New historical criticism is a theory which highlights the idea that a literary work and the historical time frame in which it was created are inseparable from one another. The text and the context of its creation “are mutually constitutive: they create each other (Tyson 291-92). New historicists also point out that “there are only representations of history...and that interpretations always occur within a framework of social conventions” (Tyson 288-89). In other words, depending upon the author's own opinions and biases, different points of view emerge. Not only does the author have his or her own point of view but the reader needs to understand his own biases. Only once the reader has an understanding of his own preconceptions can he begin to comprehend the author's true intentions. For example, one might assume that because Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 and lived through America's “Second Great Awakening,” that he was a follower of the Puritan doctrines. After all, he did have, “prominent Puritan ancestors [who] were among the first settlers of Massachusetts and included a judge in the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692” (Levine & Krupat 1272). This assumption would be an example of my own personal bias: The belief that all those born during the 1800's with Puritan ancestors, were themselves, Puritans. Discovering my own personal bias is known as the practice of self-positioning. Self-positioning emphasizes that one must be open with his or her own “psychological and ideological positions relative to the material they analyze” (Tyson 289). Because of my initial position, while reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown,” I assumed that it was a short story in support of the Puritan lifestyle. I believed that the end was a warning against living a lifestyle that did not agree with Puritanical standards. But, after examining Hawthorne's background, it is obvious that he had some distaste for the religion. Rather than “Young Goodman Brown” being a warning, it seems to be a discourse on the contempt of such rigorous and harsh customs of certain religions.
Throughout Hawthorne's life, certain events occurred that created his distaste for the Puritan lifestyle. Namely, the “lingering guilt he felt from his great grandfather having officiated during the Salem Witch Trials” (Merriman). Because of the guilt he felt from such actions committed during a religious fervor it is most likely that he would be averse to any great religious revival. He would be especially averse to revivals like the Second Great Awakening which revolved around the Puritan-Calvinistic Religion. Because of these bias viewpoints, it is clear why Hawthorne would have written such a work as “Young Goodman Brown.” He was seeking to portray the hypocrisy of the Puritans; many of the actions they committed were sinful and intolerant, especially the Salem Witch Trials. He had such strong feelings against harsh religious ideals that he tried to sway others away from such followings. These ideals lead to a discourse which Hawthorne portrays in his short story. His ideology against such a strict religion is highlighted through his almost satirical view of Puritanism.
During the early 1800's, the “Second Great Awakening” began to occur which pushed for stronger religious convictions. At the same time, Hawthorne was involved with the Transcendentalist movement which strove for a “unity” amongst the people (Goodman). These two discourses occurring in nearly same time frame emanate the new historical idea that there is no such thing as one, solitary spirit of an age: “[T]here is no monolithic (single, unified, universal) spirit of an age...There is, instead, a dynamic, unstable interplay among discourses: they are always in a state of flux, overlapping and competing with one another...negotiating exchanges of power (Tyson 285). These two discourses, obviously with two different intents, can be viewed as competing with one another and because of Hawthorne's background, he chose to refuse the "Second Great Awakening" discourse. Therefore, “Young Goodman Brown” can be seen as an attempt to sway those in support of the “Second Great Awakening” to leave that discourse and follow his ideology. The way in which this is portrayed is through the contradictory actions performed by supposedly good Puritans in his story. Hawthorne sought to promote his discourse by showing how sinful and non-accepting the Puritans really were.
Hawthorne's contempt for the religion is evidenced almost immediately with his characterization of Faith. As a Puritan, the women of the faith were not to adorn themselves with accessories. Faith is depicted as wearing pink ribbons. Pink is a hue of red which is most commonly associated with seduction and the Devil. This immediately paints her as a contradiction to the Puritan lifestyle. This seduction is also emphasized when Faith begs Goodman Brown not to leave and to come back to bed with her:
'Dearest heart,' whispered she softly...when her lips were close to his ear, 'prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed tonight. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and thoughts that she's afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night.' (Hawthorne 1289)
This conversation seems to hint at Faith wanting her husband to stay around for more than just keeping her company. The way she is described as whispering close to his ear is a sensual action which seems to indicate that she wants him to stay for sex. A good, Puritan woman should not admit to wanting to have sex, even with her husband; sex, which involved intense emotions, was not favored by Puritans and never openly addressed. Also, Faith mentions that of all nights, Brown should stay home on this evening: “Tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year” (Hawthorne 1289). As a good Puritan woman she should not know of the evil communion about to take place in the woods but she clearly has knowledge of what is going to occur. Faith, by virtue of her name, should be a moral and ethical woman but ironically, is fully aware of and indulgent in sin. She wants sex, is openly seductive with her pink ribbons, and does not hide her knowledge of evil tidings that occur.
