by Wesley Chu
Written for Transcendence & Entrapment: Nineteenth-Century American Literature (LARTS 345, Fall 2012)
“Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil 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. On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. 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, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (70).
–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown, 1835.
“Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path” (Dante 3). So begins the epic work by Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, to describe a harrowing journey through three distinct but connected supernatural realms of the afterlife. There are significant parallels between this story and the tale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonist, young Goodman Brown, who encounters the devil in a dark forest and escapes quite scathed, having in spiritual essence passed through Dante’s venues in reverse. Whereas the poet surveyed the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and then Paradise, Goodman Brown starts his fateful expedition from an idyllic paradise, goes through the soul-changing flames of a purgatory, and emerges as a hollowed shadow of his former self, living the remainder of his days in a grayish hell. Aside from the similarity of a three-part story structure, the connection hints at a more subtle, linear progression of setting: in one, the progression is physical; in the other, it is psychological; in both, it is religious.
Hawthorne’s imagery and references in the last paragraph of “Young Goodman Brown” are deeply evocative of the story’s heavy-handed Christian allegorical nature. The entire paragraph is a sequence of events and examples detailing Goodman Brown’s new perspective on his surroundings. Although they are not juxtaposed with any mention of his previous life, the descriptions are precise enough that the reader is forced to assume their total contradiction with his past sensations. For instance, Hawthorne relates that “when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, [Goodman Brown] could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain” (70). During prayer, our protagonist “scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away” (Hawthorne 70), all actions and reactions starkly contrasting what was expected of a typical 17th-century goodman, who was pious and adoring of all things holy and God-related.
Regardless of the many possible interpretations, which range from painting the new Brown as an evil-hearted, God-hating individual to a disillusioned opponent of contemporary religious hypocrisy, his bond with the “sacred” community has been broken. Hawthorne even reinforces the ambiguous nature of Brown’s recent “conversion” by making no concrete statements regarding the events Brown despised. None of the holy psalms, family prayers, or ministerial sermons are demonized; neither is Brown himself condemned beyond his fate. In other words, the narrative remains enigmatically neutral, allowing the reader to form his or her own judgment regarding Brown’s moral and spiritual alignment. The only dichotomy presented is the antagonistic relationship between the main character and the rest of the world. Indeed, while leaning upon the “fourth wall” separating the audience from the fictional world, Hawthorne refers to the Puritan-flavor of Christianity as “our religion,” implying that, were the reader to meet Brown, he would surely be just as hostile to the audience and writer as he is to his own townsfolk.
A typical portrayal of Hell, beyond the commonplace depictions of eternal flame, also contains the element of the lost and misguided. Thus, Hawthorne’s intentional ambiguity is effective: even if Brown were to break free from his newly attained viewpoint, he would likely be just as helpless as the reader on the issue of his morality. In addition, he is fearful and lonely, a man who “turn[s] pale” and “shr[i]nk[s] from the bosom” of his wife (Hawthorne 70). Still other comparisons between Hell and his new spiritual station appear; for example, souls cast into Hell are, by Christian doctrine, sinful and thus dead. When Brown dies, he is referred to as nothing more than a hoary corpse,” hardly a description befitting a goodman who lived a pious life. To the community, and implicitly the rest of the audience, Brown has been lost; he no longer lives according to the system in which he has been placed, and is dead, or lost, to us. For his distrust of the church, evident in his rejection of daylight Sabbath rituals and private prayers, he has been cast into his own private hell even before his physical death.
Another standard component of Hell is despair, characterized by a lack of hope. Fittingly, at Brown’s funeral, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 70). In this case, another virtue is missing: faith, unsubtly referenced in Brown’s dismissal of his like-named wife. The faithless, also according to Christian teaching, are suitable candidates for eternal torture. In some cases, the torture is metaphysical: rather than condemnation to perpetual suffering of the flesh, spiritual suffering born of detachment from and abandonment by God becomes the appropriate punishment for those who forsake Him. To reinforce this metaphor further, according to Hawthorne’s description, the minister’s sermon contains reference to “future bliss or misery unutterable” (70). “Future bliss” clearly references Heaven, the destination for pious individuals, and “misery unutterable” unmistakably alludes to Hell. Brown, in his days before death, lived in that same unutterable misery, and is hence locked in Hell even before his actual death, which is far short of triumphant. On that note, to die triumphantly is comparable to martyrdom, a death resulting from unjust persecution, but in this case, it is Brown who persecutes, albeit passively rather than militantly.
As hints and reminders of the paradise Brown has abandoned at his entrance into the darkly forested purgatory, Hawthorne references what he has lost, and the examples become even more distinct after he dies. At his funeral, he was “followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few” (Hawthorne 70). While we are still led to be somewhat suspicious of the true nature of Brown’s community, a considerable number of friends and associates are at least sociable and conscientious enough to attend his death rites, something that Brown himself might be unlikely to do for others in his final shadowy state. That he could “shr[i]nk from the bosom of Faith” indicates that his wife was at least dutiful enough to remain constantly at his side even at age (Hawthorne 70). In addition, the choice of the word “bosom” to represent his wife’s presence is reminiscent of God, often characterized as inviting His followers to enter His loving bosom. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that, having so rejected a community and family that could provide him with such luxuries of love and social consideration, young Goodman Brown’s “dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 70).
Alighieri, Dante. The Portable Dante. Ed. and trans. Mark Musa. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Mosses from an Old Manse. New York: Modern Library, 2003. 58-70. Print.