First & Last Name
10 April 2005
A Walk with the Devil: Young Goodman Brown
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is tale of one man’s journey down the path to evil, or is it? Hawthorne’s frequent use of symbolism and generalization in this particular story still causes critics to create a myriad of interpretations of the story’s meanings. The main character, Young Goodman Brown, takes a stroll in the woods at dusk, where he encounters the Devil, a witches’ dark Sabbath, and he and his wife’s initiation to lose their very souls. Whether or not Brown actually experiences these odd events is another point of controversy. Contrary to some critics’ opinions, Brown is not evil and his intent is not to partake in a dark ritual. In fact, I argue that Young Goodman Brown does not even meet with the Devil in those dark woods, for he dreams of these strange encounters, or experiences a hallucination, possibly as the product of an undiagnosed mental illness.
“No one, for example, can say with certainty whether Young Goodman Brown really meets with the Devil and is initiated into general human nastiness […]” (Crews x). This idea should be foremost in every reader’s mind when trying to interpret “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne’s writing style has a certain vagueness in some areas, which helps fuel most of the conflicting controversy surrounding it. “The impression that the story hovers on the borderline between subjective and objective reality derives from Hawthorne’s suggestion that Brown’s experience is peculiar to him and yet broadly representative” (Levy 376). The best approach to this story should be a literal approach, but it is necessary to have an active imagination as well. Take notice that Hawthorne’s anonymous narrator has a tendency to mislead the reader. Thomas Walsh comments that, “[...] Hawthorne’s method in ‘Young Goodman Brown’ is such that the tale’s full meaning cannot be determined by the narrative itself [...]” (Walsh 331). Such an idea may seem daunting at first, but works of fiction only exist with the intention for the reader to produce some degree of fantasy. Without this ability, a reader would not be able to comprehend stories with battles in far-off planets, men who can fly, or invaders from Mars, even though, as far as we know, these things do not exist. Upon investigating other aspects of this story, we can see how “Young Goodman Brown” contains fantastic qualities that allow critics to develop interpretations.
The topics of religion and faith are constant elements in the story, from the Puritanical setting in Salem Village (fittingly, along with mentions of the Salem Witch Trials), to a wild, demonic mass in the midnight hour. In addition, Young Goodman Brown’s wife, Faith, is a topic of controversy among critics of the fable. Faith not only seems to represent Brown’s own faith (both in religion and in humankind), but also his stability. After Brown leaves Faith in their cottage that evening and sets off into the woods, things get ever worse for him the further he travels away from his young wife, which shows “The physical movement away from Faith, marking his own loss of faith [...]” (Walsh 332). This separation from Faith symbolizes Brown’s loss of his own faith in God. Faith’s pink hair ribbons are strong symbols in the story, as well. Not only do the ribbons stand out strongly by being mentioned several times prior to Brown’s departure that evening, but when he finds what he believes to be one of them fluttering from the treetops later that night, he sees it as a decisive sign that Faith is a follower of the Devil, forever lost to him. Many critics give more emphasis on her ribbons than is necessary, for Hawthorne only engrained them in the beginning of the story so the reader would remember them whenever Brown imagined finding one in the woods. The ribbons are only a reminder of Brown’s gradual loss of faith.
Strong, religious integration is even more apparent when the rigorous influences of Calvinism and Antinomianism reveal themselves in the story’s Puritanical setting. Antinomianism is the belief that faith, not actions, dictate whether one ascends to Heaven. Although Brown has told himself time and again that his journey has an evil purpose, he continually exclaims that he has his Faith, leaving the reader to believe no matter what acts Brown may commit, he believes he will still go to Heaven. James Matthews states this fact with the comment, “‘Young Goodman Brown’ depicts a man who is so confident in his recent union with faith that he walks superciliously into the devil’s own revival without any fear whatsoever” (Matthews 74). It is only after the Devil reveals to Brown the extent that evil has spread throughout his townsfolk, does Brown’s faith begin to falter. Hawthorne’s intent seems to be pointing out the faults of Puritanical-Calvinism’s “faith, not actions” beliefs, by showing how oblivious Brown is to his proximity to deeply rooted evil:. “Hawthorne’s ubiquitous thesis that the most serious personal evil is retreat from reality and responsibility” (Mathews 73). This again shows how Calvinism allows its believers to do whatever they want in life, and they will still be able to enter into Heaven, as long as their faith stays true. Even after discovering evil in the woods, Brown himself states, “With Heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the Devil” (Hawthorne 273). Instead of heading back home, Brown continues into the woods, ever-dependant on his faith alone to preserve his soul. Phrases and actions issued by Brown throughout the story are prime examples of one’s faith, and not ones’ deeds (or misdeeds) being all that matters in life.
