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Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Allegorical Elements in “Young Goodman Brown”


Nathaniel Hawthorne is deemed to be the greatest of America's anti-transcendental writers. His writing is especialy noted for its redolent symbolism and psychological probing into the darker sides of human heart, especially guilt and sin.Young Goodman Brown is one of Hawthorne’s most significant short stories in which his preoccupation with the effects of guilt and sin are combined with a continued emphasis on symbolism and allegory. The story is  an allegorical journey of a newlywed man who is walking toward spiritual crises, hand in hand with the devil himself. Set in Salem about the time of the Salem witchcraft trials, it provides the backdrop to a weird journey into the dark forest and the darkness of human heart as well.

All the characters, objects and settings in the story have allegorical significance since they represent abstract ideas. The names of the first two characters introduced in the story, Young Goodman Brown and his wife Faith, are both symbolic. Brown stands for man’s hereditary predilection to evil. He represents everyman’s inherent propensity to evil. His wife Faith stands for true Christian faith and virtue. Brown’s marriage to Faith symbolises that he clings to a faith in good in the world. The pink ribbon worn in Faith’s hair serves as an emblem of heavenly faith. Later in the story, when Brown meets his companion in the woods, he declares, “Faith kept me back awhile”. Here, Hawthorne uses the name of Brown’s wife as a symbol for Brown’s personal faith in goodness. At this point in the story, Brown’s conscious is keeping him from embracing the evil ways of his companion. The image that Hawthorne creates of Brown putting his head back across the threshold of his house to kiss his wife goodbye symbolises Brown’s reservations of surrendering to the devil’s evil ways. Brown does, despite his vacillating conscious, surrender to an impulse to follow an evil path and begin his journey into the woods. In old times, the forest was considered a place of evil so Brown’s errand in a dense forest suggests that he is up to somethig bad.

Brown’s journey through the forest is on a narrow, dark, and dull path. The darkness and dreariness symbolise the evil that hides in the forest. The narrowness of the path symbolises that Brown is surrounded by evil. The idea that Brown may never return to the state of innocence from which he came is suggested by the fact that the woods seem to close immediately behind him. The trail being long and windy symbolises how far Brown’s conscious must travel from innocence to realise the evil in his world.

In the forest, Brown meets his companion, a character who symbolises the devil. He is about fifty years old and his appearance resembles Young Goodman Brown so much that he has been called the elder Goodman Brown. The devil appears as an image of his own evil or dark side. Allegorically the devil stands for Goodman Brown’s hereditary predilection to evil. This idea of evil past, present and future is just another example of the allegorical nature the story has in relation to the Fall of Man. It is Hawthorne's intention to display the sin that we have all inherited through Adam and Eve, and to bring greater understanding as to the psychosexual, religiously symbolic and historical pretexts that made events like the Salem witch trials occur in our history. The elder Goodman Brown gives us an allusion to Moses, the prophet of the Jews, whose staff could become a serpent at his will. It indicates that here Hawthorne’s intention is to mock at all religious figures, and all things are associated with religion through the presentation of the elder Brown as a devil. The devil offers Brown his walking staff that is described as having “the likeness of a great black snake”. The snake-like appearance of the staff symbolises the cunning and treacherous character of Young Goodman Brown’s companion, who often takes the shape of a serpent. Brown’s rejection of the staff symbolises Brown’s reluctance to  surrender to the evil in the world.

Goodman Brown sees his forefathers as symbols of honest and good Christian men, but as the devil tells Brown that he has been well acquainted with his family, his forefathers become symbols of people that embody the evil that surrounds Brown. The devil tells Brown that he has a general acquaintance with the people of New England. Then Brown saw Goody Cloyse, who taught him catechisms. But now she is an embodiment of evil, a witch. With this Brown feels a conflict within his mind and refuses to follow the elder and go back to his wife Faith. This indicates his endeavour to stay away from evil and keep faith in good. The elder then leaves him, giving him a maple branch. Brown’s acceptance of the newly-made staff from the devil hurries along the same evil path of his contemporaries. The staff symbolises a tool of evil, and Brown’s accepting it represents his beginning to accept the evil in his world.  He then gets much more confused when he sees all the so-called good men like – the minister and deacon Gookin being evil. Another symbol of Brown’s new commitment to evil is the pink ribbon that he catches falling from the sky. The ribbon symbolises Faith’s conversion into the evil and Brown’s loss of faith in good.

We observe that Goodman Brown resisted the temptation of evil more than once and preserved his mental strength to stand against evil till he found that his faithful wife has become evil. But Faith’s conversion to evil shattered his faith in the goodness of things and became an evil himself. In this respect Faith can be compared to Eve, for whom Adam lost his innocence.

In a few words, the story allegorises the fact that man is inherently disposed to evil and once in its grip, cannot wriggle out.


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