Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”

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“Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.”

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted! I was in Quebec studying French over the summer and have been rather busy all around. For my first post in ages, I wanted to present an analysis of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Why this choice? Is it because each school year is just a slow descent into corruption and despair, like the journey of our Goodman Brown? Maybe for some, but that’s not the reason.

“Young Goodman Brown” is sometimes used at the beginning of the school year to introduce high school students to literary analysis. It’s a story that’s simultaneously easy and tricky to analyze. There’s entry points for even those that are new to dissecting short stories, but it still has some difficult elements such as some of the language Hawthorne uses or grappling with some of the larger themes regarding Puritan hypocrisy. Thus, I hope this will be helpful for those trying to unravel “Young Goodman Brown.”

If you haven’t read it, you can find a link to the short story here and my analysis below. I’ve organized the analysis chronologically rather than thematically, so if there’s any part of the story you want to know more about (what’s with the old man’s staff?), you can scroll through and find it.

First, the names of the main characters are worth mentioning. Hawthorne chose the names of Goodman Brown and Faith specifically. “Goodman” isn’t actually a first name, like Robert or James, but is a term of address, similar to “mister”. A Goodman in Puritan England is someone of a middle social rank. Giving Goodman Brown a generic name of middle rank turns him into an Everyman, intended to be relatable to most people. His wife is named Faith, and her role in the story is to represent just that. She is not meant to be religious faith in general though, but also faith in the Puritan community Goodman Brown is part of. You can see later in the story that his attitude towards the community takes a turn for the worse when he loses faith in Faith.

Hawthorne is not coy in his intentions with the story; from the very first sentence we know that Goodman Brown is going to undergo a change as he immediately crosses a threshold (a common metaphor for change in literature) and he gets a warning from his wife not to go into the forest at night. Think of Faith as that person watching a horror movie saying “oh don’t go in the basement!” We know exactly where that character is going.

As mentioned above, Faith is supposed to be all things good and Christian, and her purity is represented through the pink ribbons in her hair. Pay attention to the ribbons throughout the story as they come up later.

The gloomy forest that Goodman Brown ventures is scary to him because it represents the test of his faith, but also because the forest is actually scary for Puritans. Newcomers to America were wary of the wilderness, and of the First Nations that lived there. Goodman Brown remarks “There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree” before remarking “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow?” Hawthorne here foreshadows the arrival of the devil, while also capturing the Puritan suspicion of essentially anything outside their communities.

So you know that phrase “speak of the devil”? Well, Goodman Brown did just that and not even a paragraph later does the devil appear, right at the point where it is “deep dusk” and everything is dark in the forest. How Hawthorne characterizes the devil is important. He makes multiple comments on how similar Goodman Brown and the man in the forest is, saying the man is “bearing a considerable resemblance to [Goodman Brown]” and that “they might have been taken for father and son”. The resemblance Goodman Brown bears to the man/devil represents that everyone is capable of evil and everyone has some evil inside of them. Goodman Brown perhaps more so because of the acts of his forefathers.

The devil carries a staff with him, which is an important symbol in the story. The staff bears “a likeness to a great black snake” that could “almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”. The staff the devil holds represents temptation, with the serpent serving as an allusion to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Naturally, the devil offers the staff to Goodman Brown, right before revealing that his father and grandfather, who Goodman Brown thought were righteous men, were not actually so innocent. The grandfather had a part in the witch trials in Salem and his father set fire to a First Nations village during King Philip’s War. Learning the truth about his father and grandfather is just the first in a series of disillusionments of Goodman Brown, as he soon learns that a townswoman named Goody Close, who taught him his catechism, is actually a witch who colludes with the devil. The amount of people who Goodman Brown thought to be good but actually are impure are rising.

It’s important to note how Hawthorne is using pathetic fallacy in the text too. As Goodman Brown travels on and discovers more horrible things about his family and community, the forest becomes increasingly dour. Brown and the traveller go down the path to a “gloomy hollow” and when Goodman Brown tries to make a walking stick of his own out of a maple branch, it becomes “strangely withered” suggesting that nothing good is going to come out of this forest journey.

Once the traveller leaves Goodman Brown, he discovers the true evil in his community, as more seemingly upright individuals such as Deacon Gookin pass by, readying themselves for a ritual where a “young woman is to be taken into communion”. At this point, Goodman Brown is still congratulating himself with his steadfastness despite the strange and evil things he’s been starting to see in the forest, saying that with “heaven above and Faith below” he’ll be able to stand strong against the devil. This is shattered though when Goodman Brown realizes that Faith is the woman who is going to be in the devilish ritual. The image of the pink ribbons fluttering in the breeze symbolize the loss of her innocence.

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This is the point where Goodman Brown becomes convinced at the lack of goodness in the world, saying “Come, devil; for to thee the world is given.” It is now that the forest is truly terrifying as well, as there is the “creaking of trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians…as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn.” Goodman Brown is starting to lose it as he loses faith (literally with his wife and figuratively), and the narrator comments that “the fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man”, drawing back to the theme of how evil lives within all men; no one is safe.

Coming upon the ritual, the narrator draws attention to the hypocrisy of the Salem community as there are people from all areas of community there, and many who are supposedly devout, coming “from some of the holiest pulpits in the land.” There are “chaste dames and dewy virgins” but also “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame,” showing that no one is truly as righteous as they claim to be.

Goodman Brown approaches the congregation and receives a speech from a dark figure (presumably the devil) who clearly lays out all the key themes previously hinted at in the text. The figure outlines how every person has some sin within them and are guilty of crimes against God, citing examples like  how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom” and “how fair damsels–blush not, sweet ones–have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral.”

