The Neurosis Of Nathaniel Hawthorne Essay Research

The Neurosis Of Nathaniel Hawthorne Essay, Research Paper

The Neurosis of Nathaniel Hawthorne

The influence of Freud’s theory of the dynamics of human personality extends far beyond the discipline of behavioral science, reaching into areas such as humanities, philosophy, and literature. Freud believed that a work of literature is the external expression of the author’s unconscious mind. Therefore, we must treat the work of literature as a dream, then reveal hidden motivations and repressed desires by applying psychoanalytic techniques. In the story “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I will explore the use of symbols and repressed images by the author that are conveyed throughout the story.

To understand better the approach of psychoanalytic criticism, we must first define a general concept of the theory behind it. Psychoanalytic theory finds its roots in psychoanalysis, the medical technique developed by Sigmund Freud in 1900. Freud published a book entitled The Interpretation of Dreams that outlined a complete theory of dreams and focused on unconscious mechanisms and their relation to consciousness. Psychoanalysis was born. Although not originally intended to be a school of literary criticism, Freud later began to develop a connection between literature and psychoanalysis. This created a new understanding of the artwork (the literary piece itself), the artist (writers including their writing process), and the audience (readers and their responses).

Psychoanalysis is said to have several different meanings. For literary purposes the best definition as described by Robert Mollinger would be “a theory of the mind that can serve as an explanatory model for literature”(31). Central to Psychoanalysis is the tripartite model. The tripartite model is best described by our textbook Literary Criticism:

This model developed by Freud separates the human psyche into three parts, the id, ego, and superego. The id is the source for all psychosexual desires and psychic energy. The id operates on the pleasure principal, demanding immediate satisfaction. The ego is the rational and logical part of the mind. It operates as a balance or regulator to the id. The final part is the superego, an internal censor that allows people to make moral judgments in light of social pressures. (150-151)

Between the id, ego, and superego, exists an ever-changing balance is created. When the ego cannot meet the needs of the id and superego, a neurosis is created: “It is these unresolved conflicts (i.e. neurosis) that Freud seeks to resolve so the patient can return to normalcy.” (Bressler 153) Using this tripartite model is an important element for dream interpretation, which is the basis for my criticism of “Young Goodman Brown”

A psychoanalytic criticism of “Young Goodman Brown” will view the entire story as a single dream of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. Freud believed that dreams stored hidden repressed sexual desires, anger, rage, guilt, and emotions from the unconscious. Therefore, our psyche recreates these repressed feeling and emotions through our dreams. When the critic analyzes the literature as a dream, he then unlocks the hidden messages, repressed desires, and underlying motivations of the author.

Central to the story of Goodman Brown is his curious journey with the stranger. Although the reader is never directly told why Brown meets with the stranger, a psychoanalytic criticism lends a different and unique perspective to his travels. On the surface of the story, the meeting of the two men may be simply seen as chance encounter; however, their characters and actions represent far more.

Hawthorne’s writing is very closely related to his conflicts with religion during his life. Central to his struggle in “Young Goodman Brown” is the conflict with gay and lesbian relationships versus the Puritan church. Hawthorne uses his characters as symbolic images to represent his feeling and thoughts about the religious culture at work during the late 1800’s. No different, the stranger Goodman Brown meets in the woods is a projection of Hawthorne’s conscience through Brown. I hope to demonstrate that Hawthorne’s conscience has created the character of the stranger through a neurosis produced by his unresolved conflict with gay relationships versus his puritan society beliefs. The stranger represents Hawthorne’s struggle with sin, his id’s primary pleasure’s, and the close relation between sin and the devil.

Within the first few paragraphs of the story, Brown states, “what a wretch I am to leave her on such an errand….but no would kill her to think it…after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.” This is a powerful statement about the inner conflict between Brown’s hidden sexual desires and his purpose. Not only does he know his wife would be devastated to find out, but his comment on heaven presents an interesting insight. Brown seems to imply that after this one last night with his lover, he will go back to Faith and live out a heterosexual life, therefore providing a way into heaven. The tension between religion and sexuality in Hawthorne’s life is evident here.

