Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown and Puritanism
“Where reason may not wade, their faith may swim” Thomas Watson, a Puritan priest asserts. Puritanism was a faith developed by Englishman in the 1600’s. They were a group of staunch believers in the Holy Bible. Although Puritanism resembled Christianity, it made a sharper distinction between sinners and non-sinners.
The religion stressed that each man had free will to choose and the sanctity of his/her soul was at risk; in other words, every individual had the mandate to determine his/her destiny by making choices. The transgressions of sinners subjected their soul to eternal damnation. The Puritan faith of a man is put into question in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “Young Goodman Brown.” A man, Brown, holds dear few things in the 1800’s.
He has his Puritan faith, which he earnestly cherishes, and guards, the love of his wife, ‘Faith’, whom he adores, and his ancestral upbringing, the deep-seated principles enshrined in Puritanism. These three elemental things help Goodman to navigate between good and evil; they form the platform from which Goodman decides his fate. As Brown faces the devil’s temptation, people easily persuade him to abandon what once grounded him, Puritanism.
The Puritan values of the 1600‘s as well as the people’s openness to mystical ideas defined good and evil and influenced some Puritans to question the truth and abandon their faith just like Eve of the bible who questioned God’s truth before abandoning it under the wiles of the snake; the devil.
The Puritans followed the Old Testament of the Holy Bible. One of the most famous stories of man’s ability to be swayed into temptation is the story of Adam and Eve. In ‘Puritan Paradise Lost’ book review, Keith Stavely shows how Adam, Eve, and Satan represent the common idea of conflict in the Puritan faith (Stavely 495.) The biblical version of this story bears a striking resemblance to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story.
According to the book of Genesis, God created Adam, and from his rib, Eve was created. After creating these pioneer human beings, God set upon them one demand; that, they were not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Nevertheless, having been convinced to eat the forbidden fruit by the snake, Eve persuaded Adam to test God’s will and committed sin by eating the very forbidden fruit. Consequently, Adam and Eve lost their purity and in its place, shame and guilt took over (New International Version, Gen. 3. 1-9).
For the first time, Adam and Eve realized they were naked and hid from the face of God. Young Goodman Brown experiences this same guilt and persuasive tactics in Hawthorne’s story.
In the initial stages of the story, Brown’s relationship with his wife, Faith, is much like that of Adam and Eve, a perfect couple; however, Brown is about to embark on an evil journey, which he knows his wife would not approve. “…and after this one night I will follow her into heaven.
With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (Hawthorne 16). Brown travels into the forest defiantly just as Eve ate from the tree of life. Just like Eve, Brown is in search of knowledge, which Satan uses to lure people away.
Once tainted by her sins, Eve felt the need to cover herself from shame that ensued. The same way, shame affects Young Goodman Brown; as he enters deep into his journey, Brown tells the elder that his ancestors would never travel on such an unthinkable errand.
In response, the elder replies, “I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say” (Hawthorne 18). The elder goes on to describe the evil doings of Brown’s father and grandfather. The shame that Brown feels is enough to convince him to continue on the journey even though he is sure his actions violate his Puritan faith.
In the biblical context of Adam and Eve, the end to their innocence and an abandonment of trust underscored their punishment. Initially, Adam and Eve were to enjoy life in the Garden of Eden without toiling; however, after committing sin, punishment was upon them whereby, Adam was to toil for food while Eve was to experience labor pain in giving birth.
In the case of Young Goodman Brown, punishment is in the death of his soul; he too has to live a life filled with doubt and uncertainty. “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” (Hawthorne 23.)
What once Brown held most important; his Puritan faith and his wife, no longer matters because the sins from his journey into the forest annihilates his soul that Puritans had warned him. Nevertheless, what evil force drives him to ruin the pure life he once had?
The Puritans gave equal power to Satan as they did to God. The beliefs were that Satan worked as a servant of God to test the righteousness of God’s followers.
Many religions believed that the devil existed; however, what differentiated Puritans is that they believed that God was the devil’s motivating factor, that is; devil played a pivotal role to harass and test people’s faith in God in the process of testing and restoring righteousness in God’s followers.
Therefore, Puritans believed that God gave Satan his powers in order to promote this religious way of life and to make achieving salvation difficult. Puritans’ loyalty to their faith was based on fear that God would call upon Satan to punish them (Kizer, Para. 5).
