Monday, November 7, 2011

Short Story Monday: Young Goodman Brown

For Short Story Monday today, I've read "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read the story from my book The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, but it is also available online. 

"Young Goodman Brown" revolves heavily around Puritan religion and culture. Goodman Brown leaves his new wife, Faith, one night to take care of some important and mysterious business. He walks until he meets a man
"about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features" (pg. 736).
In his hand, the man carried 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. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light" (pg. 737).

As the two neared their destination, Goodman Brown saw friends and neighbors - the old woman who taught him the catechism, the pastor and deacon of his church, even his own wife. They were all heading toward a secret meeting deep in the woods - a meeting headed by Brown's companion:
"There are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly" (pg. 743).
The simple moral of the story is that nobody is free of sin, even those who appear the most holy. But the ending complicates that idea. What is Hawthorne trying to say about religion, sin, and judgement? One essay I read, called "The Consequences of Puritan Depravity and Distrust as Historical Context for Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'" and written by Michael E. McCabe, offers the following interpretation:
"Hawthorne shows that the consequence for the mistrust and self-doubt that is inherent in Puritan education and doctrine does not create faith and peace. It creates only further confusion. Just like the men who condemned and executed the alleged witches of Salem, the confused and searching Goodman Brown is unable to see whether his experience is real or a dream. Hawthorne’s claim is that this confusion is the only possible result of Puritan doctrine. To mistrust yourself, your neighbor, your teacher, and your very mind can not create faith. After his experience in the woods the aged and bitter Goodman Brown may be an example of the hardened persecutors of Salem. Left with no evidence and a severe mistrust of oneself and others, any evidence may be used."
"Young Goodman Brown" is a dense story, and I know there is much more going on in it than I've addressed here. Please read it and feel free to share any thoughts you might have in the comments.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.