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

Teaching Narrative Structure with Kurt Vonnegut

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The hero about to embark on his journey

Hello all! It has been a very long time since I’ve posted because I’ve been busy pursuing my B. Ed. and with some major life changes (I’m having a baby in April!). I’ve also been posting mostly about education on my professional blog Teaching and Learning with Ms. McClelland. I’m still reading voraciously, currently reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and after that will be embarking on volume 5 (The Captive and the Fugitive) of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. This post though combines both teaching and literature, so I thought I’d share it here 🙂

I watched a video recently (see below) of Vonnegut delivering a lecture on the shapes of stories. It is entertaining and insightful, as Vonnegut often is, which made me think that it would be a perfect “Minds On” or “Hook” (or start of the lesson in layperson’s terms) in a unit on Narrative. This video is so approachable, it could be used for grades as young as 4, to as high as 12. First 24 seconds of the video is voiceover, so just skip ahead to get to the good stuff!

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Two Views of Poetry Part Two: Lowell’s “Fishnet” and the Poet’s Place in History

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“I lie on a bed staring, crossing out, writing in, crossing out what was written in, again and again, through days and weeks. Heavenly hours of absorption and idleness…intuition, intelligence, pursuing my ear that knows not what it says. In time, the fragmentary and scattered limbs become by a wild extended figure of speech, something living…a person.”[i]

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Two Views of Poetry Part One: Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell

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Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell are two modern American poets who share quite a few similarities in their views on the poet and what the poet should be doing when making poetry. Both were writing in the mid-20th century, with Stevens dying in 1955 and Lowell in 1977. They also share the commonality of producing some of their most well-known works later in life. Rather than having a mid-life crisis, these poets had an explosion of creativity and genius that resonates to this day. I’ve been on huge poetry kick lately, so I wanted to take a look at “Of Modern Poetry” by Stevens and “Fishnet” by Lowell as exemplars of their views on what it means to make poetry. I chose these two poems because both use the metaphor of the theatre and the act of performance to ruminate on poetry. Continue reading

“It’s dark there, but full of diamonds”: Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman as Bipolar

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“I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts.”[i]

 

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller has one of the more memorable characters of American theatre: the aging, failed salesman Willy Loman. Willy Loman serves an important role in American literature as marking the failure of the American dream, and causing exasperation and depression to high school and university students saddled with reading of his plights. I have a complicated relationship with Death of a Salesman. I initially read it to better my knowledge of American literature (I am woefully underread in that department), and hated it. Not because it was poorly written, or even because it was boring; I mainly disliked it because it upset me so much. I mean, Loman commits suicide and then no one comes to his funeral. There are Shakespearean tragedies more cheerful than that. Now that I’ve been re-reading it with some of my students, I had an awakening. No, it is not my favourite play now, but what I realized is that there is something off about Willy beyond him merely being upset with his life circumstances. I think there is a sizeable case to interpret Willy as suffering from bipolar disorder. Now, I can almost guarantee Miller did not intend to write Willy as bipolar, but if we compare the signs and symptoms of bipolar type I with some of Willy’s behaviours in the play, you will see that my point isn’t completely crazy. I’m not the first one to make this claim either, I merely wanted to contribute my two cents. The first thing I want to do is clearly define the disorder before turning towards the play itself. If you already have a clear handle on bipolar disorder, feel free to skip straight to the exegesis. Continue reading