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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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

Twist Endings and the Morals of Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”

“How life is strange and changeful! How little a thing is needed for us to be lost or to be saved!”[i]

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Twist endings to stories, apart from their entertainment value, are interesting because they always have a specific moral attached to them. One could say this of the ending to many stories, but twists seem to send home particularly strong messages. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” for example, shows what happens when we don’t follow directions, what happens we mess with nature, and why we should never step on butterflies. Ever. Even if butterflies are creepy. Continue reading

What’s Love Got To Do With It?: “The Story of an Hour” and the Servitude of Marriage

“The Story of an Hour” is an excellent example of the idea that you don’t need to be wordy to get your message across. This succinct little story critiques the state of marriage in the late 19th century, showing the detrimental effects of power imbalance in relationships. Upon receiving news that her husband is probably dead from a railroad accident, Louise Mallard locks herself in a room where she doesn’t cry from grief, but exalts in the idea that she is finally free of the ol’ ball and chain. At the time, women were meant to be the “angel of the household.” In marriage, you are expected to become a domestic goddess, staying virtuous and in the kitchen. It was also very fashionable for women to be considered frail or delicate, and if they were rich enough, should busy themselves with sewing, music, or drawing, letting the servants do all the work, lest it strain their poor, hysteric nerves. Chopin is speaking out against this mentality, driving home the message that emancipation is preferable to staying in a stifling marriage. I wanted to offer a quick analysis of major themes and symbols in the text within this entry. If you haven’t read the story already, it is only 3 pages long, and you can access it here. Continue reading

Roger Chillingworth as Sympathetic Villain in The Scarlet Letter

Roger Chillingworth is easily my favourite character in The Scarlet Letter. His creep factor is off the charts, and I don’t mean because of his age or because he is not able-bodied, it is more his ability to always be lurking around in the weirdest places that always gets me, especially when he orchestrates a way to sail on the same ship as Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale when they’re thinking of leaving Boston. However, Chillingworth plays an interesting role in the text; he is not merely a classic mustache-twirling villain. This rumination on Roger Chillingworth is a section taken from a larger piece I’ve been working on regarding Hawthorne and the demonic. I thought it worked well as a self-contained piece too, so here it is! Continue reading

Psychic Civil War in the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

Before there was Fight Club, Edgar Allan Poe was publishing multiple stories featuring main characters with alter egos. The trope of physically representing different aspects of the mind is by no means new, and certainly did not originate with Poe. However, he definitely seems to express old tropes and genres with a special kind of style. As numerous other Edgar Allan Poe critics have mentioned before, Poe loves to fixate on certain themes within his writings. In several tales, he regales us with allegorical tales of psychic civil war between passion and reason, usually resulting in the elimination of one of these parts of the psyche by the tale’s conclusion (he is just all about murder). This theme of the conflict between passion/inclinations/baser desires and reason/morality/intellect is by no means unique, but certainly a strife that resonates with readers. Beyond wanting to write appealing stories (Poe has been called a hack by some, I say give him a break, the man needed to make a living), this conflict aligns itself with Poe’s conception of poetry and literature. The primary focus of poetry for him is Beauty (elaborated on in “The Poetic Principle”), not passion or instruction and so any character who becomes too focussed on bodily desires, as William Wilson with his lust for the duchess must be eliminated.  It also doesn’t hurt that Poe’s writing is super brutal: if he was alive today he would definitely be in a metal band. I want to look at three of his tales in particular that grapple with the fight between passion and reason: “William Wilson”, “The Black Cat”, and “The Cask of Amontillado”.

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Sewing in The Scarlet Letter, Some Quick Thoughts

Of all the varied types of cultural creations, such as visual art, literature, music and the like, I find fashion to be so interesting because of its immense practicality. Defying Oscar Wilde’s mandate from the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray that, “all art is quite useless”[i], fashion is living, useful art: you wear it on your body so that you don’t die from exposure/get charged with public indecency, as well as expressing a particular statement. Is that statement as complex or varied as something that you could express in a painting or poem? No, probably not. Nevertheless, certain types of clothing and styles make meaningful statements about your beliefs, mood, or the type of person you would like people to see you as. The creation of clothing can also be an empowering act, something that Nathaniel Hawthorne picks up on in The Scarlet Letter. Despite his gendered  description of sewing as “almost the only one within a woman’s grasp”,[ii] (give him a break he was writing in the nineteenth century), sewing within the novel is a means of Hester Prynne gaining some power in the community, as well as serving an important symbolic purpose of exposition of sin. This is a tiny meditation mainly on the chapter “Hester at her Needle”, but I’m sure my assessment of sewing extends to other parts of the text.

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