Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” while stilted as it is strange, is not a story most readers would anticipate was written by an author who had created the classic Last of the Mohicans. The work is dark, filled with elements that can only be described in terms of paranoia and delusional, which seems in keeping with the issue of witchcraft so prevalent in early Salem, Massachusetts, where the protagonist begins his surreal journey. The story involves a journey undertaken by a young man, Goodman Brown who embarks on a walk to an far away town and is met on the way by a man who Hawthorne implies is a demon (2).
The man offers Brown a staff in which to assist in his long walk but the young man refuses the temptation to accept. But, it is a meeting that had been prearranged. The two meet an old woman while walking on the road who is not as she seems and claims to be a witch on the way to the devil’s ceremony deep in the woods (Hawthorne 2). This is followed shortly after with the young protagonist discovering that many of the people of Salem, very pious citizens, are also in league with the devil. Clearly, Hawthorne must be inferring that all is not what it seems.
Young Brown refers to the ceremony as a “witch meeting,” where it appears that a Black Sabbath ceremony is in the midst of proceeding where Brown seems to partake in. But he yells out the name of his wife, “Faith, Faith!” numerous times until he awakens the next morning and returns to Salem where all seems as it was prior to embarking on his journey (Hawthorne 7-9). What is there to think about “Young Goodman Brown” beyond the motif of devil and witch lore and Hawthorne’s implication that something is wrong with pious folks. But, what is Hawthorne attempting to point out? Selina Jamil, a Professor of English at Prince George’s Community College, argues that the journey undertaken by Goodman Brown suggests Hawthorne’s thoughts and beliefs regarding freedom of choice as well as the issue of piousness, “…Hawthorne depicts the official discourse of humanity’s dismal choice of evil, he also suggests the carnivalesque discourse of ridiculing solemn ecclesiastical laws and, conversely, ridiculing the dismal empowerment of evil.” (144) Brown’s foray into the forest and meeting the demon early in his travels seems to seems as if an allegory, perhaps referencing the temptation of Jesus as he walked into the desert. Nevertheless, if Jamil is correct then Hawthorne appears to be stating that religion, and the devil, is hokum.
There also are the psychological aspects to “Young Goodman Brown” that seem only to cloud the issue related to the author’s intent. From a Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic perspective the venture into the forest is related to the unconscious, “In the dark forest Brown is brought face to face with three archetypes of the unconscious: the terrible mother, the anima and the shadow.” (Predmore 250) The venture into the forest is then viewed in terms of a “right of passage” into manhood, where Brown must first confront the things he fears most in order to become the husband and provider that Hawthorne may most admire. But, is it mainly delusional, is the experience of Brown merely a product of his hallucinating? Reading poet Martin Bidney’s views on the story may convince most readers that Brown is delusional and may be suffering from schizophrenia, “The superego rises with it purified progeny; the crestfallen id subsides. Moral betterment, or pathology?” (83) The knowledge gleaned through his experience, or hallucinations or dream, may mark an epiphany for Brown. He now sees others, including himself, as neither altogether good or bad, rather, humans are complex beings who make choices and behave in ways that can either be construed as being good or evil; and Brown awakens, not with any great sense of assurance, but in a complete state of ambivalence (Bidney 84). Upon his return to Salem Brown appears to doubt what he sees, as his revelatory hallucinations forces him to question those around him (Hawthorne 9).
“Young Goodman Brown” is an extremely challenging read, especially for the first-time reader who may have limited exposure to the writings of Hawthorne, “Whether this story is seen as a fall from grace or the movement from innocence to experience…Goodman Brown becomes isolated from his Puritan community and why readers might feel alienated by Hawthorne’s tale.” (Webber 203) 19th century journalist Charles W. Webber attempts to help the lowly reader of “Young Goodman Brown” by explaining that it is entirely up to the reader to decide regardless of its outcome (204). While Webber appears not to be a great fan of the works of Hawthorne, by and large the journalist is bowled over by this specific short story, “…as a tale of the supernatural it certainly is more exquisitely managed than anything we have seen in American Literature, at least!” (205) While they may have been terrifying in the 19th century, the evil hobgoblins of today are quite plentiful and can be found in any number of video games. In fact, Hawthorne’s story seems quite similar to video platform games, such as Donkey Kong, where the hero must overcome obstacles faced on a journey until achieving the objective.
This is not necessarily a knock on Hawthorne or the story, but if the end result of Brown’s adventure, or hallucinations, is ambivalence then there doesn’t appear to be much point to the story. “Young Goodman Brown” is the type of story that will keep readers scratching their heads wondering what it all means. This would appear to substantiate the notion that he was in the throes of quite vivid hallucinations brought about through rampant paranoia resulting from oppressive Puritanical beliefs. Well, maybe.