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Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown": Three Literary Interpretations
Hawthorne’s intentions in his fictional stories are often unclear. According to Nina Baym, editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, “Withholding interpretation—or offering multiple and conflicting interpretations—Hawthorne not only makes readers do their own interpretive work but also shows how interpretation is often a form of self-expression” (1272). This viewpoint is particularly valid when readers examine “Young Goodman Brown,” a short story written in 1835 that is set in Puritan New England. This story, due to Hawthorne’s preference for individual interpretation, lends itself to multiple critical approaches, including but not limited to Historical, Gender Studies, Mythological, and Formalist critiques. These examinations can be synthesized to allow for a more thorough understanding of the text.
James C. Keil, author of “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender,” takes an analytical approach that combines Historical and Gender Studies criticisms. He examines how gender constructions in society changed between the Puritan New England setting in the story and the Nineteenth-Century world in which Hawthorne actually lived. He then applies that knowledge to the characters in the story to understand why the plot unfolds the way that it does. Keil begins with an explanation of gender relations during the two periods. He writes, “‘Young Goodman Brown’ takes as part of its context fundamental changes in gender and gender relations in the growing middle-class world of New England. One aspect of these changes in gender and sexuality with which the story surely is concerned is the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres” (Keil 35). In the nineteenth century, there was a push toward a society with more distinct gender roles than existed in Puritan society. He maintains that people of the 1800s preferred men to be the financial providers for the family and women to be the laborers within the home. Therefore, people believed that women should exist and work only in the private sphere, and men should dominate the public sphere (Keil 35).
According to Keil, most of the tension found in “Young Goodman Brown,” therefore, has its roots in the violation of the “separate spheres” and other gender constructions of the nineteenth-century. Keil states that “historians have come to understand that the clear boundaries between male/female, public/private, and work/home were blurred” (36). He explains that because the 1830s constituted a turning-point for the blurring of these barriers, “Young Goodman Brown” reflects the confusion caused by the inconsistency of the cultural ideology of the time and the actual behavior of the people within the culture (Keil 36). Keil references the scene in which Faith and Goodman Brown kiss in the doorway of their home, which is symbolic of the “threshold” between the public and private spheres (37). Further confusion between Puritan gender beliefs and nineteenth-century roles is evident in the character of Faith. Brown’s concern about Faith straying from goodness at the end of the story stems from the Puritan belief that women are inherently sexual, and men should be careful of a woman’s tendency to stray (Keil 39). The story also contains many elements of the belief systems of Hawthorne’s lifetime. For example, Faith is portrayed as young and pure, a reflection of the nineteenth-century tendency to portray women as childlike. Keil writes, “Such characterizations of femininity contrast quite specifically with Puritan constructions of womanhood, which were based on Eve’s seduction by the devil and her deception of Adam in the Garden of Eden” (40). According to Keil, the depiction of women in Hawthorne’s story supports contrasting Puritan and nineteenth-century beliefs.
Having established the historical backdrop to the story’s gender constructions, Keil moves on to apply these ideas more directly to the events of the story. He maintains that the forest is a combination of the public and private spheres of the nineteenth century. Although Brown feels lonely within its confines, he encounters many people from his public life while there (Keil 44). The story is the result of tensions within the structure of the nineteenth-century family, and therefore, the private sphere. Because the father spends most of his time in the public sphere, and the children are raised primarily by their mother, it is hard for Brown to move from childhood to adulthood. Young Boys’ time with their father is “limited to a few hours a day” (46). Therefore, once boys move into adulthood and are forced to leave their mothers to be married and support their wives by working, they are often anxious due to the lack of previous exposure to both their role as fathers and their role within public sphere. These problems are referenced in Hawthorne’s portrayal of Faith as Brown’s moral guide, and the fact that Brown does not recognize that the devil resembles his father, presumably because fathers do not spend much time with their children (45-7).
