Numerous authors have opined Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown“, each with a new perspective or an improvement of their former. While it is not a much explored topic, avid readers of Hawthorne can attest to the fact that some of his works also use deep level humor to address human follies. Now, combining this kind of humor and an attack on (Puritanism) religious practices gives us humor as a standalone linguistic device that is not only symbolic and thematic, but also signify.
From a literary view, the primary reason i loved this story on the first read is how words are carefully chosen to create humor and at the same time, evoke a sense of sombreness in light of the vices addressed. Linda Sahmadi, an independent researcher and English Studies doctorate holder, adds colour to this technique by saying that Hawthorne uses words as a stylistic counterpart of his heart and mind. (Download her Article here)
Hawthorne attacks your inexcusable behavior of justifying a vice because you verily promise your self that this will be the last time. And he uses humor and a metaphor to achieve that. Goodman continues his journey with a lighter heart after convincing himself,
“and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.”
The author’s sneer at this comment can almost be felt. This serves to demonstrate the hypocrisy surrounding Puritanism by then. Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts infamously known for the Witch Trials that occurred between 1692-1693. With Goodman being an embodiment of Puritanism in this story, Hawthorne shows how it glorified a stricter religious discipline, while at the same time being a temptation (or excuse) away from sinning.
Thus far the elder traveler had listened with due gravity; but now burst into a fit of irrepressible mirth, shaking himself so violently that his snakelike staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy.
Goodman’s encounter with the Devil is full of humor and sarcastic talks showing the former’s naivety and a history of Puritanism in sheeps’ skin. Hawthorne’s description;
“Still they might have been taken for father and son.”
This simple description of Goodman and the Devil that Hawthorne throws around simply shows the striking similarity between the two. However, the phrase, “father and son” introduces some sort of relationship which goes beyond physicality. Going with Author D.J. Moores’ article that analyses the story based on Jungian psychological theory, there is a similarity between the two because Goodman is at an encounter with his ‘shadow.’ In simpler terms, Goodman meets unwanted parts of himself that are too afflicting to his Puritan way of living and ego-self.
Still at this scene, Goodman worries that he has greatly gone against the ways of his ancestors who were Christians and never chose the path he is about to take. The devil has to cut him short before he calmly says,
” I would fain be friends with you for their sake.”
The calmness and nonchalant tone depicted in this ambiguous reply is what hit me. It basically means that Goodman even in choosing to take this path is the least sinner of his ancestors. More translation; the devil’s friendship and interactions (read ‘times the ancestors took this path’) with Goodman’s ancestors are so important to him that he would pretend to like Goodman for them. Where else does the theme of Puritanism hypocrisy scream more than here?
Before Goodman fully gives in to the devil, he provides yet another reason he should not be on this journey, that he is yet walking deeper into. Goodman states that he will never be able to look into the eyes of his church minister. At this point, the devil makes that laugh like to ask, ‘are you even aware of you utterances?’ Hawthorne describes;
” Thus far the elder traveler had listened with due gravity; but now burst into a fit of irrepressible mirth, shaking himself so violently that his snakelike staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy. “
Goodman’s worry about facing the minister covered in the guilt for this same journey is what sets out the devil. The mere consideration by Goodman that the minister is less sinful sends the devil into a sarcastic mirth like that of a person who cannot begin to imagine his friend’s utterances. This then places the church minister a tighter friend to the devil than Goodman’s ancestors. This is yet another of the numerous demonstrations of Puritanism hypocrisy through humor.
At the end, Hawthorne leaves his readers confused on whether this journey really took place or Goodman was just dreaming. Whichever the answer is, it does not change the fact that Goodman came out a different man. One with less faith in Christianity and overall humanity.
What are your thoughts and questions on Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne? Let me know in the comment section.