The Nature of Human Imperfection, Idealism, and the Spectre of Human Doubt–Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”

One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best-loved and most effective tales (which Edgar Allan Poe praises for the mastery of its brevity and “single effect”) is his tale “Young Goodman Brown,” about the spiritual adventure–rather, misadventure–of young Goodman Brown, who journeys away from his young “aptly named” wife of three months, Faith, on an “evil purpose,” about which he tells himself, “‘Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth, and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.'”  Now, there are ways of arguing as to whether this short story is a fable, parable, or exemplum, all special kinds of allegorical endeavor, and one could make a closely reasoned argument for any of the three, but this technical detail is of less moment, to my way of thinking, than the fact that Hawthorne seems to prefer a final mystification as to which of the three exactly it is.  As M. H. Abrams told us long ago in A Glossary of Literary Terms, if it’s a fable, it “exemplifies a moral thesis or a principle of human behavior; usually in its conclusion either the narrator or one of the characters states the moral in the form of an Epigram.”  Well, in a long paragraph at the end of the story, the narrator shows young Goodman Brown’s life history in brief after he has (perhaps, or apparently) attended a witches’ sabbath.  The narrator draws a conclusion, however fictionalized and broadly painted:  the moral seems to be either that one should, if one wants to retain faith (that key word again), either never part from the right path or–and this is a split moral, from which we see the saturnine features of Hawthorne grinning at us broadly–we should have a sufficiently complex view of human sin and redemption that we can allow for the occasional straying from the right path, as long as we also envision human goodness to reside in a disproportionate overbalance on the “good” side of actions and intentions.  On the other hand, if the story is an exemplum, it’s told as “a particular instance of the general theme of a sermon.”  If in fact we see Hawthorne’s story as an example of the way ministers and priests and speakers of various kinds often preface their sermons and talks with an illustrative story, then this is an exemplum; but given Hawthorne’s complexity of vision and the way he often in his tales seems to prefer putting his reader over a barrel or leaving the reader sitting on a fence (to mention just two uncomfortable psychological results of his work), he makes a somewhat quizzical preacher.  Still, if complications and complexity are the issues he is trying to raise, then this story is a perfect exemplum of the issues involved.  Finally, if the story is a parable, or “a short narrative presented so as to stress the tacit but detailed analogy between its component parts and a thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to us,” this would account for the ease with which the analogies in the story as it is structured shine forth (though again, one has to beware of seeming ease when Hawthorne is the source–he likes to throw the occasional spanner into the works).

Now for the story itself:  young Goodman Brown (and the story, as must be obvious by now, is set in the American Puritan era) leaves at sunset to make a journey of some sort overnight away from his young wife Faith.  Faith begs him not to go in a key but indeterminate phrase, on this night “of all nights in the year.”  Thus, the night, which fills Faith with apprehension at the thought of being alone, is an important date somehow, perhaps Halloween or some other night of ill omen.  As he tells her in response, “‘Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.'”  He feels guilty and thinks that it’s as if “‘a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night.'”  And of course, near the end of the story, we are proposed the option of thinking of Goodman Brown’s adventure in the forest that he too might have had a dream:  “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?”  But then the solemn knell of Hawthornian tones rings out in the final paragraph:  “Be it so if you will; but alas! it was a dream of ill omen for young Goodman Brown.  A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.”  For, when young Goodman Brown goes forth toward the woods, he goes to meet a man “in grave and decent attire” (and many texts tell us that the devil appears as a gentleman) who bears “a considerable resemblance to” young Goodman Brown as if they were “father and son,” though “more in expression than in features.”  In short, as this fable, exemplum, or parable leads us to believe, he goes to meet the devil and attend a witches’ sabbath.

Several times during the course of his journey farther and farther into the woods, Brown bethinks himself of his Christian teachers and people who have been held up to him as moral examples, and he wants to turn back, and even declares his purpose to the devil, who slyly doesn’t resist his suggestions but leaves him with his options open.  Still, as they walk on, he sees and hears these very moral examples heading for the same place he is heading, and saying such things that he believes they have been deceiving him all along.  They talk about a “goodly” young man who is going to be taken into their communion, and the devil, when young Goodman Brown protests that his own family has always been free of the taint of sin, responds thus:  “‘I have been as 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 a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village….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.'”  When young Goodman Brown–though still walking ahead–objects that he doesn’t want to break Faith’s heart, the devil cunningly agrees with him and allows him to step to one side of the path, where he nevertheless sees other moral exemplars of his youth coming along to the meeting, and hears them greeting his new acquaintance in a friendly manner.