In contemporary culture, people do not carry the same amount of fear of the devil; however, in ‘Young Goodman Brown’, the fear of Satan’s appearance ran throughout the short story. Brown wondered, “what if the devil himself should be at my very elbow” (Hawthorne 19).
Brown feared that the devil would appear; however, the devil did not show up in the story as a literal person that could be seen. Instead, the devil was disguised as priests, elderly, women, and allusions and Brown ended up living amongst the very thing he feared, the devil.
The most compelling allusion comes towards the end of the story; the devil cast an allusion upon Brown by leading him to believe that his beloved wife Faith had fallen into the hands of the devil. Brown lamented, “My Faith is gone! Cried he, after one stupefies moment…There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name” (Hawthorne 44).
To Brown, this statement was two fold; one, he lost his wife Faith and two, he lost his faith in Puritanism. Who else but the devil could conjure up such a wicked event? Brown’s religious ideology was that of Puritan values. In other religions such as protestant and Catholic, the devil was someone that a sinner would meet in his/her afterlife; however, according to the Puritan culture, God used Satan top help “promote righteous piety and individual spiritual welfare” (Kizer, Para. 9).
In other words, a test of one’s faith and in this test, Brown failed. Once convinced that Faith was gone, Brown followed her in the forest with vengeance. Unfortunately, instead of questioning his actions, Brown entertained the notion that he was a sinner; he lost his Faith.
An abandonment of one’s faith among Puritan culture was considered a weakness among men. A man was to remain true to his faith and his wife. Marriage was entered into as a lifetime bond of love, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
Hawthorne’s story draws from these beliefs both figuratively and literally. Brown wife’s name is Faith – a play on words because she represents Brown’s Faith in God. Brown being of Puritan ideology is to remain true to God and his wife. Once his wife Faith appears to have left his life permanently, Brown’s figurative faith leaves as well (Mellow 60).
By the end of the story, it is unclear whether Faith’s disappearance and the story in its entirety was a dream. The legitimacy of the story bears little relevancy because the result is the same. The weakness in Brown’s faith allowed him to believe that the story could have been true. The question becomes how could Brown show credence in such a story?
As Hawthorne’s story takes the audience through the forest, the readers may call authenticity into question. The serpent staff and tales of witches and witchcraft lack validity in today’s culture. In the Puritan culture, witchcraft was a sin against God. It attempted to alter the fate that God had bestowed upon his followers.
If God could be conjured up in unconceivable manners, then all things involving witchcraft could be true. Witchcraft had been in Europe since the fifteenth century (Modugno, Para. 5). The idea of witchcraft is not synonymous to the Puritans; it appears throughout the Holy Bible. “The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination.
But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so” (Deut. 18:14). The terms sorcery and divination are replacements for acts of witchcrafts. The verse is clear that God does not permit such practices. Hawthorne brings witchcraft into his story as the catalyst that lured Brown into evil. Several of the characters share the names of individuals charged with witchcraft.
Hawthorne’s intention is to use the relationship between Brown and witchcraft to symbolize the relationship between man and his Puritan faith. As Brown was drawn closer to witchcraft and those who believed in it, he slipped further away from the life of meaning (Modugno, Para. 9).
This implies that the far an individual goes from God, the deeper s/he sinks into sin. The far Brown stayed around witches the deeper he sank into sin characterized by loss of meaningful life. In essence, God gives people purposes in life and without Him; life is meaningless as evidenced by Brown.
The Puritan faith was largely based on the conflict between good and evil. A devout Puritan resisted temptation, no matter how great, letting his/her faith guide him/her through life. Nathaniel Hawthorne used the escapades of Young Goodman Brown as an example of that good and evil conflict. Evil came in form of witches, serpent’s tails, and allusions; however in the end evil, was in the mind of Young Goodman Brown.
Hawthorne’s short story objective was to show the reader that the “devil made me so it” is an insufficient answer, regardless of whether that devil was well disguised or not. The Puritan Faith left Brown with a feeling of self-doubt, which marked the end to his life with “Faith”.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown. Maryland: Wildside Press, 2005. Print.
Kizer, Kay. The Puritans. N.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2011.
Mellow, James R. Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
Modugno, Joseph. “The Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and “Young Goodman Brown.”
Hawthorne in Salem, N.d. Web. 23 April 2011.
New International Version. The Holy Bible. New York: Harper, 1983.
Stavely, Keith. “Puritan Legacies: Paradise Lost and the New England Tradition, 1630–1890.”
Journal of American Studies 22.3 (1988): 490-496.