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Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne

20 Oct 2017Literature Essays

Nathaniel Hawthorne is a critically acclaimed author in world literature. He gained recognition as the writer behind the novel The Scarlet Letter. However, Hawthorne also penned many short stories, those which he is best known for. One of those short stories was Young Goodman Brown.

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The story revolves someone named Goodman Brown, a young man who had been married for three months and was about to leave his wife Faith at sunset to go on an unspecified journey (Hawthorne, 1937). After saying goodbye to Faith, Goodman Brown proceeds to enter the dark realm of the forest, wherein an old man of about fifty years awaits him. At this point in the story, the readers are still unaware of the protagonist's destination. Meanwhile, as they traveled deeper into the forest, they encounter some of the Goodman Brown's townsfolk—most of whom are well-respected citizens. Soon, it was revealed that the journey of Goodman Brown led to a witches' meeting. Goodman Brown was shocked to find most of the people he knew to be God-fearing belonged to this wicked congregation. However, he was most shocked to find his innocent and kind wife in attendance as well. While he was calling out to her, he found himself alone in the forest and the images of the witches' meeting were absent. Goodman Brown was uncertain if what he had witnessed was indeed true, or if what he saw was merely a bad dream. Regardless of the true nature of what had really happened in the forest, he was forever altered. He never saw the townspeople the same way again; his relationship with his wife never returned to the way it was before he left for the forest. As a result, he died a miserable man (Hawthorne, 1937).

What could Hawthorne's story mean? It could be interpreted in two ways. First, it can be seen as one man's struggle with temptation. When Goodman Brown spoke to his wife before his departure, he said that his journey "as thou callest it, forth and back again" (Hawthorne, 1937, p. 1033). Goodman Brown was prompted to take part in such journey as sin and temptation have called him frequently. This situation appears to demonstrate how people are human beings are often lured by temptation and sin. Goodman Brown said this about his wife: "she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven" (Hawthorne, 1937, p. 1033). He said this because he thought his wife was good while he was the one who was swayed by temptation. This was the reason why he called his decision to leave "his present evil purpose" (Hawthorne, 1937, p. 1033).

Goodman Brown's companion on his journey to the witches' meeting could have been the devil. He was a mysterious old man who disappeared and was most notable for the staff he carried. Hawthorne (1937) described the staff as that which "bore the likeness of great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent" (p. 1034). In fact, this description allows the story to be interpreted the same way as the story of Adam and Eve. In this instance, Goodman Brown can be the representation of Adam as the man lured by the devil to eat from the forbidden tree. His elder companion in the forest was the devil, and it was his staff which served as the serpent that was to tempt people into committing evil deeds. In the end, his experience with the devil had corrupted him and damaged him for life.

The second interpretation can be that the story is about false pretenses and mistaken opinions. Goodman Brown had embarked on a journey to the witches' meeting, leaving his good wife, as well as the noble and incorruptible people of Salem behind. He is accompanied by the devil as they go further into the depths of the forest. In the beginning, Goodman Brown was eager to abort his plan and return home. He told the elder man, "We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs; and shall I be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path" (Hawthorne, 1937, p. 1034). Goodman Brown knew his family's respectable history and he initially thought that none of his family members were previously involved in such evil pursuit. The devil was quick to correct him: "They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight" (Hawthorne, 1937, p. 1034).

Goodman Brown would soon learn that his grandfather and father were not as respectable as he thought; the former hurt a Quaker woman and the latter participated in burning a village. He mused, "We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness" (Hawthorne, 1937, p. 1035). As the journey progressed, Goodman Brown became more convinced that people he knew were not as they appeared to be. Goody Cloyse, the woman who taught him catechism, was also a participant in the witches' meeting. The minister and Deacon Gookin were also present in the gathering. Most importantly, Faith was there as well. The wife who Goodman Brown thought was righteous was also evil. Goodman Brown had suffered immensely after what he witnessed in the forest. His perception of the people in his town had drastically changed, as he was able to break through their proper facades and see for himself their evil ways. Whether or not what occurred in the forest was real or not, Goodman Brown's faith in people was already altered.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Young Goodman Brown is a text which is open to multiple interpretations. It can be seen as similar to the tale of Adam and Eve; it tells of the protagonist Goodman Brown's fall from grace as he was tempted to sin by walking into the witches' meeting with the devil. It can also be seen as a cautionary tale about people and the artificial masks which they put on. While they are religious and upright from the outside, they can be evil in reality. Regardless of the interpretation, the tale conveys one message: man's struggle with the evils he is confronted with. Human beings must deal with the constant threat of sin and evil in their everyday lives. As shown by the characters in the story, there are those who do not succeed in this struggle. Thus, Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a story which presents the evils in the midst of men and the failure of many to defeat them.

Reference

  • Hawthorne, N. (1937). The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne (N.H. Pearson, Ed.). New York: Random House, Inc.
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