Further conflict occurs as the two individuals meet and walk through the woods. The story reveals an underlying consciousness about the severity of sin involved in homosexual relationships. As the two men walk, Goodman Brown begins to tell the man how he will be “the first Brown that ever took this path.” Brown feels that his sexual thoughts have caused him to sin, and that his forefathers would not have done this. The stranger then tells Brown the actions of his father and grandfather that include murder and the lashing of a woman. The stranger uses these instances to compare not only the severity of his ancestor’s sins to his, but to acknowledge that his forefathers had secrets as well.

The encounter with Goody Cloyse also confirms the desire of Goodman Brown to conceal his meeting with this stranger. While the two men are traveling through the woods, they come upon the older woman, whom Brown knows. Furthermore, she happens to be the lady who taught Brown his catechism. Goodman begins to worry that Cloyse will recognize him with this stranger, so he hides behind the trees.

Cloyse symbolizes Brown’s religion and partly his conscience. She is a moral and ethical character whom Goodman believes to walk the “right path” with God. Cloyse is representative of Brown’s past through her instruction of his catechism, and further represents his Puritan beliefs on what is morally and ethically right.

The stranger’s actions astonish Brown. He approaches Cloyse and begins a conversation with her. Soon the two are conversing as if they are best of friends. After the two finish their discussion, Brown rejoins the stranger in disbelief. Now his inner conflict is magnified because of the reminder of his catechism versus the friendship he has just witnessed between Goody Cloyse and the stranger. In Brown’s eyes, the woman whom he thought holy and pure, associated regularly with someone who was evil and unclean.

Further symbolic items of significance are Faith’s pink ribbons. In three separate instances throughout the story, these ribbons are mentioned: when Goodman Brown leaves on his journey, in the middle of the forest while he is alone, and finally at the end of the story when Faith greets Goodman upon his return. A unique characteristic of these ribbons is their color, pink.

Generally, people associate the color white with words such as peace and purity. The color red we associate with things like anger, unrest, and lust. The color pink lies somewhere in-between these colors. Pink in this text seems to represent sexual desire and on a more basic metaphoric level, human skin and flesh. Along with the color, the ribbons themselves allude to Faith. At each point when the reader hears of the ribbons, Faith is either present or spoken about. The most interesting action with the ribbons involved is the forest scene.

Goodman Brown stopped to rest in the forest when he notices a dark cloud cross the sky. Brown hears voices in the forest and cries out for Faith. Suddenly the cloud sweeps away, and a pink ribbon falls from the sky. Most critics agree that this is an important point in the story. “The ribbon falling from the sky in the dark forest indicates that she has succumbed to temptation”, says Harry Campbell(5). He goes on to say, “Brown’s perception of the falling ribbon indicates also that he has ceased to struggle against temptation, and immediately rushes to the Witches’ Sabbath” (5). Indeed this is a critical point to the structure of the story. Brown discovers that his wife has given in to sin and the evil side, therefore causing Brown to break down and fall victim to what he believes is evil.

Another aspect of the ribbons in the forest scene is their contrast to the staff that Goodman Brown carries. “The pink ribbons blend with the serpentine staff in what becomes a fierce orgy of lust”, says Campbell (4). Along with the contrast of the staff and ribbons, the staff itself is an item of interest for psychoanalysis. As with all psychoanalysis, there is generally some mention of phallic figures. This staff given to Goodman Brown is an obvious one. Although the staff has penis-like qualities and is described as “serpent-like” and “it seem to twist and wiggle”, the staff is representative of something more profound.

The staff originally belonged to the man Brown meets in the woods. The stranger is described as older and more traveled, therefore we can assume him to be more experienced in worldly matters than Brown. The staff given to Brown is representative of the knowledge and understanding the stranger has gathered over his travels. Not only does it hold the information about his lifestyle, but it also holds information to all the things the stranger has witnessed and done.

