‘Young Goodman Brown’ Essay, Research Paper
Nathaniel Hawthorne honors Dante in ‘Young Goodman Brown’
By William John Meegan
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) wrote Young Goodman Brown in 1835 some 514 years after Dante Alighieri passing in 1321. It is a short story of only 10 pages of prose; yet, it captures the essence of the first three verses of La Divina Commedia. In fact I can say that his little story throw great light on the interpretation of these verses. Over the past seven centuries many great scholars have honed their talents to the text of La Divina Commedia but none seem so original as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. This does not negate those previous or subsequent commentator’s insights for Dante work has many layers of interpretation. See Mark Musa translation below:
“Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
Hawthorne’s work came to me serendipitously. I actually had no idea that he was in anyway associated with Dante’s work. It is said that ‘Hawthorne’s neighbor and friend Herman Melville once said,’ “Young Goodman Brown is a tale as deep as Dante”. It is also known that Hawthorne was a friend of Henry Wadworth Longfellow one of the founders and the first president of the Dante Society of America. Longerfeller would become president of the newly formed society some seventeen years after his friend’s death. I wonder if there was an earlier collaboration. I mentioned this, in passing, merely to point out that there must have been a deeper following of Dante’s works in America, then the first roster of the society’s membership would indicate, during the 19th century. I did find it interesting that Rev. Henry Francis Cary’s translation in 1814 uses the word “gloomy” in the second verse of La Divina Commedia: “I woke to find myself in a gloomy wood.” Hawthorne’s last sentence in this short story is, “for his dying hour was gloom.” Many of La Divina Commedia’s translations up to the middle of the 20th century uses the words “gloomy wood” rather than “dark wood” so popular in the latter half of this century.
The tale of Young Goodman Brown does not mention Dante’s name, or mention La Divina Commedia, though it becomes obvious this small work is a tribute and recognition of Dante’s genius.
The story starts out idealistically on a Saturday morning when Young Goodman Brown leaving his house looks back and gives his wife, Faith, a kiss. He is on his way to a prearranged meeting and would not sleep in his bed that night. His wife employs him to tarry till morning but he insists that he must ‘tarry away from her’. He teases her a bit, “What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married.” He sees the concern on her face as melancholy. It is obvious she senses something amiss.
Hawthorne has steeped his narrative in allegory and symbols. I chose Saturday as the departure date because the next day is Sunday when at the end of the tale he staggers back into town and sees the preacher preparing for services. As the story unfolds it becomes obvious that it is fate that has set up this meeting for him.
Considering the historical period of Hawthorne’s story, which was the early 19th century, when young men were apprenticed out to work until they met their obligation there was no time for a night out on the town. A young man in such an apprentice position could not afford it. He would have had to watch his reputation and his station in life. He was expected to go to bed at dusk and arise early in the morning before sunrise. Men normally did not marry until they could afford to. Young girls were chaperoned and their parents and guardians were careful to look into the reputations of the men they choose to wed. Therefore, 25 years of age was not considered early or late in life for a man to get married.
Saturday as the day for the setting of this narrative is the end of the workweek for most Christians of that era. It is also the day one would take a bath not as it is today where bathing is a daily ritual. Dressed up in clean attire a young man, being his own master, is ready to ‘paint the town red’ as the saying goes.
It is surprising that he does not take the excellent advice that he gives to his wife, “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.” It is interesting that this is the same model advice written in most almanacs of that period. Here he himself has the keys to salvation but consciously does not use them.
As Goodman Brown embarks upon his journey he knows that it is an evil mission he has embarked upon. This is in stark contrast to Dante finding himself in a dark wood. Dante knew not how he arrived in the woods. Being a neophyte in the ways of the world Goodman Brown questions, practically on the outset of his journey, what is behind the numerous trees of the forest he has entered. A new traveler through such a dark forest would not, of course, know these things. This is reminiscence of the Bushman of Africa who knows precisely what is behind every boulder, tree, and bush in his forest in contrast to the White Hunter that comes into his world scared out of his wit and would not take a step without the Bushman’s guidance. Young Goodman Brown even reflects, “what if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!” Catholic children are taught there is a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another to guide them through life. They better choose well. This phase hints at that religious idea as well as the narrative as a whole being Faith, his wife, was his angel.