When the devil gives Brown his staff to lean upon (again, an involved kind of symbolism from Hawthorne), he tells Brown, “‘You will think better of this by and by….Sit here and rest yourself a while; and when you feel like moving again, there is my staff to help you along.'”  Next come along in front of the resting Brown some male members of the “communion,” who discuss the fact that a “goodly young woman” is to be taken into the fold, and though the well-known figures further demoralize Brown, he looks up to the starry heavens and shouts, “‘With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!'”  But then, a cloud comes between him and the stars, and we read:  “Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices.”  He then in desperation begins to call out Faith’s name, but hears mocking voices and a woman’s scream.  “‘My Faith is gone!’ cried he after one stupified moment.  ‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name.  Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.'”  He has of course before been relying on the Christian doctrine that if a man or woman is sufficiently good, that they may even take a sinning mate into heaven with them; but because this is his weak point, relying upon Faith rather than upon himself, this is where he is morally the weakest (or perhaps Hawthorne wants to point here to the necessity as well of Good Works, which from what we have heard from the devil in Brown’s moments of doubt, Brown’s relatives haven’t practiced).

There is a dramatically rewarding and frightening scene of Brown in the woods at the witches’ sabbath, where he comes face to face with the other “convert,” Faith, his wife, and the devilish figure says, “‘Lo, there ye stand, my children….Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream.  Now are ye undeceived.  Evil is the nature of mankind.  Evil must be your only happiness.  Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.'”  Then, after they are welcomed by the whole group, Brown suddenly perks up and shouts to the apparent figure of his wife, Faith, “‘Faith!  Faith!….look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.'”  The text says he doesn’t know if she does or not, but that the whole scene promptly vanishes, the fiery hearth and forest as well as the rest, and he finds himself sitting on a rock.

So, what do we have?  We’ve had the chilling apparitions associated with demon worship, yet we have the option (or do we?) of interpreting the whole thing as a dream.  At the very least, we have the option of assuming that in the end Brown repented of his bad mistake, and departed “a sadder and a wiser man.”  But the end of Hawthorne’s tale tells us instead, in a lengthy paragraph, that Brown felt suspicion and dread the rest of his days of everyone around him, including Faith, who continues in the end of the tale to greet him as she did at the beginning.  The last line reads, “And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession [again that word “goodly”!], besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”

Thus, Hawthorne’s story is about the nature of human imperfection and its involvement with idealism:  too much idealism, which demands that  one never err or make a mistake, can be the real mistake, because any little slip can cause one to assume that there is no way to recoup the loss.  This was one of the perpetual criticisms which Hawthorne, in all his tales, seemed to be making of Puritanism:  too strict and unrelenting a moral code seems to invite mistakes, because people are human, and cannot help the occasional misstep.  Thus, those who are held up as models in the average community, like ministers, deacons, judges, and virtuous women, are often held up by Hawthorne as short-changing those who rely upon them.  But were so much not expected of them in the first place, idealistically, or were more forgiven them, then they would not seem so flawed and dramatically imperfect.  Hawthorne cleverly selects a prime sin in Puritan times, consorting with the devil and witches, because it involves us to some extent in the realm of the imagination:  we can propose to ourselves that it is an allegory even, in which whatever it was that young Goodman Brown was going away for that night was perhaps some quite ordinary sin, symbolized by the illicit meeting in the woods, and thus was a sort of flaw more of us might be able to sympathize with rather than something a bit anomalous.  The spectre of human doubt is the face of young Goodman Brown himself, gloomy and brooding over all the scene that had previously been so filled with joy for him–once doubt enters, can it ever fully be dismissed?  Or is human doubt the nature of human life?  This is why I say that Hawthorne’s dark visage grimaces at us a little in stern amusement:  he knew that his tale was one that we couldn’t easily dismiss with an either-or idealistic answer, because he allows us the same freedom either to doubt or believe that the devil-figure allows Brown, and if we lack imaginative robustness and are so weak-minded as to be swayed by a cloud that sweeps over the midnight stars and the sound of the wind shrieking in the forest trees, then we deserve what we get.  And what we got this time was a superlative tale by a master of the short story, Nathaniel Hawthorne.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

2 responses to “The Nature of Human Imperfection, Idealism, and the Spectre of Human Doubt–Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”

  1. D. James Fortescue

    A very pertinent post for the times. The strictness of religion has caused a great many tragic events throughout history, the least of which is the barbaric way the faiths fought against each other and/or amongst themselves.

    The nature of life is that we learn by making mistakes, and hopefully do not continue to make the sames ones time and time again. Doubting ourselves is a double-edged sword: it helps gives one an avenue to pursue self-improvement, while also giving others the ability to cast dispersion on you.

    When in doubt, learn or do all that you can to lay that doubt to rest =)


    • Hi, there! Haven’t heard from you for a while–I assumed you’re busy with the new job and all the fictional irons you have in the fire. (I think above you mean “cast aspersion.”) The only thing about ceasing to doubt is that we can become too sure of ourselves and then commit one of those faith-oriented mistakes that you’re writing so persuasively about (i.e., by posing too much faith in ourselves as arbiters). Thanks for commenting, it’s nice to hear from you again.


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