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Symbolism In Young Goodman Brown
Symbolism In Young Goodman Brown
Nathaniel Hawthorne's work is typically fraught with symbolism, much of it deriving from his Puritan ancestry; a great-great uncle was actually a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials (Roth 76). Not surprisingly, Hawthorne was obsessed with the twin themes of sin and guilt. Author John Roth notes that A number of recurring thematic patterns and character types appear in Hawthorne's novels and tales. These repetitions show Hawthorne's emphasis on the effects of events on the human heart rather than
the events themselves (76). Because he is speaking of what we later would come to call the unconscious, Hawthorne extensively employed the use of symbolism, which bypasses the conscious, logical mind to tap into its more dreamlike processes.
The story begins as a conventional allegory, creating the expectation that the characters will consistently exhibit the abstractions they symbolize (Levy 116). Young Goodman Brown is an allegory whose characters play a major role in displaying the determination of what to believe and what not to believe. The short story represents one man's wild journey to leave his faith, home, and security temporarily behind to take a chance with the devil on an adventure into a dark forest. In his short story Young Goodman Brown, the main character goes off into the forest and undergoes a life-transforming experience there. The forest is a very real symbol of the test of strength, courage, and endurance; it took real fortitude to survive in the forest, and a young person entering this forest would not emerge the same. However, this story is more symbolic than realistic, and the dangers are of the spirit. The story is a dream
vision, or conscious day dream, that explains the theme of the story as being a formal allegory composed of massive symbolism. Many symbols help the protagonist Goodman Brown move toward a vision of evil which causes an unexpected effect of distrust due to his uncertain decision of experiencing a dream or reality. In Young Goodman Brown the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, creates a short story that displays a clearly abstracted allegory through the determination of the conscious and unconscious, composed of an enormous amount of symbolism interpreted from the setting, characters, and plot in the story.
To begin with, an allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy (Bereng 1). In this case, the story's setting, characters, and plot represent abstract concepts such as faith, innocence, and evil. The story is allegorically centered around Young Goodman Brown. The characters' names, Goodman and Faith, obviously indicate how Hawthorne uses them as a religious allegory to stand up against the evil in the story.
It is no accident that such an experience should have taken place in a forest, for there is a long and extremely profound tradition in our literature for experiences of this
nature having taken place in forest settings. Psychologist Bruno Betelheim, for example, shows that in the folk tale The Three Bears, Goldilocks encounters the cottage of the three bears in a forest; in Hansel and Gretel, the children's father takes them off into the forest to abandon them and they have to find their way back out; in Red Riding Hood, the little girl has to travel through the forest to her grandmother's house.
Betelheim also 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. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our own way to become ourselves, and have entered this wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our own way out we shall emerge with a much more highly-developed humanity (Betelheim 94). However, this does not happen in Young Goodman Brown. Instead of bravely battling down the dangers of the forest and emerging more mature, Goodman Brown emerges a ruined man. In order to determine why, it is necessary to look at some of the other symbols in the story.
It should not escape attention that Goodman Brown's wife, a lighthearted naive woman, bears the name of Faith. Faith is by no means an unusual woman's name, but it is significant in this story that 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 innocence, and Faith in turn symbolizes her husband's childlike spirituality at the beginning of the story.
Now, in Christianity childlike faith is not a bad thing. Jesus said, for example, Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (Mark 10:15). Christianity historically has been a religion of obedience and piety much more than one of reason or logic, as much as the framers of the Age of Reason would like to argue otherwise. As the story opens, we find Faith characterized by childlike confidence and purity, contrasted with the man with the snakelike staff (Hawthorne 266), who attempts to persuade Goodman Brown by reasoning as we go (265). Faith, it should be noted, does not attempt to dissuade her husband out of his intentions through reason but through affection; with her lips . . . close to his ear (264), she asks Goodman Brown not to go into the forest on his mysterious errand.
What is his errand? Hawthorne never says, but clearly Goodman Brown has planned for it. He knows that the aim of his journey is less than wholesome, for he feels guilty at leaving Faith on such an errand (264). Author Terence Martin speculates 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 faith, home, and
security temporarily behind, for whatever reason, to take a chance with one more errand onto the wilder shores of experience (Martin 92). Author Q.D. Leavis notes that The journey each must take alone, in dread, at night, is the journey away from home
and the community, from conscious, everyday social life, to the wilderness where the hidden self satisfies, or is forced to realize, its subconscious fears (Leavis 36). And
author H.J. Lang observes that The theme of the story is simply, going to the devil. What for? For 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 snakelike staff, he is startled by the sudden appearance of his companion (Hawthorne 265) who was nonetheless not totally unexpected (265). Snakes, of course, signify the Devil--and if this individual is
not himself the Devil he is certainly, in disguise, almost identical to him. His staff is later described as being twisted (266) as well.
Now, here are all of 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 a guide who knows this forbidden and mysterious
territory well. 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 this forest. He has met the man at the edge of the forest by pre arrangement, in
response to a vow of some sort; and, having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples touching the matter thou
wor'st of (265).
Having read the entire story, one can interpret this on two levels. Goodman Brown may feel, as he says, that the exploration of this inner forest may be a sin. It is easier by far to follow the accepted path of faith, to walk, as the Church itself often
terms it, in the Light. By walking in the light, that is, by following precisely the tenets of Christian life and by avoiding all situations where morality does not cleave itself into clear areas of black and white, one feels safe, clean, and virtuous. By doing this, one also misses out on the depth, the richness, that a fuller experience of life might offer, but it is unquestionably an easier path.
In conclusion, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne creates a short story, Young Goodman Brown, that displays a clearly abstracted allegory through the determination of the conscious and unconscious, composed of an enormous amount of symbolism interpreted from the setting, characters, and plot in the story. It cannot be clearly known what Young Goodman Brown has done while entering the forest--experienced a wild dream or had a an experience with reality. He knows why he is going, but he is in no way prepared for what he will find there, namely the sinful natures not only of himself but of his father, his grandfather, his church community, and most horrifyingly of all, his wife. He emerges from his experience completely changed. But because he
was unprepared to accept with tolerance and grace the visions he would receive there, he has been changed for the worse. He was supposed to learn that everyone is human, and thus should be treated with compassion; he instead learned that everyone is a
sinner, and thus forever after he treats them with contempt. Enlightenment can impart great wisdom, but only to those whose minds are open vessels to receive it. Goodman Brown's is not.
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Lang, H.J. How Ambiguous is Hawthorne? Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical
Essays. Ed. A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966. 89-94.
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A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966. 36-39.
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York: Twayne P, 1965. 90-99.
Roth, John K. American Diversity, American Identity. New York: Henry Holt & Co.,
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