Although Keil’s approaches are effective ways to examine Hawthorne’s story, D. M. McKeithan utilizes a mythological approach in his work, “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Interpretation.” Whereas Keil attribute’s Brown’s sadness to anxiety about gender relations, McKeithan writes that Brown ends up cynical and unhappy because of the effects of a sin that he committed (94). He uses the universal themes of sin and temptation to make sense of the story. McKeithan proposes that Goodman Brown is an average person who has been indulging in sin, and therefore, has not been loyal to his Faith. Faith is literally his wife, he argues, but also symbolically his religion. At the beginning of the story, Brown plans on one last indulgence in sin before he commits himself to a lifetime of Faith (McKeithan 94). He further argues that “It is a consequence and punishment of Brown’s sin that he believes Satan and thus becomes cynical” (McKeithan 95). McKeithan is of the opinion that Goodman Brown essentially causes all his own misery by straying from his religious faith and his wife to indulge selfishly in sin.
McKeithan suggests that even though it seems that Goodman Brown is miserable at the end of the story because he realizes that the people he believed to be pious were, in fact, companions of the devil, he is miserable more because of his own mistakes. Brown’s biggest mistake, according to McKeithan, is his confidence in his ability to enjoy sin temporarily and to stop whenever he feels it is necessary. He suggests that Brown has had a previous relationship with the devil and previous forays into a life of sin, and had thus considered himself able to stop after one more indulgence. The readers of Hawthorne’s story do not know what Brown’s actual sin is, but McKeithan argues that his journey into the forest is representative of it (96). As the devil lures him further into the forest, he is tainting Goodman Brown’s mind with images and stories of the prominent religious people from Salem (McKeithan 94-5). McKeithan writes, “This is not a story of the disillusionment that comes to a person when he discovers that many supposedly religious and virtuous people are really sinful; it is, rather, a story of a man whose sin led him to consider all other people sinful” (McKeithan 95-6). The author concludes with a summation of Brown’s situation: he indulged in sin and thus lost his religious faith and his faith in other people. His loss left him devoid of happiness for the rest of his life (McKeithan 96).
Richard Fogle takes an approach that deals with neither the historical and gender context nor the mythological themes. He takes a Formalist approach to the story in his “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” He begins by analyzing the ambiguous elements in Hawthorne’s work, the most obvious being the uncertainty about whether Brown’s frightful night is reality or a dream. He proposes that Hawthorne intended to be ambiguous in his meaning. He writes, “Hawthorne wishes to propose, not flatly that man is primarily evil, but instead the gnawing doubt lest this should indeed be true” (Fogle 208). Fogle further illustrates the ambiguity in “Young Goodman Brown” by explaining that Brown is forever stuck in a middle state between good and evil after his journey into the forest. He says that Brown has lost his ability to see the good in people and his own religion, but also has failed to fully embrace Evil by resisting the Devil’s communion (Fogle 212-13). These ambiguities are central to the meaning of the story’s events.
On the other hand, Fogle states that clarity of structure combats the uncertainties of meaning in Hawthorne’s tale. He argues that Hawthorne uses simplicity of action, foreshadowing, and contrast in order to counteract the vagueness of his meaning. He states, “Within this simple pattern plot and allegory unfold symmetrically and simultaneously” (Fogle 213). He continues by asserting that the foreshadowing begins in the very first paragraph when Faith warns her young husband not to venture into the forest at night. Furthermore, according to Fogle, contrast, a form of balance, is apparent in the story. He states, “The broad antitheses of day against night, the town against the forest, which signify in general a sharp dualism of Good and Evil, are supplemented by a color-contrast of red-and-black at the witch meeting…” (Fogle 215). He continues by stating that the night and forest are symbols of doubt and wandering, while the town and daylight symbolize faith and goodness (Fogle 216). He then points out that the structure is perfectly balanced, with Goodman Brown leaving Salem at sunset and returning at dawn (218). He concludes with a summary of Hawthorne’s style. He states, “Hawthorne reconciles oneness of action with multiplicity of suggestion, and enriches the bareness of a systematic allegory” (Fogle 221).
