Symbolism and Theme in "The Young Goodman Brown"

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Symbolism and Theme in "The Young Goodman Brown"

Post by Rachid Amri on Sun Apr 25, 2010 11:47 pm

Symbolism and Theme in "The Young Goodman Brown"

By Jimmy Maher


Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Young Goodman Brown" is presented as an allegory of the danger inherent in abandoning one's Christian faith, even for one evening. As such, the story absolutely overflows with symbolism. There is intentionally not a great deal of subtlety in these symbols, as Hawthorne clearly wants them to be obvious to even the least attentive reader. A thoughtful reading of the story, however, particularly the rather melancholy last few paragraphs, reveals deeper shades of meaning and irony than one might initially expect. Before exploring these intriguing depths, I will describe Hawthorne's use of striking symbols to illustrate the story's more superficial meaning.

In the first paragraph, we learn that Goodman Brown is departing from his wife, Faith, to spend a night in the woods. Her name is no accident, as she will represent Brown's religious conviction throughout the tale. She calls for him to remain with her, but Brown is determined to go his own way. It is sunset as he sets off, and the evening will get steadily darker up until the climactic scene of the story, just as the light of God steadily fades from Brown's heart. He wanders away into the woods, whose dark, tangled ways and poor visibility represent the loneliness and confusion of the Godless life. There he meets the devil, whose identity is communicated to the reader through the snakelike staff he carries. Hawthorne describes the devil as looking quite similar to Brown himself, and of having the air of someone who would be completely at ease in virtually any situation or company. This is telling, for Christian, and particularly Puritan, theology emphasizes that the devil's natural domain is here in the real world, and that he can thus easily corrupt anyone who grows too attached to life here on the material plane. There is also black irony to be found in this initial conversation between Brown and the devil. When the devil asks why Brown is late, Brown replies that "Faith kept me back awhile" (404).

Brown now makes a rather feeble attempt to turn away from sin and return to Faith. The devil urges him onward, however, telling him "We are but a little way in the forest, yet" (405), and convincing him that there will still be the opportunity to turn back after hearing the devil out. Brown's Puritan faith, however, should remind him that even the slightest flirtation with the ungodly life is perilous. Brown unfortunately appears to already be in the devil's power, who now begins reeling off a list of allegedly righteous men and women, both personal acquaintances and public figures, who are actually in his power, carrying sin in their hearts. The devil also claims that Brown's own father and grandfather fell under his spell, explaining that the brutal acts they committed in the name of God were in fact the work of the devil. Here we see the first foreshadowing of some subtler shades of meaning in the story, which we will further explore a bit later.

After the pair meet Goody Cloyse and Brown learns that this upstanding woman has also fallen into sin, he makes another attempt to resist the devil's pull. His language is one again heavily couched in symbolism. "Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?" (407). The devil now disappears, and Brown hides from the approaching minister and deacon to eavesdrop on their conversation. The light of heaven does not shine upon these two figures, for they have chosen to walk in the darkness of sin. Alone again, Brown looks up to heaven to pray, but soon finds his view obscured by a black cloud which seems to contain the voices of many sinners. Hawthorne here again demonstrates the danger of allowing the world and those in it, even those one loves, to become a distraction and so blind one's eyes to heaven. It is, however, only when Brown hears Faith's voice being swept along in the crowd that he finally surrenders to the darkness. In yet another double entendre, he cries that "My Faith is gone!" (408).

Brown now leaves the path to run wildly through the woods. Here Hawthorne illustrates that once one leaves the path of righteousness it is hard to find it again even if one desires to, for the woods of sin are all darkness and confusion. Brown arrives inevitably at the witches' coven, yet seemingly saves his soul at the pivotal moment by appealing directly to heaven. The coven instantly disappears, and Brown makes his way back to town as a free man. Yet the last three paragraphs end the story on a note of ambiguous melancholy, for Brown returns to his village a bitter, fearful man who is forevermore suspicious of the religious purity of those around him. What had seemed to be a black-and-white religious allegory of sin and redemption does not have the happy ending we might have expected, even though the protagonist of the piece has done what would seem to be the right thing within the context of the moral universe of the tale. What point is Hawthorne making here?

We might find clues in Hawthorne's own family history. Like Goodman Brown, Hawthorne was born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts. Nathaniel Hawthorne was descended from one John Hawthorne, a judge who had presided over the infamous witch trials there. Two of the fallen women mentioned in the story, Goodies Cloyse and Cory, had been sent to execution for witchcraft during that time. I know of no documented evidence regarding the author's thoughts or possible guilt over the activities of his ancestors, but Goodman Brown certainly has reason to feel a certain amount of familial shame for events of the past.

"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." (405)

I believe Hawthorne is making a point here about the dangers of unconsidered, self-righteous faith and the intolerance and cruelty to which it can lead. Ironically, this is the very sort of religiosity one might see the tale as promoting with a cursory reading.

The devil in the story might be a much more clever fellow than Brown ever suspects. By sending him a false vision of the many good people around him engaged in a terrible ritual, he plants the seeds of suspicion and doubt in the young man's mind. Brown returns to his village believing he has rejected the devil, but he has in fact embraced him. His relationships with both the good people of his town and with God have been spoiled forever.

