My first reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne s Young Goodman Brown gave the impression that he was trying to portray a central character’s loss of faith and spiritual tragedy. Rereading, however, reveals a more complex set of ideas. There were revelations that neither fully condemn nor condone the constructed dicing of good and evil that he utilizes over the course of Goodman Brown’s journey.
Hawthorne had much more in mind than a mere outline of good and evil. His primary struggle in Young Goodman Brown appears to be less with faith vs. the faithless, but with the points in between these circumstances. The story shows more about the journey through between two rigidly defined circumstances than about good and evil. Hawthorne describes good and evil through heavy-handed metaphors and symbols. Symbolism such as his wife’s name Faith, and the satanic communion he finds himself in the forest, he then describes Goodman Brown’s inability to adapt his self-image to the hypocrisy he finds in himself. At the same time that sin is described as a seething, pervasive hypocrisy, it is also seen as an ordinary fact of living. Hawthorne forfeits simplicity of a message in order to concentrate more fully on the journey itself.
Hawthorne’s sense of irony and sarcasm is well illustrated in an episode like Goodman Brown’s loss of his wife, Faith. Brown experiences several instances in the forest where he wants to stop, yet he always continues, because he still has Faith. When a pink ribbon flutters down to him, however, he goes half-mad and continues on to the communion, and then believing himself Faithless . Hawthorne’s use of more easily interpreted incidents and symbols like these only reinforce the idea that this is a story about much more than easy, clear divisions of human belief and behavior. Hawthorne knowingly used symbols that are slightly amusing in their simplicity because he is commenting, again, on the journey itself. His irony is implying that this is anything but an easy journey that starts out at dusk, made by a man with a wife named Faith, who meets witches in the woods, witnesses the totally corrupt nature of all humanity and then dies a lonely, tormented death. It’s the perfect Christian fairy tale nightmare, and Hawthorne seems to have used it for exactly this reason, The journey itself is never so easy , (what my father says to me).
Brown returns to his town and sees the entire community involved in perfectly hypocritical activities as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening. There is a feeling that Hawthorne is yet again suggesting that none of those simple allegories, whether in favor of good or evil, are enough to represent something as complex as faith. Hawthorne’s humor is subtle, but he uses it to talk successfully around the boundary of the issue he wants to address instead of choosing for clarity.
Hawthorne uses many other pairings to illustrate his ideas. Dark vs. light, uncertainty vs. safety, nature vs. human, and fantasy vs. reality are employed to reinforce the idea that good and evil have been set up as strict categories. These categories exist so that not even the religious figures of the community fit. Is Hawthorne preaching a more pliable attitude toward human thinking? Is he describing the hypocrisy, which undoubtedly exists in the world, and then letting Goodman Brown be a truly religious individual through his inability to accept what he sees in the forest? Or is he more concerned with the journey itself than with any specific message or description of possible outcomes? Goodman Brown’s abrupt, gloomy death seems to reinforce the last idea. Had Hawthorne been concerned with making a very particular statement about what he considers right and wrong in terms of human behavior, I think he would have spent more time building up his tragic end.
Young Goodman Brown’s painstaking journey into the forest exists in contrast to the simple dualism of good and evil. It is interesting that the journey is described in such detail. For example, clouds, trees, the shifting quality of the light, and the appearance of the fellow traveler as the journey continues to give the impression to underscore the inevitability and importance of the journey. Goodman Brown eventually finds himself betrayed by the easy categorization of good vs. evil, because he is unable to accept the possibility that goodness and sin are a part of human nature. Young Goodman Brown can’t accommodate a world in which his “race of honest men and good Christians” could have taken the same path as he and returned “merrily after midnight”.
Ultimately, Hawthorne is more concerned with the tension that exists on the journey than he is with preaching for a revised, more adaptable human. His tone is ironic: hypocrisy exists; some accept it and some don’t. Goodman Brown is the example of one who doesn’t, and he dies a gloomy death. Hawthorne’s attitude toward Goodman Brown looks as though to fall somewhere between undecided and sympathetic, despite the fact that he retains a certain distance throughout the story. Brown becomes neither the pious, tragic hero nor the fool who couldn’t take the good life when he saw it. Brown’s character seems to function primarily as a symbol of the ultimate hazards of the journey between good and evil. That Brown loses his way doesn’t mean that the path is totally obscured, just as the rest of the community’s hypocrisy does not mean that they chose the correct path. Hawthorne retains a certain distance in his treatment of Goodman Brown.
Hawthorne appears to have a reaction to the Puritan morals of his era. There was no room in between the extremes of good and evil for individuals to function. Goodman Brown’s metamorphosis into, a stern, sad, darkly meditative, distrustful, desperate man, seems to be one possible outcome of a strict Puritan standard which does not allow for a middle ground.
Hawthorne seems to say that good and evil as absolute circumstances are neither preferable nor realistic. His use of this character, who is unable to function within an absolute version of changing concepts, is more about the effects that exist in between these two circumstances, than it is about a statement on outlining a definition of “proper” human behavior.