Essay, Research Paper: Young Goodman Brown Symbolism

Literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work is typically fraught with symbolism, much of it
deriving from his puritan ancestry. Not surprisingly, Hawthorne was obsessed
with the themes of sin and guilt. John Roth notes that “A number of recurring
thematic patterns and character types appear in Hawthorne’s novels and
tales” (Roth 76). Because he is speaking of what we would later come to call
the unconscious, Hawthorne extensively employed the use of symbolism, which
bypasses the conscious to tap into its more dream- like process below (Roth 76).
In his short story “Young Goodman Brown,” the main character Goodman Brown
goes off into the woods and undergoes what will be a life changing experience.
“Young Goodman Brown,” was written in the nineteenth century but is
undoubtedly set in the seventeenth century, and for the early Americans in this
time period the forest was a symbol of the test of strength, courage, and
endurance. It took a lot of courage to survive there, and the young person
entering the forest would not emerge the same. But the story is more symbolic
than realistic, and the dangers that Goodman Brown encounters in the forest are
not Indians or bears; they are dangers of the spirit. It is no accident that
such an experience should have taken place in the forest, because there is a
long and extremely profound tradition in American literature where experiences
of this nature haven taken place in forest settings. Psychologist Bruno
Betelheim observes that “Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in
which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden near-impenetrable world of our
unconscious” (Betelheim, 94). However, this does not appear in “Young
Goodman Brown.” Instead of bravely battling down the dangers of the forest and
emerging a more mature person, Goodman Brown emerges a ruined man. It should not
go unrecognized that Goodman Brown’s wife, a light hearted, genuine woman, has
the name Faith. Faith is not by any means an unusual name for a woman,
especially in puritan times, but it becomes significant in the story because she
is presented to us first as a very young bride with pink ribbons in her hair,
almost like a child. Her pink ribbons symbolize her youth, and her name
symbolizes her husband’s childlike spirituality at the beginning of the story.
Christianity historically has been a religion of obedience and devotion much
more than one of logic, as much as the framers of the age of reason would try to
argue otherwise. When the story opens, we see Faith characterized by childlike
confidence and purity, which can be contrasted with “the man with the
snake-like staff,” who attempts to persuade Goodman Brown by “reasoning as
we go” (Hawthorne 106). Faith does not attempt to dissuade her husband out of
his intentions through reason, but through affection; with “her lips… close
to his ear,” she asks Goodman Brown not to go into the forest on his
mysterious errand (Hawthorne, 108). But we are left to wonder what his errand
is. Hawhtorne never tells us, but clearly Goodman Brown has planned for whatever
it is. He knows that the point of the journey is less than beneficial, because
he feels guilty about leaving his wife on “such an errand” (Hawthorne, 108).
Terence Martin speculated that “Goodman Brown’s Journey into the forest is
best defined as a kind of general, indeterminate allegory, representing man’s
irrational drive to leave his Faith, home, and security temporarily behind, for
an unknown reason, to take a chance with one or more errands onto the wilder
shores of experience” (Martin, 92). Q.D. Observes that the “theme of the
story is simply going to the devil for reasons such as lust, certainly, but more
for knowledge” (Lang, 91). Goodman Brown also seems to know whom he is going
to meet there, because when he meets the man with the snake-like staff, he is
startled by the “sudden appearance of his companion” who was nonetheless
“not totally expected” (Hawthorne, 109). Snakes of course signify the devil,
and if this individual was not the devil himself, he is certainly a
representative of him. His staff is later described as twisted as well. What is
here are all the elements of the quest story: the journey into an uncharted and
dangerous realm, symbolizing the unconscious, and, shortly after the journey
begins, the meeting with the guide who knows this forbidden and mysterious
territory well (Martin 100). However, at this point the story veers
significantly away from its traditional path. Goodman Brown announces that he
does not want to go any further into the forest. He has met the man at the edge
of the forest by a previously made arrangement, in response to a vow of some
sort; and, “having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to
return from whence I cam. I have scruples touching the matter thou wor’st
of” (Hawthorne, 110). Having read the entire story, it can be interpreted on
two levels. Goodman Brown may feel, as he says that the exploration of the inner
forest may be a sin. It is easier by far to follow the “accepted” path of
faith, to walk, as the church often says, “in the light” (Hawthorne 110). By
walking in the light, and by following precisely the doctrine of Christian life
and avoiding all situations where morality does not separate itself into clear
areas of black and white, one feels safe, clean, and perhaps virtuous. By doing
this, one also misses out on the depth, and the richness that a fuller
experience of life might offer. But it is unquestionably an easier path.
However, others choose to walk into the forest of their unconscious, where there
is no light. “This can be a scary experience, and one fraught with danger, and
is often characterized by the clouds hiding the previously twinkling stars” (Betelheim
110). The real forest is the home of the madman, and sometimes the devil
himself. To venture into this unknown land is risky, and to venture into it
without being prepared is to be mad, yet we can see that this is clearly what
Young Goodman Brown has done. He knows exactly why he is going, but is not at
all prepared for what he will find there, namely the sinful natures not only of
himself, but horrifyingly, also his wife. He emerges from this experience a
completely changed man, but because he was unprepared to accept the visions he
would receive there with tolerance and grace, he has been changed for the worst.
Goodman Brown was supposed to learn that everyone is human, and should be
treated with compassion. Instead he learned that everyone is a sinner, and
forever treats people with abhorrence. Enlightenment can impart great wisdom,
but only those minds, which are open to receiving it. Goodman Brown was not.
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