The title of the story is prefaced with the word “Young” as opposed to an “Elderly” version of Goodman Brown? As the account unravel this would seem to be the case. Almost immediately after the remark about the “devil” he see his friend waiting for him. His friend immediately takes position at his side (elbow?) as they walk off together he is immediately chided for being 15 minutes late. Goodman Brown plaints, “Faith kept me back awhile.” This familiarity with his wife’s name to a stranger would be inappropriate on any occasion no less so on this one. This more than hints at a longer relationship between the two men. But when did he even have the time to make the appointment being with his wife for three solid months? He lives in Salem Village and the meeting is in Boston.
It is strange that the 15 minutes would be mentioned at all as was mentioned the three months that Goodman Brown had been married. If we were speaking coincidentally 15 minutes is one quarter of an hour as is three months one quarter of a year. Are we being asked to equate these two numerical oddities? Curiously how Nathaniel Hawthorne would weave these symbols so well into the account. A marriage is the beginning of two people union as one. The date of the wedding is as the beginning of the first year of the union. If the marriage was to least 50 years, dissolved by one partner dying, halfway would be 25 years: “Midway this journey of our life.” For example: equating this to the calendar year January 1st would be the wedding date. Three months later would be April 1st. This is the traditional date for the dawn of creation for both the Christ and the antichrist. Christ was conceived on this date and was born nine months later, December 25th. Christ being circumcised eight days later would be Goodman Brown’s anniversary date. The symbolism in this allegorical story is incredible when equating the span of a year to the life of an individual. This allegorical narrative suggests the two roads taken. Faith, Goodman Brown’s wife, represent the spiritual or path of light and Goodman Brown represents the demonic or dark path. On April 1st it would seem they consummated the celebration of creation alone.
When calculating this weekly ritual, of leaving the good wife home and taking off on one’s journey into the Boston night life, over the 24.75 year span would come to exactly 1290.5 nights away from home. This, one night a week ritual, is not an uncommon activity for most men, even in our own era, so Goodman Brown becomes the archetypal symbol for all his male counterparts past, present, and future Notice how the 1290.5 nights coincides with Dante’s Beatrice dying in June 1290 AD. Notice how Goodman Brown points out that he lost Faith. Here Hawthorne infers that Goodman Brown lost Faith on that first fatal night away from home not midway through their marriage. He may well have come to terms with it midway through his life with her but his addiction began on that first night and it would build to a crescendo where it was not possible for him to put a stop to it. He had realized he lost her on the first night.
If we are to equate the two one quarter spans of time as the same symbol Goodman Brown would never be late again. He was made to lament not keeping his appointment because of his honeymoon period, with his wife Faith, but that time is over with and will never be an excuse again.
If Goodman Brown were 25 years of age when he married then 25 years later he would be 50 years of age. The gentleman he met in the forest was 50 years of age. It is finally Hawthorne description of this individual that convincingly demonstrates it is the elderly Goodman Brown. It also points to Goodman Brown’s apprenticeship as a young man (”in the same rank of life”, “was as simply clad”, “and as simple in manner”).
“As nearly as could be discerned, the second traveler was about fifty years old, papparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still, they might have been taken for father and son. And yet, though the elder person was as simply clad as the younger, and as simple in manner too, he had an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and would not have felt abashed at the governor’s dinner-table, or in King William’s court, were it possible that his affairs should call him thither. But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable, was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.”
“‘Come Goodman Brown!’ cried his fellow-traveler, ‘this is a dull pace for the beginning of a journey. Take my staff, if you are so soon weary.’”
