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Young Goodman Brown Essay

Hawthorne’s story “Young Good man Brown” tells of the struggle between spiritual faith and evil temptation. In the story, this struggle is represented allegorically, which means that in the story everyday objects and people and places are given a special resonance with the story’s themes. The objects in the story function symbolically to tell a “story within the story” so to speak where each of the actions, symbols, and occurrences of the story have a larger thematic meaning. By using allegory, Hawthorne achieved a narrative style which is both moralistic and confessional in nature.

For example, the opening lines of the story indicate a sexual theme. When Faith remarks “”A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes,” and these “dreams and thoughts” are meant to be understood as erotic in nature. Along with these frightening, adult thoughts and her girlish pink ribbons, “Faith [… ] combines aspects of both guilt and innocence, “dark” and “fair” ladies,” adn therefore stands allegorically for two kinds of devotion, roughly: pure and “impure,” or sexual, devotion, (Onderdonk).

Hawthorne’s familiarity with the historical background of Puritanism coupled with his personal experiences and the history of his own family blend into the actions and allegorical resonances of “Young Goodman Brown,” functioning both as a confrontation with personal (and universal) dualities, but uniting the opposites within the well-wrought form of the story itself, although the “moral” of the story is not explicit, and there is an intentional ambiguity to the story’s climax which indicates, rather than a failure to resolve the various schisms aesthetically, an embracing of ambiguity as resolution.

This acceptance of ambiguity is therefore a symbolic rejection of Puritan surety and dogma. Hawthorne’s interest in this history was “enhanced by the roles his ancestors had played in it. His great-grandfather John Hawthorne, for example, had been one of the judges in the infamous Salem witchcraft trials, and Hawthorne’s treatment of the complexities of witchcraft in stories such as “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) thus combines national and familial regard,” (Reynolds 7). This autobiographical element is used overtly in “Young Goodman Brown” when the devil, who closely resembles Goodman himself.

Individual objects, characters, and elements of the story thus function in “dual” roles, providing, so to speak, overt and covert information. In constructing a self-sustaining iconography within the confines of a short story, Hawthorne was obliged to lean somewhat on the commonly accepted symbolism of certain objects, places, and characteristics. The story offers its symbolic association from the very beginning. The setting of the Salem Village recalls the center of the witchcraft trials, in1692, ushering in the components of a spiritual trial and a backdrop of fierce and judgmental religious faith.

Similarly, Goodman Brown’s wife is named “faith,” indicating an allegorical efficiency, wherein the reader is coaxed to recognize the elements of everyday life in a more dramatic, more spiritually profound cast. The pink ribbons of Faith’s cap provide an explicit symbolism: when later in the story, Hawthorne violates the initial conception of the “Faith” character, it is correspondingly more dramatic for his having initially presented Faith positively in symbolically explicit terms.

The pink ribbons are suggestive of sweetness and girlishness, and they are an important part of the plot, and as an emblem of heavenly faith their color “gradually deepens into the liquid flame or blood of the baptism into sin. Tied like a label to the head of Faith, they represent the tainted innocence, the spiritual imperfection of all mankind”; so, Faith is “at once an allegorical idea and the means by which the idea is inverted[… ] Not the least terrifying aspect of the story is the insinuation that Faith has made her own independent covenant with the Devil.

There is a faint suggestion that her complicity may be prior to and deeper than Brown’s, ” (McCabe). Hawthorne’s combining of everyday events and objects with profound spiritual trials extends even to the major characters of the story. The “fellow traveler” that Goodman Brown meets in the woods is “a likeness or part or ancestor of Brown himself. This man is, of course, the Devil, who seeks to lure the still reluctant Goodman to a witch-meeting. In the process he progressively undermines the young man’s faith in the institutions and the men whom he has heretofore revered,” (McCabe).

Other common objects are harvested for allegorical resonance. When the traveler throws his twisted staff at the feet of Goody Cloyse, this gesture “references the biblical story of Aaron [who] had thrown down his rod (staff) before Pharaoh, and so had the magicians of Egypt done with theirs, and all became serpents [. . . ] Therefore, within an allegorical or typological framework, the staff of Brown’s companion is being linked with the opponents of Moses and of the God of Israel. . . .

It typifies deformity, evil, all that which fascinates Brown[… ] Just as the rods (staffs) of the Egyptian magicians had become serpents when thrown down before Pharoah,” (McCabe). In the forest setting, Hawthorne emphasizes the split between the rational mind and the unconscious by moving Brown away from the town toward the woods as he pursues his baser desires and impulses. The further he moves into the woods, the more he absorbs his ‘evil’ side; in effect, confronting his “impure” sexual and spiritual desires.

