Hypocrisy And Fanaticism Within Young Goodman Brown
The vast majority of earlier American Gothic tales take place within the 1600s, which was a period full of radical religious feelings and actions. A good example of this was the Salem witch trials, which were started by irrational thinking and incredibly flawed religious logic and ended with the deaths of over 20 innocent people. These events directly inspired much of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. His short story, “Young Goodman Brown”, which takes place in Salem Village, “evokes the witch trials and Puritanism, for the title character is surprised to discover a witches’ Sabbath that includes everyone from his village” and it exemplifies one of the root themes of American Gothic literature by analyzing religious fanaticism and guilt among 17th century Colonial American Puritans (Baker 269).
The first instance of the connection to religion in the text comes when Goodman Brown refers to his wife Faith as “a blessed angel on earth, and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven” (Hawthorne 53). He believes that after one night of sinning, he will be able to follow Faith, metaphorically and physically, to heaven. This touches on the Puritan belief that everyone was predestined to either go to Hell or Heaven when they were born and that the only way to live was to worship God and pray that you were one of the lucky ones chosen to go to paradise. He sees her and her pink hair ribbons as a symbol of his own purity—Purity that will decrease as the story goes on and culminate with her losing the ribbons entirely.
When he meets the man in the woods, it is clear that he is the Devil when he’s only defining characteristic is a staff, “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent” (Hawthorne 54). Serpents have long been associated with the devil, for it was a serpent that tempted Eve to eat from the forbidden tree and led to her and Adam being cast from the garden of Eden. This man is a metaphor for the fear within Goodman Brown’s heart. He is terrified of the Devil, as he was even afraid of him lurking behind every tree he passed earlier, so he manifests a form of him within the dark cursed woods, which his religion has taught him to see as the birthplace of nothing but evil things.
The man offers him his staff so that he will be better able to walk through the dark with it, but he refuses and tries to say that his family has always been full of good Christians and that he shouldn’t even be seen cavorting with him at all. This is ironic and the man tells him so when he says, “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. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path” (Hawthorne 54). This touches upon the unspoken guilt within not just Goodman’s heart, but the heart of every Puritan. They all did awful acts and tried to cover it up with religious fanaticism. They used their god as a justification for the murder and persecution of innocents. His guilt also comes to light when he first meets the man and notes that said a man and he “might have been taken for father and son” which alludes to the inherent evil that the Puritans thought was in every person (Hawthorne 53). He bears a resemblance to the Devil himself, though he would never voice this revelation out loud.
The thoughts that are brought to light within him through the words of the man and the sight of the ritual he comes upon in the woods later, only make Goodman realize that he is no better than the Devil he so fears. When he hears the man say that, “Evil is like mankind. Evil must be your only happiness,” he knows that deep down he is right and we are all without sin (Hawthorne 62). After that night, his guilt has suddenly tripled and he is wary of everyone he comes across because he is no longer blinded by his earlier zealotry.
Goodman and his wife are even likened to Adam and Eve, the original sinners. During the ceremony in the forest, they look at each other and their thoughts become one. “What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw” is, in theory, the moment they realize what they have done (Hawthorne 62). Their eyes have been opened beyond the fanatic world they live in and they see the true nature of themselves and their actions. After this, he becomes a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” who can no longer go about living his life as he once did (Hawthorne 63). Like Adam and Eve, he has been cast from the garden of Eden. His eyes are open and he feels shame that he will carry with him all the way to his grave. When he dies, it is as if the people around him already knew where he had been predestined to go. His funeral procession includes his wife as well as his children and grandchildren, but very few neighbors. In the end “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 64).
As Hawthorne was a descendant of one of the judges of the notorious Salem witch trials, he “became a historian-fantasist of his own Puritan forbears” in much of his work (Oates 3). He was one of the writers at the forefront of early American gothic fiction, especially where Puritans were concerned, and was known to have “wrestled with Salem’s troubled past and its relationship to the present” (Baker 12). Because his ancestor was the only judge who never expressed guilt or remorse for what he did to those innocent people, Hawthorne most likely sought to delve deeper into the minds of those whose religious thoughts often led them to do unspeakable things. He would even go on to change his name from that of his ancestor “Hathorne” to the “Hawthorne” we know today. It was a move that “many have suggested it was either to distance himself from his ancestor or to add his own personal scarlet letter to the family name—w for a witch” (Baker 268).
Another tale of his, “The Man of Adamant” is described as a “chilling tale of a developing psychosis in the guise of religious piety” and is another great example of his work besides “Young Goodman Brown” in which he exposes the fanaticism that the Puritan religion was built upon (Oates 3).
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