The state of humanity in general also seems to be in question in “Young Goodman Brown,” according to some critics. R.H. Fogle claims that “Hawthorne does not wish to propose flatly that man is primarily evil; rather he has a gnawing fear that this might be true” (Hurley 410). This, of course, would imply that Brown has evil intentions, and that he truly represents all of humankind. David Levin compares the events to the story to the actual Salem Witch Trials with the statement, “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonist Goodman Brown commits the very mistakes that Brattle and Mather belatedly deplored in 1692. He lets the Devil’s true statements about the mistreatment of Indians and Quakers prepare him to accept counterfeit evidence [...]” (Levin 344). Largely, these statements are interesting because they claim that all men are evil to some degree, where, at least in this case, Salem Village is the source of the evil, for the problem of witchcraft is not as seemingly rampant elsewhere. Some of Hawthorne’s research actually is possibly directly from Cotton Mather’s writings on the subject of the Salem Witch Trials. “Hawthorne, indeed, virtually quotes Mather in placing Martha Carrier among the witches as a ‘rampant hag’ and promised ‘queen of hell’” (Robinson 218). In the story, the Devil claims, “[...] I would not for twenty old women hobbling before us that Faith should come to any harm [...]” (Hawthorne 277). This is a fitting statement, because the people of Salem Village executed twenty men and women for practicing witchcraft during the time of the Salem Witch Trials. The insinuations and fears of the people of Salem Village caused the deaths of those very same people.
Aside from the religious implications and generalizations of humanity’s tendencies towards evil, some criticism focuses on Brown’s own, possibly evil intents. Whether Brown is sinful or not is a broad subject open for review. Brown’s ever-growing loss of faith is monumental, for not only is faithlessness a sin in and of itself, but, once again, according to Calvinism, Brown will no longer be able go to Heaven without faith. The further he moves away from Faith, the weaker his resolve. In regards to the evils of men, there are many comparisons between the dark woods Brown has entered and his own soul. According to Thomas Walsh, “[...] the journey into the black depths of Young Goodman Brown’s soul, paralleled by his journey into the dark undergrowth of the forest” (Walsh 333). The more Brown’s faith escapes him, the blacker both the forest and his own nightmares become, until he is able to bear them no more.
Astute critics have concluded that Brown suffers from a mental illness, most likely schizophrenia, due to his visions. Since psychology was uncommon at best at the time of this particular tale (Wilhelm Wundt, the “Father of Psychology,” was not born until 1832), it is very likely that, if Young Goodman Brown suffered from a diseased mind, it would be unknown to himself and those close to him. Brown may very well have suffered from hallucinations and delusions. Faith herself said, “[...] put off your journey until sunrise [...] A lone woman is troubled by such dreams and such thoughts [...]” (Hawthorne 271). Of all people, Faith may have known Brown to suffer from spells, and thought it unsafe for him to travel at nighttime. These spells are quite frequent. Well past the point of coincidence, every time Brown has a thought, soon afterwards a dark version of that idea appears before him. In their first encounter in the woods, not only does the Devil closely resemble Brown, but also, later in the tale, Brown appears as the Devil first did to him, with the same staff and diabolic laughter. Brown runs madly through the woods, laughing and yelling like a maniac, “Let us hear which will laugh loudest! Think not to frighten me with your deviltry! Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself! And here comes Goodman Brown” (Hawthorne 279). As to whether these occurrences are a dream or a vision, “[...] then the evil he saw, like the witchcraft reported in Salem in 1692, was the product of his own fancy with no reality save that supplied by his depraved imagination” (Hurley 412). It is easy to infer a multitude of meanings from Brown suffering from these constant visions, but that would be a prognosis best left for a licensed psychologist.
