The people living in the United States of America are some of the most liberated people in the world. The majority of the people living in this country are well aware of their religious freedom and human rights. It is therefore hard to imagine that more than 300 years ago, there was a group of people living in Massachusetts who could not tolerate others; especially those whose views are not in conformity to their own. The Puritans were both celebrated and reviled in history. But for Nathaniel Hawthorne the way they persecuted non-conformists made him loathe them.
The only problem is that he is related to some of the most notorious figures of that era. He wrote a significant number of works to help him deal with his connection to this men and the Young Goodman Brown is one best example of how he tried to exorcise the demons of the past. The Author Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804. He was born in a place used to be called Salem, Massachusetts. His hometown was later renamed to Danvers, Massachusetts and probably for good reason. In 1692 there was a real witch hunt in this town.
Suspected witches were hanged and burned. His ancestors were leading men of Salem. One of them was William Hathorne who settled in the colony in the early part of the 17th century and then went on to become one of Salem’s spiritual builders and made a significant contribution in creating a theocratic society (Meltzer, 10). William Hathorne held many offices including magistrate and as a military leader who forced the Indians out of their homeland. Later on Nathaniel Hawthorne will use some of his exploits and misdeeds as the background for his stories.
In order to have some perspective, in the year that Nathaniel Hawthorne was born, it was also the same year that Thomas Jefferson was reelected president of the United States and about the same time when Lewis and Clark set out on an expedition to explore the West (Meltzer, 15). It means that when Hawthorne wrote Young Goodman Brown America was still a relatively young country and thus the lessons of the past are still fresh in the memories of many most especially those who came from the primary settlements such as in Massachusetts.
For Nathaniel Hawthorne his darkest secret lies in the fact that his ancestors “…earned the reputation of chasing down the wicked like a bloodhound” (Meltzer, 12). The following best describes the situation in the Salem witch trials: While the witch-hunt craze lasted, men and women, young and old, were jailed, their property confiscated and they were forced to invent testimony against innocent others. The court’s central aim was to get a confession out of the accused.
About fifty people gave in to the intense pressure and some were executed (Meltzer, 11). It will become apparent later on that Nathaniel Hawthorne made a realization; that he could do something about the dishonorable actions of his ancestors by becoming a writer. But as mentioned earlier American in the mid-19th century was not exactly a highly industrialized nation. This is bad news for an aspiring writer like Hawthorne because this means that it is extremely difficult to earn a decent living writing short stories and novels.
He had a rough start as a writer. But then he found his niche, he found his own unique style and the rest is history. The Story The Young Goodman Brown is one of the more important works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and it is about the religious experience of a young man named Young Goodman Brown. The main character was married to a young woman named Faith and one day decided to take on a strange journey deep into the woods right after sunset. It is a curious time to start traveling to another town or to any particular location.
It turns out that Young Goodman Brown was invited to attend a clandestine meeting in the darkest part of the woods. The story took a sudden turn when the highly religious Young Goodman Brown was discovered to be meeting with the devil incarnate (McCabe, par. 1). Hawthorne made a cryptic introduction of the devil when he wrote the following: But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake. So curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wiggle itself, like a living serpent.
This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light. Hawthorne did not elaborate why the pious young man consented to a meeting with the devil. This difficulty is exacerbated by the declaration of Young Goodman Brown who said: We are a people of prayer, and good works, to boot, and abide no such wickedness. The abovementioned excerpt may help answer that question – Young Goodman Brown was deceived and did not realize at first that he was talking to Satan. But that is not the most interesting part of the story.
The tale became more complicated when Young Goodman Brown saw the most highly respected people in Salem village taking part in the said devious meeting. The young man could not believe his eyes when he saw Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the old minister of Salem. The confusion was made more intense by the presence of known sinners including the hated sorcerers from the heathen tribes. The religious people of his village spoke against their kind and yet all are gathered under the trees, seeming to enjoy each other’s company.
It was also revealed to Young Goodman Brown that the prim and proper ladies in Salem village are guilty of either murder or unbridled lust. He was shocked to find out about the hypocrisy and the deception. But his life was about to be destroyed by what he saw next. In the beginning of the story Hawthorne made it clear that aside from religion Young Goodman Brown’s purpose in life is to love and cherish his wife, Faith. He was not only madly in love with his young and beautiful wife but he considered her as his anchor and helps him keep focus.
At the climax of the story however, Young Goodman Brown saw his wife in the meeting and willingly participated in the demonic rituals. Needless to say, the young man was crushed and he would never recover. He went on to live for a long time. At his funeral he was survived by an older looking Faith, by his children and grandchildren. But he died a broken man full of gloom that his family never bothered to inscribe anything in his tombstone. It seems that it is best for him to die rather than live. The Context As they say it is all about context.
The story can be interpreted different ways but the correct interpretation will have to have an understanding of the context. One critic provided the initial foray into the study of context when he wrote, “Despite Hawthorne’s reputation as a romancer who preferred to create a ‘neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land’ … he paid careful attention to historical settings for most of his literary works (Person, 16). Hawthorne based his story on historical facts but most importantly he based it on the actions of his ancestors.