When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and
with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-
like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then
did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon
the gray blasphemer and his hearers. (411)

Just like those who perpetuated the non-fictional atrocities in Salem, Goodman Brown now looks for the devil behind every bush and in the hearts of all those around him, never recognizing that his own soul is now hopelessly corrupt and blind to the light and goodness of God.

Rachid Amri
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Re: Symbolism and Theme in "The Young Goodman Brown"

Post by Nada Mrabet AB on Mon Apr 26, 2010 10:27 pm

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes
The Weakness of Public Morality

In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne reveals what he sees as the corruptibility that results from Puritan society’s emphasis on public morality, which often weakens private religious faith. Although Goodman Brown has decided to come into the forest and meet with the devil, he still hides when he sees Goody Cloyse and hears the minister and Deacon Gookin. He seems more concerned with how his faith appears to other people than with the fact that he has decided to meet with the devil. Goodman Brown’s religious convictions are rooted in his belief that those around him are also religious. This kind of faith, which depends so much on other people’s views, is easily weakened. When Goodman Brown discovers that his father, grandfather, Goody Cloyse, the minister, Deacon Gookin, and Faith are all in league with the devil, Goodman Brown quickly decides that he might as well do the same. Hawthorne seems to suggest that the danger of basing a society on moral principles and religious faith lies in the fact that members of the society do not arrive at their own moral decisions. When they copy the beliefs of the people around them, their faith becomes weak and rootless.
The Inevitable Loss of Innocence

Goodman Brown loses his innocence because of his inherent corruptibility, which suggests that whether the events in the forest were a dream or reality, the loss of his innocence was inevitable. Instead of being corrupted by some outside force, Goodman Brown makes a personal choice to go into the forest and meet with the devil; the choice was the true danger, and the devil only facilitates Goodman Brown’s fall. Goodman Brown is never certain whether the evil events of the night are real, but it does not matter. If they are a dream, then they come completely from Goodman Brown’s head—a clear indication of his inherent dark side. If they are real, then Goodman Brown has truly seen that everyone around him is corrupt, and he brought this realization upon himself through his excessive curiosity. Goodman Brown’s loss of innocence was inevitable, whether the events of the night were real or a dream.
The Fear of the Wilderness

From the moment he steps into the forest, Goodman Brown voices his fear of the wilderness, seeing the forest as a place where no good is possible. In this he echoes the dominant point of view of seventeenth-century Puritans, who believed that the wild New World was something to fear and then dominate. Goodman Brown, like other Puritans, associates the forest with the wild “Indians” and sees one hiding behind every tree. He believes that the devil could easily be present in such a place—and he eventually sees the devil himself, just as he had expected. He considers it a matter of family honor that his forefathers would never have walked in the forest for pleasure, and he is upset when the devil tells him that this was not the case. He himself is ashamed to be seen walking in the forest and hides when Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin pass. The forest is characterized as devilish, frightening, and dark, and Goodman Brown is comfortable in it only after he has given in to evil.
Motifs
Female Purity

Female purity, a favorite concept of Americans in the nineteenth century, is the steadying force for Goodman Brown as he wonders whether to renounce his religion and join the devil. When he takes leave of Faith at the beginning of the story, he swears that after this one night of evildoing, he will hold onto her skirts and ascend to heaven. This idea, that a man’s wife or mother will redeem him and do the work of true religious belief for the whole family, was popular during Hawthorne’s time. Goodman Brown clings to the idea of Faith’s purity throughout his trials in the forest, swearing that as long as Faith remains holy, he can find it in himself to resist the devil. When Goodman Brown finds that Faith is present at the ceremony, it changes all his ideas about what is good or bad in the world, taking away his strength and ability to resist. Female purity was such a powerful idea in Puritan New England that men relied on women’s faith to shore up their own. When even Faith’s purity dissolves, Goodman Brown loses any chance to resist the devil and redeem his faith.
Symbols
The Staff

The devil’s staff, which is encircled by a carved serpent, draws from the biblical symbol of the serpent as an evil demon. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent tempts Eve to taste the fruit from the forbidden tree, defying God’s will and bringing his wrath upon humanity. When the devil tells Goodman Brown to use the staff to travel faster, Goodman Brown takes him up on the offer and, like Eve, is ultimately condemned for his weakness by losing his innocence. Besides representing Eve’s temptation, the serpent represents her curiosity, which leads her into that temptation. Goodman Brown’s decision to come into the forest is motivated by curiosity, as was Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit. The staff makes clear that the old man is more demon than human and that Goodman Brown, when he takes the staff for himself, is on the path toward evil as well.
Faith’s Pink Ribbons

The pink ribbons that Faith puts in her cap represent her purity. The color pink is associated with innocence and gaiety, and ribbons themselves are a modest, innocent decoration. Hawthorne mentions Faith’s pink ribbons several times at the beginning of the story, imbuing her character with youthfulness and happiness. He reintroduces the ribbons when Goodman Brown is in the forest, struggling with his doubts about the goodness of the people he knows. When the pink ribbon flutters down from the sky, Goodman Brown perceives it as a sign that Faith has definitely fallen into the realm of the devil—she has shed this sign of her purity and innocence. At the end of the story, when Faith greets Goodman Brown as he returns from the forest, she is wearing her pink ribbons again, suggesting her return to the figure of innocence she presented at the beginning of the story and casting doubts on the veracity of Goodman Brown’s experiences.
(spaknotes.com)
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