Everyone in the congregation seem resigned to being fallen and sinful all except for Faith and Goodman Brown. Goodman Brown rejects the devil’s invitation and looks up to heaven, inviting Faith to do so as well. The big problem that will plague Goodman Brown the rest of his days is he never finds out if Faith joins him in the rejection as he finds himself in an empty forest. From that day forward he becomes “stern, sad” and “darkly meditative” and is always contemplating the evil that is in men’s hearts. He rejects Faith (and thus what she represents as Puritan values and society) and is unpleasant and often “scowling” the rest of his days.

Goodman Brown never gets over his realization of hypocrites within the community and his idealized view of his wife is dashed too when he realizes she is human like everyone else, and thus prone to flaws and sin too. A gloomy tale for a fall day, and a clear example of why Hawthorne is considered one of the Dark Romantics.

 

 

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Vonnegut’s One Rule

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This little post is more personal than literary, although it does involve a Kurt Vonnegut quote from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. As I’m sure many of you do from time to time, I often wonder about how to live a good and moral life. These ruminations have increased since the birth of my son one year ago.

Every parent has wishes for their child, and what I hope for my son more than anything is encapsulated in this quote. Of course if he was smart, or funny, or good at sports, music, other manner of talents it will also be amazing, but above all else, I hope that he will be kind. At the end of the day that’s what I strive for as well, although I don’t always accomplish it.

Do you agree with Vonnegut’s rule? Do you live by another one? I’m always interested to know.

Comparing Rowena’s Rooms in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia

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I’ve been reading some Sir Walter Scott lately. Any serious reader of 19th century literature has to have at least cursory knowledge of Scott’s writing, as his influence on pop culture and his writers of the age like Goethe, Eliot, and Austen was immense. As I was reading through Ivanhoe, specifically the part where Rowena’s room is described I got the strangest feeling of deja vu.

Following a hunch, I dug out my copy of Poe’s Ligeia and found what I was looking for. Rowena’s room, which is a highly symbolic element of Ligeia and is the site of major plot events, was heavily borrowed from Rowena’s room in Ivanhoe. 

It’s no secret Poe took influence from Scott in the creation of his Rowena. He very much intends to make use of the “girl next door” vs. “femme fatale” trope that Scott uses masterfully with the mild-mannered Rowena and dangerous Other, Rebecca. But, the question I asked myself as I started comparing the passages is, what is Poe taking from Scott, and in what ways is he extending Scott’s imagery and ideas? Continue reading

Fiction is a Passport to Anywhere

Art shows us many worlds

In honour of finally finishing all the volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I decided to share this quote from Time Regained, which captures one of the main reasons why I love reading.

Thanks to reading, I have lived many lives. I have seen a brave new world as Prospero’s daughter and seen the brave new world that John Savage saw when he hung himself. I have witnessed one hundred years of solitude and the fall of the House of Usher.

Like Tiresias, I have been man and woman. I have been madness maddened searching for a white whale. I have been a genteel woman in the English countryside, hoping for a suitable match for a husband. I, like Tiresias, have witnessed the empty romance of the typist and the young man carbuncular and the enduring romances of Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, and so many others.

I have gone through the looking glass, through the wardrobe, and through the wall to Diagon Alley. I’ve been abducted by Tralfmadorians and been instructed not to panic (and to bring a towel).  I’ve awoken to found myself transformed into a monstrous vermin and (more than once) awoken to find it was all a dream.

What lives will you live today?

For those who like to criticize generations

 

Our Generation Waiting For Godot

People like to rag on this generation, the generation before us, even the generation to come. Ultimately, we are all human and have virtues and vices alike. There is good and terrible music made every decade and each generation is entitled in their own special way.

I’m a big fan of absurdist theatre. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is my favourite play. I’ve seen Beckett’s Waiting for Godot 3 times and have enjoyed it every time despite its bleakness. When I saw this quote while reading the stageplay I had to put it up on the blog. It’s a bit depressing, yes, but I don’t think it’s wrong.

Thackeray on Kindness

Never lose a chance of saying a kind word. As Collingwood never saw a vacant place in his estate but he took an acorn out of his pocket and popped it in; so deal with your compliments through life. An acorn costs nothing; but it may sprout

If you read Vanity Fair or The Luck of Barry Lyndon (or watched the amazing Kubrick adaptation), you discover pretty quickly that Thackeray is a cynic. His books are filled with some characters who are truly delightful, extremely awful, and always amazingly human. But I think at the end of the day Thackeray believes in humanity, or at least some human individuals, and delivers to us this piece of advice from Vanity Fair on the benefit of kindness.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, you never know much or in what way you’re impacting the world. Being kind can make a much bigger difference than you might think. I’m incredibly shy and for a long time would rarely give out compliments (or you know, talk to people in general), but I found that being kind, even in little ways, changed the perceptions people have of you and make the world a little bit better of a place.

Remember: you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life. Letting them know they look beautiful today or you thought they did a good job leading the last staff meeting can make a big difference. So go out and give a genuine compliment today! See what happens 🙂

Earle Birney’s “El Greco: Espolio” and the Banality of Evil

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“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

–Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Our actions often have unintended consequences. Things we create have the power to affect others in ways we couldn’t imagine. Canadian poet Earle Birney explores this idea in his moving poem “El Greco: Espolio”, which examines a famous incident in Western culture and takes a look at the often less thought about players in the scene.

Continue reading