A deeper examination of his lineage will reveal that, “Puritanism and the history of early Massachusetts settlements – Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Salem – form one important context in which to understand Hawthorne’s writing” (Person, 16). It must be noted that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-great grandfather was William Hathorne. William Hawthorne was well known for ordering one Quaker woman – Ann Coleman – to be whipped while walking the streets of Salem. John Hathorne the son of William Hathorne was also made notorious by presiding in the equally infamous Salem witch trials in 1692.
One should also note that the letter “w” is missing from the last names of the aforementioned ancestors. This could mean that the author was less than thrilled to be associated with these men. In fact, “…Hawthorne referred to each of these ancestors as a ‘bitter persecutor who possessed all the Puritanic traits both good and evil. Hawthorne felt haunted by these ancestors and took shame upon himself…” (Person, 17). It can be said that Nathaniel Hawthorne had to rectify what was done in the past through his stories and novels.
The link to the Salem witch trials and the plot of Young Goodman Brown can be seen in how Hawthorne used details from the trial and incorporated it into the story. The most important aspect of the Salem witch trial that Hawthorn used was encapsulated in a concept called “specter evidence” (Person, 18). This is the belief that people could give Satan permission to mimic them in a supernatural way and then using that likeness, the devil could then move freely within the community to tempt others. In Young Goodman Brown the concept of “spectral evidence” was used to the hilt.
Critics assert that the people that Young Goodman Brown encountered are the specters of everyone he knew (Person, 18). Unfortunately, the young man believed the specter to be the real thing and as a result his life was turned upside down. The sense of gloom felt by Young Goodman Brown is but a reflection of what Hawthorne felt because what his ancestors did he could not forget, “It was a family bloodstain Nathaniel Hawthorne could never rid himself, of even after more than a hundred years had passed since those ancestors died” (Meltzer, 14). But he tried his best. The Intentions of the Author
Based on the preceding discussion and based on a careful analysis of Young Goodman Brown it would appear that Hawthorne had at least three intentions when he began to write this piece of literature and these are listed as follows: 1. Hawthorne wanted to show that it is counterproductive to have legalistic communities; 2. Hawthorne wanted to show that religious bigotry accomplishes nothing of long lasting significance; 3. Hawthorne wanted to show that some of the religious people in the past are guilty of hypocrisy and if truth be told they deserved to be hanged and burned just like the suspected witches in the Salem witch trials; and finally
4. Hawthorne tried to demonstrate that suspicion can lead to distrust and paranoia. Nathaniel Hawthorne was able to accomplish all of the above by creating a great work of fiction. In this work of fiction he used the aforementioned concept called “spectral evidence” to make Young Goodman Brown believed that the people he saw were indeed acting on their own free will. It was an improbable story but worked well to develop the ideas of Hawthorne.
It was the contrasting subplots; the first one shows a group of pious people living in Salem village, the second one shows the same group of people living a double life by being true worshippers of the devil. In Hawthorne’s storyline he was able to criticize and make fun of the religious order of yesteryears. He also made no qualms in exposing the excesses of the Puritans. He was also able to show that if people isolate themselves by persecuting others – especially the nonconformists – and driving them out of the community then they will lack the necessary feedback mechanism that will tell them they are living in excess.
The tragedy of Young Goodman Brown is the lack of communication and the inability to reach out to others as shown by the behavior of the main character. Conclusion In Young Goodman Brown the story can only be understood by examining the historical background of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s ancestors participated in the violent persecution of those who failed to conform to the standards set forth by the Puritans. This means that those who disagree can leave anytime but for those who wanted to stay, they must learn to live by the rules. Those who will not conform will have to suffer by flogging, hanging, and burning.
For Nathaniel Hawthorne building a highly legalistic society can backfire and instead of creating a harmonious community the byproduct is hypocrisy and secret sins. But most importantly if people isolate themselves then they are impeding progress in their spiritual journey. By erecting a facade of religiosity or by not opening up and reaching out to others, people will become paranoid and die with an unresolved inner turmoil. In the case of Young Goodman Brown he made a mistake of judging the specters as real and so he decided not to be in communion with his own people.
There could also be another interpretation, that what he encountered were not specters and that what really happened is that he fell asleep and dreamt that he was in a demonic meeting attended by religious leaders and his wife. Irregardless of which one is truth, Young Goodman Brown could have fixed everything if only he reached out to his wife, to his pastor, to the elders of the church and initiated dialogue. But unfortunately Young Goodman Brown took the easy path and it is to build a high wall made out of pride and the erroneous thinking that he alone knew the truth.
Works Cited Alkana, Joseph. The Social Self: Hawthorne, Howells, William James, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Demas, Corrine. Great American Short Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. , 2004. McCabe, Michael. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Goodman Brown. 27 July 1998 Florida Gulf Coast University. 26 October 2008 <http://itech. fgcu. edu/faculty/wohlpart/alra/Hawthorne. htm>. Meltzer, Milton. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography. MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2007.
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