Brown Essay, Research Paper
April 17, 2000
Symbolism and the Unconscious in ?Young Goodman Brown?
Nathaniel Hawthorne?s work is typically fraught with symbolism, much of it deriving from his puritan ancestry. Not surprisingly, Hawthorne was obsessed with the themes of sin and guilt. John Roth notes that ?A number of recurring thematic patterns and character types appear in Hawthorne?s novels and tales? (Roth 76). Because he is speaking of what we would later come to call the unconscious, Hawthorne extensively employed the use of symbolism, which bypasses the conscious to tap into its more dream- like process below (Roth 76).
In his short story ?Young Goodman Brown,? the main character Goodman Brown goes off into the woods and undergoes what will be a life changing experience. ?Young Goodman Brown,? was written in the nineteenth century but is undoubtedly set in the seventeenth century, and for the early Americans in this time period the forest was a symbol of the test of strength, courage, and endurance. It took a lot of courage to survive there, and the young person entering the forest would not emerge the same. But the story is more symbolic than realistic, and the dangers that Goodman Brown encounters in the forest are not Indians or bears; they are dangers of the spirit.
It is no accident that such an experience should have taken place in the forest, because there is a long and extremely profound tradition in American literature where experiences of this nature haven taken place in forest settings. Psychologist Bruno Betelheim 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? (Betelheim, 94). However, this does not appear in ?Young Goodman Brown.? Instead of bravely battling down the dangers of the forest and emerging a more mature person, Goodman Brown emerges a ruined man.
It should not go unrecognized that Goodman Brown?s wife, a light hearted, genuine woman, has the name Faith. Faith is not by any means an unusual name for a woman, especially in puritan times, but it becomes significant in the story because she is presented to us first as a very young bride with pink ribbons in her hair, almost like a child. Her pink ribbons symbolize her youth, and her name symbolizes her husband?s childlike spirituality at the beginning of the story.
Christianity historically has been a religion of obedience and devotion much more than one of logic, as much as the framers of the age of reason would try to argue otherwise. When the story opens, we see Faith characterized by childlike confidence and purity, which can be contrasted with ?the man with the snake-like staff,? who attempts to persuade Goodman Brown by ?reasoning as we go? (Hawthorne 106). Faith does not attempt to dissuade her husband out of his intentions through reason, but through affection; with ?her lips? close to his ear,? she asks Goodman Brown not to go into the forest on his mysterious errand (Hawthorne, 108).
But we are left to wonder what his errand is. Hawhtorne never tells us, but clearly Goodman Brown has planned for whatever it is. He knows that the point of the journey is less than beneficial, because he feels guilty about leaving his wife on ?such an errand? (Hawthorne, 108). Terence Martin speculated that ?Goodman Brown?s Journey into the forest is best defined as a kind of general, indeterminate allegory, representing man?s irrational drive to leave his Faith, home, and security temporarily behind, for an unknown reason, to take a chance with one or more errands onto the wilder shores of experience? (Martin, 92). Q.D. Observes that the ?theme of the story is simply going to the devil for reasons such as lust, certainly, but more for knowledge? (Lang, 91).
Goodman Brown also seems to know whom he is going to meet there, because when he meets the man with the snake-like staff, he is startled by the ?sudden appearance of his companion? who was nonetheless ?not totally expected? (Hawthorne, 109). Snakes of course signify the devil, and if this individual was not the devil himself, he is certainly a representative of him. His staff is later described as twisted as well.
What is here are all the elements of the quest story: the journey into an uncharted and dangerous realm, symbolizing the unconscious, and, shortly after the journey begins, the meeting with the guide who knows this forbidden and mysterious territory well (Martin 100). However, at this point the story veers significantly away from its traditional path. Goodman Brown announces that he does not want to go any further into the forest. He has met the man at the edge of the forest by a previously made arrangement, in response to a vow of some sort; and, ?having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return from whence I cam. I have scruples touching the matter thou wor?st of? (Hawthorne, 110).
Having read the entire story, it can be interpreted on two levels. Goodman Brown may feel, as he says that the exploration of the inner forest may be a sin. It is easier by far to follow the ?accepted? path of faith, to walk, as the church often says, ?in the light? (Hawthorne 110). By walking in the light, and by following precisely the doctrine of Christian life and avoiding all situations where morality does not separate itself into clear areas of black and white, one feels safe, clean, and perhaps virtuous. By doing this, one also misses out on the depth, and the richness that a fuller experience of life might offer. But it is unquestionably an easier path.
However, others choose to walk into the forest of their unconscious, where there is no light. ?This can be a scary experience, and one fraught with danger, and is often characterized by the clouds hiding the previously twinkling stars? (Betelheim 110). The real forest is the home of the madman, and sometimes the devil himself. To venture into this unknown land is risky, and to venture into it without being prepared is to be mad, yet we can see that this is clearly what Young Goodman Brown has done.
He knows exactly why he is going, but is not at all prepared for what he will find there, namely the sinful natures not only of himself, but horrifyingly, also his wife. He emerges from this experience a completely changed man, but because he was unprepared to accept the visions he would receive there with tolerance and grace, he has been changed for the worst. Goodman Brown was supposed to learn that everyone is human, and should be treated with compassion. Instead he learned that everyone is a sinner, and forever treats people with abhorrence. Enlightenment can impart great wisdom, but only those minds, which are open to receiving it. Goodman Brown was not.