The escalation of this self-confrontation, expressed through the story’s allegorical technique, is meant to pull the reader into similar inward observation, providing a catalyst for self-realization. Hawthorne’s intention is to make it difficult for his readers to “withdraw from such unsettling possibilities into their own dogmatic self-assertions, as young Goodman Brown does. If successful, a character experiences a wider sense of doubt, a questioning initiated by his or her quest that can never be adequately answered.

Both character and reader stand on the verge of more complex mysteries and sympathies than expected. Our perceptions of things, of others, and of ourselves has become unanchored, revealed as a personally imagined construction, a point of view that threatens all social bonds and often brings with it a combined sense of metaphysical elation and despair,” (Coale 22). In fact, even laughter itself is turned on end via Hawthorne’s allegorical lens. Laughter comes to represent evil.

According to Coldiron, “Hawthorne uses laughter to mark his protagonists’ epiphanies and to emphasize points of thematic conflict. . . . a Satan-figure, the elder traveler, initiates the dreadful laughter . . . . [which] mocks Brown’s naive belief in the innocence of the townspeople, as he wonders aloud how he could face his minister after such a night’s journey into evil[. . . ] the transformation of Faith’s scream into a laugh of acceptance as she joins a similarly evil gathering in progress . . . . intensifies and personalizes Brown’s perception of conflict.”

After Faith’s possible union with the Devil, Brown “initiates the horrible laughter, as the Satan-figure first did, [which] confirms not only his awareness of the opposition of good and evil forces, but also his union with, acceptance of, and even leadership in the evil viewpoint,” (McCabe). Goodman Brown, unable to accept the conflict within himself, or within others, becomes representative of the dogmatic personality, which is at last, consumed by its own prejudices and narrowness of apprehension.

While on his journey into the forest Goodman Brown observed both good and wicked people, and it was strange to see that “the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints,” (McCabe) Brown ultimately decides to “accept that everyone is evil, and he loses his chance at redemption when he makes the decision to completely isolate himself from society and even from his own wife”; in this way, Hawthorne’s allegory sends a moralistic message to individual readers regarding the necessity of communal experience.

The individual, alienated and isolated from community becomes a victim to his evil tendencies and fears of what evil others may be hiding. Likewise, the communal experience of “evil” as portrayed in the story further isolates Goodman-Brown due to his outsider status. It is by the virtues of the individual that society is collectively able to move beyond the evil as represented in the story, (McCabe).

Such a tragic result in the story does not preclude a more harmonious catharsis for the story’s author and readers. The allegorical method, by articulating thematic ideas which challenge “cut and dried” explanations of such profound realities as faith, morality, innocence, and the nature of good and evil, allowed Hawthorne to delve into issues of the utmost personal profundity, but to express them within a language and symbolic structure that anyone could understand.

Whether it is the revelation of “omnipresent sin lurking behind virtue that is given to the title character of “Young Goodman Brown” or Hawthorne’s expressed ambivalence toward his family’s past, his work demonstrates a consistent dialogue with the notion that identification (and the attendant avoidance) of evil is ultimately possible” as is reconciliation through creative expression of the psychological and spiritual schisms that can be regarded as both universal and universally problematic, (Maus 76).

The solution to the schism within society and within the individual according to Hawthorne’s allegorical tale is the understanding of balance between the needs and desires of the individual as balanced with those of the community or group. Evil is viewed as allegiance too much to one side or another: too deep of an involvement with one’s self leads to the exact kind of social and spiritual crises faced by Goodman_Brown in the story,w whereas blind allegiance to society’s strictures and rules leads to a communal expression of evil.

Hawthorne’s “hidden” message n the story may be that one must first confront and understand one’s own capacity to be or to do evil before one can confront this capacity in others. In fact, one’s own evil tendencies may color and confuse one’s perceptions of the world so deeply that one is alienated from their society and from themselves. It is important to “know thyself” as the theme of Hawthorne’s story so eloquently conveys.

By reaching through his own personal doubt, guilt, and religious ambivalence to find expression for the irony and injustice of Puritanical dogma, Hawthorne was able to embrace ambiguity, rather than stolid religious fervor, as a moral and spiritual reality. By using the symbolic resonances of everyday objects, places, and people in his fiction, Hawthorne was able to show the duality – the good and evil – in all things, and in all people, thus reconciling the sheer division of good and evil as represented by the edicts of his (and America’s) Puritanical heritage.


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