At first, Brown is reluctant to take the staff, and assures the man that he does not need the assistance. After the pair encounter Goody Close, they continue walking until Brown sits down on a tree stump and refuses to continue on their journey. After he sits, the stranger makes a significant remark, “You will think better of this by and by.” Again, the stranger tries to assure Brown that his so-called “sin” of becoming homosexual is no greater than any other sin. The statement of the stranger represents the ego trying to accomidate the desires of the id, while processing the information from the superego. After he makes this remark to Brown, he throws the staff to Brown and walks off at a hurried pace. The passing on of the knowledge has taken place.

At this point in the story, critics are divided as to the reality of the events that take place. Some will treat the rest of Brown’s journey through the woods as a dream, others will treat it as an actual chain of events. It is my belief that after Goodman Brown sat down on the tree stump to rest, he fell asleep. With this in mind, the rest of the journey may be analyzed as Goodman Brown’s dream.

From this point in the story, Brown’s dream cast the stranger in the roll of the devil. Brown has created this role for the stranger by projecting his sinfulness onto the man. Michael Tritt states, “Through Brown’s experiences in the forest, he comes to know the duplicity of human nature. His more lurid revelations, however, involve the depths of his own corruption (114). Brown in his dreamlike state creates a world where his everyday friends and family are evil, deceitful, and led by the devil (i.e. the stranger) in satanic worships. Thomas Walsh writes of the “The Black Man” as an “Objectification of the dark side” and further states “the characters Brown meets in the forest are the embodiment of his own thoughts” (114).

Tritt’s counterpart Claudia Johnson describes “the hellish landscape through which [Brown] travels” as a “hellish externalization of his own heart” (114). Therefore, the reader can conclude that Brown has created this new landscape by projection (a defense mechanism of Freud’s) of his own thoughts. This world is also created as a way for Brown to let the audience see how the public would view his actions and feelings.

The last episode of significance is the assembly of the “evil church.” Goodman Brown follows through the forest until he comes upon the “devil” and his followers deep in the forest. The “grave and dark-clad company” were gathered around a fire near a pulpit or altar of some kind. The significance lies within the people gathered at the assembly.

Not only was the stranger speaking from the pulpit with multiple signs of witchcraft and evil surrounding him, but also around the circle stood:

“faces that would be seen next day at the council board of the providence, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land.

Again, Brown has located his own self-perceived sin and evil in others. Finally, the presentation of Faith to the evil group is a final episode of corruption. After Brown caught her ribbons in the forest, he knew she had succumbed to evil. At the climax of the meeting, Brown yells at Faith to “look towards heaven” and escape the evil, then he suddenly wakes from his dream in the middle of the forest.

The conclusion of the story represents the unrest of Brown’s ego for the remainder of his life. The narrator says of Brown, “he sank from the bosom of Faith, when the family knelt at prayer he scowled and muttered to himself…they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.” Brown’s unresolved struggle with his id and superego led to his unhappy and restless existence. When his ego could not provide a realistic outlet for his id’s desires, a multiple of neurosis were created which prevented Brown from having a fulfilling life.

The story of “Young Goodman Brown” is an unconscious endeavor into the psyche of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s characters represent the struggle of his id’s sexual desires, the superego’s moral and ethical presence, and the ego’s failed balance between the two. From this failed balance, Goodman Brown is doomed to struggle in Hawthorne’s world of neurosis.


Brown, Dennis. “Literature and Existential Psychoanalysis: “My Kinsman, Major

Molineaux”, and “Young Goodman Brown.” Canadian Review of American

Studies 4.1 (1973) : 65-73.

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. New

Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1999.

Campbell, Harry M. “Freudianism, American Romanticism, and Young Goodman

Brown.” CEA Critic 33.3 (1971) : 3-6.

Mollinger, Robert. Psychoanalysis and Literature. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.

Morrison, Claudia. Freud and the Critic: The Early Use of Depth Psychology in Literary

Criticism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Tritt, Michael. “Young Goodman Brown, and the Psychology of Projection.” Studies In

Short Fiction 23.1 (1986): 113-117.

“Young Goodman Brown.” Nathaniel Hawthorne Encyclopedia. 4th ed. 1991.


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