As illustrated, Hawthorne’s writing style has the ability to generate many open-ended questions. Throughout the story, Hawthorne’s narration and visualization of Brown and his surroundings leave plenty of room for the imagination; for they are never precisely clear enough for the reader to be sure what is happening to Brown at any given time, until the story’s end. For example, all the reader knows for sure is that Brown “[...] is alone, cut off from humanity with but one companion, the devil, his own evil genius” (Walsh 333). It is not until the moment after the climax of the events, and Brown faces Faith on the altar at the witches’ Sabbath, and cries, “Faith! Faith! Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!” (Hawthorne 283), does the reader get the first glimpse of a real clue to the intensity of Brown’s visions. After Brown’s urgent plea to Faith, he suddenly finds that he is now alone in a calm, wooded surrounding. Hawthorne now shows Brown’s reactions to the transition from his vision to the stark realization of his true surroundings. Brown “[...] staggered against the rock and felt it chill and damp, while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew” (Hawthorne 284). Although Brown had seen the visions come and go before, none was as final as the disappearance of the dark altar. Most important, Brown experiences his first, genuine senses to this point of the story with feeling the cool rock and the dew on his cheek. Even after this phenomenon, Brown still does not realize he suffers from delusions, which is the best proof found that not only does Brown experience a horrible dream, but it is most likely produced by his diseased mind, since any sane person would have established this fact.
In fact, Brown never does actually meet with the Devil at all. Brown is already in the woods prior to the start of “Young Goodman Brown,” and dreams of the tale in its entirety, until the point after the imagined Black Sabbath, when he awakens alone in the woods. Most likely, Brown grows tired while in the woods, and stops for a rest, allowing his own dark thoughts and worries to generate the horrible nightmare that we know as “Young Goodman Brown,” the tale. Even Brown kissing Faith goodbye and departing on his journey are part of the dream. The nightmare, however, seems real enough to Brown’s already fragile mind, and causes him mental anguish upon his awakening, for now he believes his entire village is corrupt, including his precious Faith. This fact supports the theory of Brown suffering from a mental illness, since lunatics in modern times have committed strange acts based upon dreams and visions. Furthermore, the American Psychiatric Association’s textbook, the Desk Reference to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV states the following are characterizations of schizophrenia:
[...] profound disruption in cognition and emotion [...] psychotic manifestations, such as hearing internal voices or experiencing other sensations not connected to an obvious source (hallucinations) and assigning unusual significance or meaning to normal events or holding fixed false personal beliefs (delusions). (466)
As previously depicted multiple times, Brown clearly shows all of these symptoms. Brown’s schizophrenia not only causes him these visions, but to believe in them so deeply, that his psyche has left him “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become [...] and when he had lived long [...] they carved no hopeful verse upon his tomb-stone; for his dying hour was gloom’ (Hawthorne 284). Young Goodman Brown carries these incorrectly perceived notions to his grave, never realizing that he never truly walked with the Devil on that fateful night.
American Psychiatric Association. Desk Reference to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV. June 1994. 461-472.
Crews, Frederick C., ed. Great Short Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Barnes & Noble-Harper Collins, 1992. Vii-xii.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Great Short Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Frederick C. Crews. New York: Barnes & Noble-Harper Collins, 1992. 271-84.
Hurley, Paul J. “Young Goodman Brown’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.” American Literature. Vol. XXXVII, No. 4. January 1966. 410-19. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism. 29 (1997). Gale Research. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College District, Plano, TX. 17 March 2005 .
Levin, David. “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” American Literature. Vol. XXXIV, No. 3. November, 1962. 344-52. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 29. Gale Research. 1997. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College District, Plano, TX. 17 March 2005 .
Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol. LXXIV, No. 3. July, 1975. 375-87. Gale Research. 1997. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College District, Plano, TX. 17 March 2005 .
Mathews, James W. “Antinomianism in ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” Studies in Short Fiction. Vol. III, No. 1. Fall, 1965. 73-5. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 29. Gale Research. 1997. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College District, Plano, TX. 17 March 2005 .
Miller, Paul W. “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Cynicism or Meliorism?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Vol. 14, No. 1. December, 1959. 255-64. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 29. Gale Research. 1997. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College District, Plano, TX. 17 March 2005 .
Robinson, E. Arthur. “A Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation.” American Literature. Vol. XXXV, No. 2. May, 1963. 212-25. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 29. Gale Research. 1997. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College District, Plano, TX. 17 March 2005 .
Walsh, Thomas F. Jr. “The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown.” Modern Language Quarterly. Vol. XIX, No. 4. December, 1958. 331-36. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 29. Gale Research. 1997. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College District, Plano, TX. 17 March 2005 .