Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835

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by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835

"Young Goodman Brown," Nathaniel Hawthorne's well-known tale of a young man's initiation into the nature of evil, is usually seen as a classic example of the author's allegorical method. But even as Hawthorne suggests that there is some uncertainty about whether Goodman Brown actually experienced his confrontation with the devil or only dreamed it, there is a more basic ambiguity underlying the relationship between realism and allegory in this tale.

It seems as though Goodman Brown's journey into the forest is ritually predestined, that he is an allegorical figure who has no free will to act in any way other than what the allegorical nature of the story determines for him. His questioning of the journey and his struggles against it, however, suggest a realistic open-endedness. Brown seems to be an as-if-real character with a mind of his own. This inconclusiveness is not the result of Hawthorne's faulty control of his story but rather an indication of an important transition point in the development of short fiction in the nineteenth century, when allegorical conventions began to be displaced by realistic ones.

The theme of Hawthorne's tale is not so straightforward as it may appear at first glance. Although we know that the story has something to do with the discovery of the concept of evil and the related concepts of guilt and sin, the work never makes it quite clear what sin is or what evil is. It is not so simple as to suggest that because all the people in the village are at the witches' sabbath they are therefore cruel and wicked people as individuals. Instead, sin in this story has a more basic and generalized meaning that refers to all of humanity by virtue of being human. The fact that Goodman Brown only has to make this journey into evil once—and that he has not made it before—suggests on the story's allegorical level that it is a ritualistic journey that all humans have to make at a certain point in their lives.

This suggestion of allegorical initiation into evil demands an understanding of evil on its most basic level. Given the Calvinist framework of much of Hawthorne's fiction, "Young Goodman Brown" invites comparison with the basically allegorical nature of that archetypal story of the discovery of evil in the book of Genesis. Erich Fromm, in his study The Art of Loving, argues that the original couple's shame after eating the forbidden fruit should not be understood merely as the birth of sexual prudery but as the realization of the division of their original oneness into two separate entities who must henceforth be condemned to loneliness and isolation.

According to the Christian religion the only way to heal this separation is to follow the words of Jesus to love one's neighbor as oneself; that is, to love the neighbor until no distinction can be made between the neighbor and the self. It is, of course, this complete loss of the self as a separate entity by sympathetic identification with the brotherhood of the race that Brown is unable to accomplish at the end of the story.

Before his journey into the forest, the young and uninitiated Goodman Brown simply assumed the sense of union. This night of all nights in the year metaphorically marks his discovery that separation is the nature of humanity. Once humans have made this discovery, Hawthorne suggests, they have only two choices: either they accept the truth of separation and try to love the other as a means to heal it, or else they fall into complete despair and hopelessness.

It is this open-ended choice that makes Hawthorne's story seem psychologically realistic. Goodman Brown's wife Faith is not merely a two-dimensional allegorical figure embodying the quality of her name; she is also a realistic example of the necessity of faith. Whereas she is able to make a leap of love and faith and welcome her husband back with open arms, Goodman Brown only looks sadly and sternly into her face and passes her without greeting. Whereas Faith can accept the inevitable fallen nature of humanity and live with that realization, Brown is an absolutist, who, having been displaced from his childish illusion, cannot accept the necessary relativism of adulthood.

"Young Goodman Brown" is the best-known example of Hawthorne's primary literary contribution—the psychologizing of spiritual truths once embodied in allegory and the consequent transformation of the simple one-to-one relationships suggested in that ancient form into the complex and ambiguous symbolism that formed the basis for the nineteenth-century short story.

—Charles E. May