Hawthorne also mentions in his short story many of the evil acts that the Puritans conducted throughout history. The Devil figure in the story, the dark man with the serpentine staff, mentions that Brown's family of Puritans had been involved in numerous sinful actions towards other:
I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans...I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine know, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Phillip's war. (Hawthorne 1290)
The use of the words “your grandfather” can be seen as a reference to Hawthorne's own great-grandfather who was involved with the death of supposed witches in Salem. The whipping of the Quaker woman is a direct reference to the Puritan intolerance of other religions and the fact that “Hawthorne's... great-great-grandfather had ordered the whipping of a Quaker woman in Salem” (Levine & Krupat 1290). And King Phillips War was a conflict where the Puritans mercilessly conquered the Native Americans. These allusions to actions that actually occurred in history make the Puritan lifestyle look wholly unacceptable and sinful. The beating and killing of innocent people is not something that any religion should endorse, yet the Puritans indulged in it. Hawthorne did not want his readers to forget about the evil deeds that the Puritans committed and mentioned this in his story to sway them from indulging once again in a religious fervor.
In an effort to further promote his discourse, Hawthorne even painted the most virtuous members of his fictitious community as susceptible to sin. Brown and his fellow traveler, the Devil figure, encounter Goody Cloyse on the path to the evil communion. She gladly accepts the man's serpentine staff to help her walk and Brown is shocked by this action: “That old woman taught me my catechism” (Hawthorne 1292). He also sees his minister and Deacon Gookin on the path. Even Faith, his supposedly virtuous wife, is on the path of temptation: “My Faith is gone...There is no good on earth” (Hawthorne 1294). This event pushes Goodman Brown himself to continue on the path. While Goodman Brown did not submit to the evil communion, the fact that he made it as far as seeing the preparations for the evil baptism show that even he is not able to completely ignore temptation. But, ignoring the final baptism did not make him any happier. Once he emerged from the forest the next day, he was more unhappy than when he was ignorant of his neighbors’ sins. Now he thought of all of them as wholly evil and sinful. He could not even greet his own wife: “[G]oodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting” (Hawthorne 1297). After knowing of the evil in his town he was even more discontent than when he began on the path:
A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become...On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain. (Hawthorne 1298)
This portrayal of Goodman Brown helps to further Hawthorne's emphasis on the ideology that strict Puritan religions are not the route to happiness. Not only is Brown disgusted with himself for being on the path, but he also can no longer trust any of his townspeople. He cannot accept the fact that they are susceptible to sin, even his dearest Faith. Religion has turned him into a miserable, lonely man who literally has no faith in anyone or anything.
Hawthorne has used Brown as an example and a warning against falling for the allure of the strict religions. His own guilt about what his ancestors did in the name of religion obviously still haunted him during the writing of “Young Goodman Brown.” This is evident in the numerous references to Salem where the witch trials took place as well as Quaker beatings and part of the King Phillip's War. Because of this guilt, his story can be seen as reflective not only as an attempt to impede any further religious fervor but also his fear of it. A movement involving religion, if brought to a peak again, can recreate many of the events that occurred in Salem. In order to sway those in support of a religious discourse, Hawthorne vividly depicted the negative side of the Puritans and exaggerated there tendencies to indulge in temptation and sin. This is not only an example of competing discourses but also of a power exchange. Hawthorne is emitting his ideas to the public who are consuming his works thus negotiating exchanges of power. Not only would the supporters of the Second Great Awakening be emitting works to support their discourses but Hawthorne is competing for more supporters and power for his discourse through his works.
Hawthorne's discourse for more acceptance and less rigorous religious morals not only pertains to his times but is still applicable today. In today's society we still have competing discourses very similar to Hawthorne's time. Men and women are still pushing either for more emphasis and punishment on religious sin while others are asking for more tolerance. These discourses which are continuously competing against each other for more power are constantly trying to sway us in either direction. The side we choose to take is what makes us who we are.
Goodman, Robert. “Transcendentalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2011. Web. 16
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature
Volume B 1820-1865. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2007. 1289-1298. Print.
Levine, Robert S. & Arnold Krupat. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The Norton Anthology: American
Literature Volume B 1820-1865. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2007. 1272-1495. Print.
Merriman, C.D. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The Literature Network, 2007. Web. 16 March 2011.
Tyson, Louis. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.