Each of the interpretations that I reviewed has something of value to offer. All three of the theories work on the assumption that Faith’s character is symbolic of faith in the church, God, other people, and oneself. This symbolism is particularly important when Hawthorne’s readers analyze the story. For example, at several points in Brown’s dialogue, he sounds as if he is talking about his religious faith as well as his wife. Brown says when he first meets with the devil, “Faith kept me back awhile” (Hawthorne 1290). This phrase can be interpreted to mean that his faith in God or religion made him hesitate and reconsider his evil meeting, or it could be exactly as it sounds—His wife, Faith, delayed his arrival. Furthermore, towards the end of the story, Brown yells, “My Faith is gone!” (Hawthorne 1294). Brown has just realized that his wife, Faith, has been at the center of the demonic mass in the forest all along. This exclamation can be read to mean that his faith in others, himself, or religion has been lost because of his traumatic experiences in the forest. He has been awakened to the reality that all of the seemingly pious townsmen and women are sneaking off to indulge in blatant sinning under the cover of darkness. Viewing Faith as a symbol of all kinds of conviction really helps to understand the Brown’s character and the outcome of the story.
Keil’s interpretation was interesting because it combined two easily understood literary criticism methods. His application of history to the Gender Studies approach is what makes his theories most useful to Hawthorne’s readers. The separate gender spheres as the basis for Brown’s hesitation throughout and his ultimate cynicism at the end of the story makes sense given the context in which Hawthorne wrote. The consideration of the two drastically different time periods operating within the story, furthermore, brings to light a reason for Hawthorne’s lack of clarity. The clashing of the time periods, the early eighteenth century versus the early nineteenth century, plays a huge role in the development of the characters and plot. It follows, then, that it is important for Hawthorne’s readers to understand the two historical backgrounds functioning within the confines of “Young Goodman Brown.” Keil’s explanation provides theories that are easily applicable to the story to allow for a greater understanding of Hawthorne’s characters and intentions.
McKeithan’s essay was useful because it follows a more unique train of thought. His theory, that Brown is upset because of his own sins, is the opposite of my own interpretation. My initial reaction was that Brown was unhappy because he was awakened to his fellow Puritan’s hypocrisy. McKeithan’s essay focuses on disproving that assumption. It is valuable in its unique look at sin, temptation, and personal responsibility. I do think, however, that McKeithan’s essay is the least convincing of the three, because it lacks sufficient evidence to support its claims that Brown’s self-reflections of his own sinful nature were the cause of his eventual cynicism.
On the contrary, Fogle’s ideas were the most clearly organized of the three authors that I read. His analyses of imagery, language, ambiguity, and clarity made apparent Hawthorne’s intention of offsetting uncertainty with structure. The part of Fogle’s paper that was the most useful was the passage outlining the full circle that the action in the story forms (213). Continually, Fogle expertly explains the classic relations of good and evil in Hawthorne’s story. These two components serve to emphasize the simplicities that exist in Hawthorne’s writing and, therefore, keep the reader from being lost in the complexities of the story itself.
All three essays contributed something important to my reading of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” They either offered complex analyses of the effects of history and gender relations, a more unique and less in-depth interpretation involving sin and temptation, or a Formalist study limited to Hawthorne’s meaning without interpreting social and historical context. James C. Keil, D. M. McKeithan, and Richard H. Fogle all form reasonable conclusions in their respective essays that are helpful to the readers of “Young Goodman Brown.”
These interpretations serve to reinforce that almost any critical approach can be applied to Hawthrone’s stories. It is clear that Goodman Brown is either a sinful man, awakened to his own nature, and thus distrustful of everyone else. Or he is a man awakened to the confusion surrounding gender relations and moral uncertainty, and is therefore miserable because of his bewilderment. Or he is a man awakened to the hypocrisy of his fellow religious men and women, and is therefore unhappy because of their wrongdoings, and his own misplaced trust in them. Or he is an average man representing no deeper meaning in the grips of a terrifying dream.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a writer who loved interpretation and he would probably love that there are so many different understandings of “Young Goodman Brown.”
Textual Sources Used
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th Ed. Volume B. New York: Norton, 2007.
Fogle, Richard H. “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown.” A Casebook on the Hawthorn Question. Ed. Agnes McNeill Donohue. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1963. 207-221.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th Ed. Volume B. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2007. 1289-1298.
Keil, James C. “Young Goodman Brown: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender.” The New England Quarterly 69.1 (Mar. 1996): 33-55. 28 Sept. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/ stable/366302>.
McKeithan, D. M. “Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown: An Interpretation.” Modern Language Notes 67.2 (Feb. 1952): 93-96. 28 Sept. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2909960>.