Goodman Brown Symbolism Essay

One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most anthologized tales, “Young Goodman Brown” shares themes and techniques with much of his other work. Hawthorne’s probing of what might be called the psychology of sin (however secular are modern readings), expressed through his characteristic manipulations of symbolism, merge the tale with his other short stories, such as “The Birth-Mark” (1843) and “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance” (1850), as well as his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852. (Hawthorne’s short stories were written mostly before 1850, and his novels were written after that date.) Hawthorne’s ideas, moral vision, and artistry have established him as one of the nation’s greatest writers. The suggestive ambiguities in his fiction have made his work particularly amenable to treatment by the full range of modern critical perspectives.

The symbolic significance of places, times, names, and objects seems obvious in “Young Goodman Brown.” Salem is the dwelling place of family and community, religion and faith (“faith” the belief and “Faith” the woman). The name Goodman suggests “good man” (although it also had been an equivalent of “mister”). The surrounding wilderness is unknown, a place where one can easily wander from the straight and narrow path. In addition, the scenes in Salem occur during daylight, the scenes in the forest at night. In that dark forest, Brown discovers a prince of darkness (an apparent devil who looks like a man) who appears with his serpent cane as if he has been conjured into being by the word “devil.” Has Brown found in that darkness the light or the truth or an acceptable moral standard in that heathen wilderness? Does he remain a naive yet good man?

“Young Goodman Brown” is not, in fact, a simple religious parable about the undeniable evils of life. The statement that “evil is the nature of mankind,” after all, is spoken by the Devil (the prince of lies as well as the prince of darkness) in what may have been only Brown’s dream. “Young Goodman Brown” is a psychological tale about the impact of this partial truth upon a particularly susceptible mind. If this were not the case, Hawthorne need not have written the final page of the story nor have portrayed Brown in such a negative fashion. Should not the discoverer of truth be rewarded with a positive outcome? Hawthorne does not focus on universal evil or human hypocrisy. Rather, he criticizes Brown as an either/or thinker who never acknowledges the evil in himself. His own diabolical curiosity initially leads him to his appointment in the forest. The devil looks like Brown. After Brown exclaims “my Faith is gone!” he himself becomes “the chief horror of the scene.”

Initially, Brown seems aware that his mission is sinful, but eventually he perceives sin only in others. He becomes blind to goodness and avoids human contact. Like so many Hawthorne characters, he becomes a cold observer of life rather than a life-affirming participant. His sin is pride. As the story opens, he is innocent, young, and sheltered. He knows only good. When he sees Faith in the forest, however, he abruptly converts to a belief that only evil exists. Either attitude is simpleminded. He never envisions a complex life that is a mix of good and evil and which in any case must be lived.

What troubles Brown most in the nocturnal forest is “that the good shrank not from the wicked.” Even the pink of Faith’s ribbons is a mixture of white (purity) and red (associated with guilt and sin in the story). Brown’s propensity to think in terms of God or Satan, the flesh or the spirit, and good or evil has been described as typical of early Puritan New England. In this sense, Hawthorne has written a criticism of society like that of The Scarlet Letter.

Modern critics have interpreted “Young Goodman Brown” in many ways. The story as a critique of society stands out to some. To psychologically inclined readers, Brown journeys into the psyche. The village represents the superego, whereas the forest and darkness become equivalents of the Freudian id. The entire story becomes a portrait of one human mind that discovers the usually suppressed and disquieting reality of animal instinct.

Gender-conscious readers might see Brown’s problem as an inability to accommodate to women as complex individuals. He cannot reconcile the “red” fact of menstrual cycles with the “white” of hallowed motherhood. Faith’s own reality is “pink,” a color that for Brown can only mean a tainting of purity. Brown either “shrank from the bosom of Faith” for her supposedly evil nature or indulged his sexual appetites—since they do have a number of children. Readers may view “Young Goodman Brown” as literary self-revelation, because to write the story, Hawthorne had to distance himself, to observe the human lot just as Brown did. All these perspectives testify to the richness of the story.

Symbolism In Young Goodman Brown

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Symbolism In Young Goodman Brown


Nathaniel Hawthorne's work is typically fraught with symbolism, much of it deriving from his Puritan ancestry; a great-great uncle was actually a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials (Roth 76). Not surprisingly, Hawthorne was obsessed with the twin themes of sin and guilt. Author John Roth notes that A number of recurring thematic patterns and character types appear in Hawthorne's novels and tales. These repetitions show Hawthorne's emphasis on the effects of events on the human heart rather than
the events themselves (76). Because he is speaking of what we later would come to call the unconscious, Hawthorne extensively employed the use of symbolism, which bypasses the conscious, logical mind to tap into its more dreamlike processes.
The story begins as a conventional allegory, creating the expectation that the characters will consistently exhibit the abstractions they symbolize (Levy 116). Young Goodman Brown is an allegory whose characters play a major role in displaying the determination of what to believe and what not to believe. The short story represents one man's wild journey to leave his faith, home, and security temporarily behind to take a chance with the devil on an adventure into a dark forest. In his short story Young Goodman Brown, the main character goes off into the forest and undergoes a life-transforming experience there. The forest is a very real symbol of the test of strength, courage, and endurance; it took real fortitude to survive in the forest, and a young person entering this forest would not emerge the same. However, this story is more symbolic than realistic, and the dangers are of the spirit. The story is a dream
vision, or conscious day dream, that explains the theme of the story as being a formal allegory composed of massive symbolism. Many symbols help the protagonist Goodman Brown move toward a vision of evil which causes an unexpected effect of distrust due to his uncertain decision of experiencing a dream or reality. In Young Goodman Brown the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, creates a short story that displays a clearly abstracted allegory through the determination of the conscious and unconscious, composed of an enormous amount of symbolism interpreted from the setting, characters, and plot in the story.
To begin with, an allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy (Bereng 1). In this case, the story's setting, characters, and plot represent abstract concepts such as faith, innocence, and evil. The story is allegorically centered around Young Goodman Brown. The characters' names, Goodman and Faith, obviously indicate how Hawthorne uses them as a religious allegory to stand up against the evil in the story.
It is no accident that such an experience should have taken place in a forest, for there is a long and extremely profound tradition in our literature for experiences of this
nature having taken place in forest settings. Psychologist Bruno Betelheim, for example, shows that in the folk tale The Three Bears, Goldilocks encounters the cottage of the three bears in a forest; in Hansel and Gretel, the children's father takes them off into the forest to abandon them and they have to find their way back out; in Red Riding Hood, the little girl has to travel through the forest to her grandmother's house.
Betelheim also observes that Since ancient times the near-impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our own way to become ourselves, and have entered this wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our own way out we shall emerge with a much more highly-developed humanity (Betelheim 94). However, this does not happen in Young Goodman Brown. Instead of bravely battling down the dangers of the forest and emerging more mature, Goodman Brown emerges a ruined man. In order to determine why, it is necessary to look at some of

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