I am always reluctant to classify a book as “horror” tale, when the purpose of story is not to scare the reader, but to convey a message. Nevertheless, Young Goodman Brown can be rather terrifying at points, so please overlook this blunt classification. Hawthorne is new to me, since I have never ventured into reading The Scarlet Letter, and I didn’t know what to expect until I actually opened the book. I have to say that his vocabulary is not the easiest to understand, taking into account that this short story is set in the 17th century with all accompanying language specifics. However, it didn’t take me long to adjust to the style, and I found myself enjoying the narrative immensely.
The story is played out with the Salem’s Witch Trials as a backdrop for the setting. Naturally, it was a time for fear of the unknown, aggressive Christian movement, and ungrounded superstitions. At this kind of time, Goodman Brown undertakes a Christian quest to reinforce his own beliefs and to become a full member of religious community, which leads him into the woods on a clear night. He is sent off by his young wife of three month, notably named Faith, who pleads him to stay with her and forsaken the dangerous journey. Goodman Brown is optimistic about the outcome of his undertaking and enters the wilderness. Soon after he meets a stranger, who seems to know a lot about the young man.
ANALYSIS (feel free to skip, if not interested)
I find the stranger’s character fascinating. Hawthorne gives away little details about him that hint to his identity. The man offers Goodman his staff, that looks like a black snake that seems to move as they walk, to aid the young man in venturing even deeper into the woods. When Goodman refuses, the stranger reveals:
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 knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.
In one of the author’s biographies I found that Hawthorne’s own great-great-grandfather was a judge at the real Salem Trials, a fact that the writer was allegedly ashamed of. I find it fascinating how Hawthorne’s experiences translate into his writing and add another dimension to his character. Knowing this, it might be natural for us to conclude that the author intended the man to be an antagonist. It seems that the stranger is eager to help those, who are about to commit something wicked, and yet he presses the young man on to continue his path. Could there be something at the end of Goodman’s journey that might please the wicked man? The stranger boasts that he is well acquainted with many high-ranking people and that “deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine” with him. When looking at religious undertones, we might remember Puritan belief that all men are by nature evil, which would make even deacons susceptible to temptations of the devil. Could it be that this man, who walks among people of all rank and stature, and seems to be familiar with all of them, is really the devil himself? And could it be that he is the real test that Goodman needs to overcome to stay true too his beliefs?
Another great character that doesn’t appear much, but plays a significant role, is Faith – Goodman’s wife. Appropriately named, she becomes the epitome of her husband’s own beliefs. On several occasions Goodman Brown remembers his wife who is waiting at home, but his words take on religious undertones. When he hears her screams in the dark and realizes that he might have lost her, there can be no doubt about the duplicity of Faith:
“What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?” […] And what calm sleep would be his that very night, which was to have been spent so wickedly, but so purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith! […] “My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given”.
Finally, he arrives to the wicked Sabbath, where everyone from Salem (dead or alive) is gathered around a mockery of an altar. There, he and Faith by his side are about to be forced to receive a communion by blood from a dark figure, who talks about the religious men who hide behind the mask of righteousness, yet worship him secretly. No doubt that it is the stranger, the shapeshifter, the devil, who is conducting the ceremony. Goodman looks at the sky in prayer, begging Faith to do the same, and everyone disappears. He finds himself alone in the woods, with Faith nowhere to be found – his faith is gone. When he comes home, he ignores warm greetings from his wife, seeing only evil in those around him. Goodman Brown passed his test, while everyone around him failed. It is hard to say for sure if Hawthorne intended for the story to be a reality or a dream. Either way, the experience changed Goodman Brown, and not necessarily for the better, as he spends the rest of his life disillusioned and distrustful.
The more I look at the details of this short story, the more I fall in love with it. The notion of quest is not new in fiction, but Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is exceptionally thought-provoking. I adore how every detail of story has dual meaning and role. His characters are meaningful, and alive, and capable of mistakes. Absolutely fantastic! I am looking forward to reading some more of Hawthorne’s shorts, as well as his novels sometime in the future.
Rating: 5/5 – great food for thought.
Source: available in Hawthorn’s Short Stories (ISBN-13: 978-0394700151); also falls under public domain in Canada and US.