrisy of the town as well as that of the Puritans. He examines the possibility that evil and corruption exist in a town that is supposedly characterized by piety and devout faith.
The story is set in seventeenth-century Salem, a time and place where sin and evil were greatly analyzed and feared. The townspeople, in their Puritan beliefs, were obsessed with the nature of sin and with finding ways to be rid of it altogether through purification of the soul. At times, people were thought to be possessed by the devil and to practice witchcraft. As punishment for these crimes, some were subjected to torturous acts or even horrible deaths. Thus, Hawthorne s choice of setting is instrumental in the development of theme.
He uses contrast as a means to portray the village as good and the forest as bad. This adds significance to the fact that Brown begins his journey in the town and proceeds then to the forest. The use of imagery captures the appearance of the forest as well as lending a sense of foreboding towards the impending evil. Hawthorne says of Brown, He had taken a dreary road, darkened by the gloomiest trees of the forest It was all as lonely as it could be (1716-1717). Immediately following this description, Brown speculates that he may not be alone in the forest. He fears that there may be a devilish Indian or the devil himself in his presence (1717). He is disturbed by the fact that he 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 (1717). This suggests to the reader that he is no longer feeling the comfort and safety he felt at home and is suspicious of what lies ahead. Brown is fearful of his mission even before leaving. However, in leaving the village, he leaves religious order, the familiarity of the scenery, and his beloved Faith. Upon entering the forest, he becomes victim to the possibility of the discovery and consequences of evil. In fact, it is in the forest where evil manifests itself to him in the form of an older man of the same dress and class as Brown. It is this experience which ultimately affects his outlook of the world.
Taken at a literal level, the story is about a man who goes on a journey to the forest and encounters various strange situations. However, the narrator is working on two levels. There are objects and characters in the story which are representative of something else. For instance, Brown s wife, Faith, represents religious faith. She also exemplifies what it means to be a good woman and wife. He worries that Faith s dreams are warnings although she is his only justification for making the evil journey. She is his hope for an excellent future . Brown describes her as, blessed angel on earth and promises that after this one night, he will, cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven (1716). When Brown, in utter despair, cries out, My Faith is gone, (1721) he refers not only to his wife but also his faith in God. He also alludes to his wife Faith as his spiritual faith when he tells the stranger, Faith kept me back awhile (1717). Literally, he means that he arrived late as a result of the conversation with his wife. However, because we know the implications of Hawthorne s tone, we realize he was kept back by something more. We can assume that it is because deep down, possibly through a surfacing of his unconscious, he knows that he is not commencing a harmless journey.
Brown is an everyman. Thus, his journey is one many people have traveled in the past and will travel in the future. Hawthorne is suggesting that everyone at some point will experience the struggle between good and evil within themselves. As members of today s society, we are immersed in the evil ways of man at an early age. All we must do is watch the evening news one night to feel bewildered at the incessant commitment of evil deeds. In a sense, Brown s experience in the forest is our reality, what we are faced with everyday. His na ve conviction that evil can be controlled can only flourish in an idealistic environment. Because he has seen that environment (or been deceived into believing he has), the discovery of evil proves even more devastating. Nonetheless, Hawthorne shows the complexity of the human experience with what is good and what is corrupt.
Salem symbolizes order and the rules that its inhabitants are guided by. It is an extremely religious town where wrongdoing is not tolerated. On the other hand, the forest, where Brown ventures, is seen as evil and full of sinners. As he travels farther into the woods, he becomes aware of the abundance of sinners within the community. Like the forest, the ominous stranger he encounters as well as his staff, represent evil. The description of the staff is much like that which we associate with the devil. The staff, bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent (1717). On more than one occasion, the stranger offers it to Brown for support and as encouragement to pursue the walk. His acquaintance says, You will think better of this and when you feel like moving again, here is my staff to help you along (1720). Brown knows the stranger is the devil and the staff will only lead him to evil. The fact that he has this knowledge suggests that he is struggling with the temptation of evil. These symbols interacting together along with the plot set the stage for Brown to confront this evil.
Brown begins his journey almost enthusiastically and with great faith. This faith is not only in God but also in his wife, the town, and his entire lifestyle. He truly believes in the Puritan way and its ability to guide him along the righteous path. The conversation between Brown and Faith as he is leaving makes one think that he actually believes that he will go on the journey and return to find things just as they were before. He is correct in his assumption that the town and the people in it do not change; however, he fails to consider the idea that his perception of them may change, which it certainly does. Upon entering the forest, it does not take long for the stranger to lure Brown in deeper causing him to abandon his former convictions. He experiences a state of confusion guiding his mind in two different directions. In one sense, he feels the dread of his continuing journey. At this time, he refuses to go any farther. He says to the stranger, my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand (1720). However, a more powerful force than his own willpower compels him to move onward. Brown begins to speculate about the idea that many other honorable people have walked the same path when the figure tells him that he knew his father and grandfather. Brown responds to the accusations that his ancestors were evil without much assertion indicating that he does have doubts. What makes it even more astonishing for Brown is that these sinners are people he recognizes to be pious and upstanding figures in the community. Upon discovering the Deacon and minister s presence, he feels overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart (1721). It is then when he has doubts of heaven s existence at all. Yet, he still vows to stand firm against the devil (1721). He is still somewhat in disbelief at seeing Goody Cloyse, the woman who taught him catechism. However, after hearing Faith s voice amidst the other sinners, he ultimately deserts his belief in the existence of good altogether. From this point on, he feels a sickening yet compelling force urging him on to the evil gathering with those he describes as grave and dark-clad company (1722).
Whether his experience in the forest is real or a dream, the effect it has on him is detrimental to his spiritual development. The figure welcomes the community saying, Depending upon one another s hearts, ye still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race (1724). These words penetrate Brown s soul so as not to be forgotten. By the end of the story, the narrator describes Brown as a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man (1724). He can no longer look upon his community with the same hopefulness he once had. He becomes cynical of his surroundings and lives his life accordingly. His discovery of evil results in his loss of grips with humanity. He comes to believe there is evil in all people and is unable to accept it. He grows old with contempt for his former idols, and never again is he able to conceive of the idea that life is pure, grand, and good. At his funeral, his family has nothing encouraging to put on his grave, and neighbors do not even bother to attend. Thus, he is depicted, even in death, as an individual unable to find happiness in his own family and friends.
As stated earlier, Hawthorne s goal is to show the discovery of evil can lead one to utter desperation and cynicism. Brown is the medium through which he is able to achieve this goal. He is successful in teaching his
audience a moral lesson; which is that in denying the idea that good exists and is capable of overpowering evil; Brown has committed the worst sin of all. Bereft of spiritual faith, his dying hour was gloom (1725).