Man’s Spiritual Dilemmna
They say it takes a whole village to raise a child. In this short story, the village is not what it seems, and it certainly takes the whole village to raise this insecure, guilt ridden, hypocritical child who is Goodman Brown. In Salem village, Massachusetts, newly wed Goodman Brown leaves his wife Faith alone for a night to go on a mysterious journey in the forest. In the forest, Brown struggles between Faith and evil. The devil tries to persuade him with many tactics. The only thing that changes his mind is when he sees Faith herself in the forest, attending the meeting. He is almost inducted into the community of devil worshippers, but in the end resists the devil. The next morning Brown finds himself back in his village, along with all the people he saw in the forest, acting as if nothing happened. Brown knows not whether this was a dream or real life, or if Faith resists the devil too. But because of this experience, Brown lives out the rest of his days distrustful, angry, and cold towards his wife Faith and his community. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” exposes the conflict with the puritan belief in predestination and the evil nature of all mankind, as well as conveys an accurate depiction of puritan society in order to give the reader an understanding of the delusion that led to the hysteria of the Salem witch trials.
The Puritans believed in predestination, the concept that God has already determined each person’s fate in the afterlife before birth, and there is nothing one can do to change this, Hawthorne shows how this conflicts with man’s natural tendency to sin through the use of irony and hyperbole. When the Deacon and the reverend are walking in the forest, they discuss the events that will take place at the nights meeting. The Deacon announces to the Reverend “There is a goodly young woman being taken into communion tonight”(Hawthorne 3). In describing the woman as ‘goodly’, Hawthorne uses irony. This is ironic because a ‘goodly’ woman would not take part in an evil communion. A goodly young woman in this society would be considered one of the chosen ones to go to heaven. This idea that she is involved with the devil, but is also one of God’s chosen ones makes no sense. Later on in the story, when Brown is about to take part in the ceremony, The narrator describes Goodman Brown’s entrance into the ritual. When brown is being led towards the place where he will be baptized “he has no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought”(Hawthorne 8). This use of hyperbole highlights how strong man’s inclination is to sin, sometimes to the point that he feels he has not the will power to resist it.
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Obviously, Brown has free will; he can physically walk away from the ceremony and defy the devil. However, he doesn’t because his belief in predestination makes him think that he has no free will, and that this is what he is destined for. There is nothing he can do about it. The temptation, combined with not believing he had control over his fate is too strong for Brown, and he gives into his evil nature. Rena Korb, a creative writer for a wide variety of educational publishers, discusses the beliefs of Puritans in her essay on “Young Goodman Brown”. She see the short story as “an attack on the unredemptive nature of Calvinism, a system of beliefs which emphasizes the power of the Devil, the innate depravity of humans, and predestination”(304). Korb backs up her claim by saying that Brown believed Faith was one of those predetermined to go to heaven, and when he found out that Faith was not the angel he thought she was, he lost all hope. Hawthorne explores how the Puritans acknowledging the natural depravity of all human beings as well as predestination makes for some confused followers. Furthermore, Hawthorne goes into the community aspect of their society to convey his main purpose.
Hawthorne convey an accurate depiction of Puritan society through the use of symbolism, exclamatory syntax, and figurative language. When the devil is trying to win Brown over, he tells him “I have been well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans, and that’s no trifle to say. 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 the pitch pine knot, kindled at my hearth, to set fire to an Indian village”(Hawthorne 2). It becomes obvious throughout the dialogue between Brown and the devil, that the devil symbolizes sin and moral corruption. And it is not just Brown’s ancestors that have taken this path. Leaders of his church, whom he thought to be the most righteous and holy of men, strayed from their faith. This gives Brown his first inside look at life in Puritan society, and he realizes that it isn’t what it seems. When Brown is walking in the forest, he witnesses Goody Cloyse, talking of spells and witchcraft with the devil. In shock, Brown exclaims; “That old woman taught me my catechism!” and the narrator adds “and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment”(Hawthorne 4).
Exclamatory syntax is used to emphasize the shock that Brown receives when he learns that a seemingly devout Christian woman whom he looked up to since he was a boy, was involved in such unspeakable crimes against her faith. Figurative language is used as well in the narrators interjection after Brown’s exclamation. The fact that Brown’s comment had a “world of meaning”, means to the plot and to Brown, this was no small disturbance. The woman who taught him his catechism turns out to be a hypocrite, and the narrator’s comment indicates that Brown begins to question everything he has been taught, and considers that maybe his godly community is putting on a show of faith, but in reality they are all hypocrites, mixed up in evil of their own. Steven Olson is a literary who chose to focus on the allegorical meaning of this story in his essay, and how Puritan doctrines manifest in the individual and society. Olson claims; “The doctrine of the Puritans created a communal psyche of complacency, presumption, and hypocrisy clashing with the self loathing of total depravity. The result was a moral confusion of truth, right, wrong, good and evil”(Olson 12). The allegory the critic alludes to at the beginning is that Faith represents the community of Puritans. This description of the Puritan’s “communal psyche” elaborates on Hawthorne’s view of Puritan society. Hawthorne conveys a complex understanding of Puritan society through his characterization of their community. This makes it easier to understand the Puritan’s reasoning behind the witchcraft trials.
Hawthorne provides an understanding of the Puritan delusion that caused the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials through the use of metaphor, irony, and asyndeton. The devil tells Goodman Brown of all the ways he is indeed prevalent in his good Christian community, specifically among church and government leaders: “The Deacons of many a church have drunk communion wine with me; the selectman, of divers towns, make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are supporters of my interests”(Hawthorne 3). Hawthorne uses this statement from the devil as a metaphor to relay the fact that many leaders in the community use their faith as an excuse to commit heinous acts of violence. An example of when this happened was the Salem Witch Trials. People were persecuted as witches for not conforming to Puritan standards, and they justified themselves by God. This ironic because, as the devil conveys in this statement, it is he who is the real reason for their actions. At the end of the story, when Brown is back home, the narrator discusses how Brown’s life changed after his experience that night: “It was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown.
A stern, a sad, a distrustful, if not desperate man, did he become”(Hawthorne 9). The use of asyndeton conveys the gravity of Brown’s situation. He will never look at anyone the same again now that he knows the evil could be in anyone. This kind of suspicion is what fed the events of the Salem Witch Trials, neighbor accusing neighbor, husband accusing wife. Just like the community of Salem looked for any deviation from the Puritan norm. Robert Morsberger’s essay focuses mainly on the environment and community life in the late seventeenth century Salem that caused the witchcraft hysteria, he says: “Though the story made no mention of witchcraft trials, it is not hard to imagine Goodman Brown as a prosecuter of his neighbors”(308). Brown becomes suspicious of everybody but himself, even though he went through the same temptation of evil. It is evident that Brown certainly believes some people in his community to be witches or wizards. Hawthorne gives a better understanding of what drove these seemingly holy Puritans to accuse innocent people of witchcraft.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” uses the conflict with the Puritan belief in predestination and the evil nature of all mankind, as well as conveys an accurate depiction of Puritan society, to relay his main purpose, which is to show how the puritan delusion caused the Salem Witch Trials. This short story is one that will be cherished by generations to come, because it is an important work of literature to help further our understanding of one of the darkest times in American history, and warn us against delving too deep into your own sinful nature, lest you become like Young Goodman Brown.