There can be no doubt that Goodman Brown had met an elderly version of himself in the dark wood: “I woke to find myself in a dark wood.” The journey of 25 years in retrospect is to find oneself more confident of his surroundings and much more knowledgeable of world affairs and no longer the innocent and naive traveler of bygone days. In every sense it is the elderly version of himself that is his guide through life. The serpent staff is symbolic of acquired knowledge and wisdom. For most people it is the crutch of life or whatever ones uses to manipulate other people to do their will. So the staff is symbolic to the crutch every human being takes possession of that help him and guides him through life. Not necessarily does wisdom have to be benign. Hawthorne would mention that the staff was a rod the owner formerly lent to the Egyptian magi (in the days of Moses). It is not that Goodman Brown lent the rod to the Egyptian magi but that evil lends it to whoever will further its cause.
Hawthorne seems to be pointing out via reverse psychology that to depend upon oneself as a guide through life is demonic. The staff symbolizing a lifetime of experiences which is used to forester confidence. Such a crutch is an icon or false god.
This, meeting oneself in the dark wood, is not the way that Dantists commentators tend to interpret this verse in La Divina Commedia. Yet, when the reader reflects on Dante’s verse and reads further on into the first chapter of La Divina Commedia a younger version of Dante would have had to have met an elderly version of himself with a far greater understanding of the ways of the world than the younger Dante. What Hawthorne seems to be suggesting with his allegorical story is that unlike Dante who’s guide led him through the Inferno and Purgatory Goodman Brown’s guide was the serpent staff which judged all people as being evil and not being what they seem to be on the outside. This gloomy vision of the world that blinded Goodman Brown to the reality of the goodness in people is what doomed him in the end. This is the version that Dante does not talk about when someone finds himself or herself in a dark wood.
Virgil is of course Dante alter ego. In a sense Virgil is the elderly Dante young Dante finds in the dark wood. It is after all the teachings of Virgil that caused Dante to be where he is. Virgil’s teaching were basically pagan and in a sense has made Dante into his own image and likeness. Just as Virgil guides Dante through the ceremonial ritual of the baptism of fire in the Infernal and Purgatorial realms so to does the elderly Goodman Brown guide his younger self through the Saturday festivities of the Boston night life, which Hawthorne allegorically likens it to a meeting of the coven in the forest, where everybody is an equal. The meeting of the coven was to bring about the baptism of Goodman Brown into the secret mysteries of this fellowship of evil vices:
“And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness, in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame? Herein did the Shape of Evil dip his hand, and prepared to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mysteries of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!”
Like Dante who awakened in the dark wood so to does Goodman Brown wake up in the dark wood almost 25 years before, yet only one night after, his fateful meeting with his mature self. But this first night away from his wife’s bed he had been baptized into a secret brotherhood of evil. As he staggers back into town Sunday morning his guilt for his wretched condition has to be more than he can bare. He takes comfort in knowing that these people are not fooling him for they are pious frauds. After all doesn’t he know their secret deeds and thoughts? After all did he not see them all at the coven last night?
‘It is not wise to go out drinking in thy own neighborhood less the neighbors learn who and what you really are. If you are going to create havoc do it in someone else’s backyard.’ Hence Goodman Brown’s journey to Boston. Apparently Goodman Brown was aware of this wise advice. Coming home in the morning to a concerned and loving wife after a night of barhopping and cavorting with all kinds of vices one does not want to see the sweet smile of his wife’s face. After all he is the man of the house and who is she to question him? It is her job to maintain outward appearances and to alibi him to the outside world if he is too sick to go to church or to work. Hawthorne could have picked no better archetypal setting for depicting the soul’s descent into hell.
The ends of Goodman Brown’s days were not as happily met as Dante’s were. There is no doubt that Goodman Brown would go directly to the inferno that is the abode of his own making. There is of course much more implied by Hawthorne’s work then prudence allows me to go into. For example Goodman Brown may well have thought that he was the product of an ancestral and evil spirit seeing all of his ancestry were brutal in nature. The entire account has Hawthorne suggesting that one can sell his soul, unknowingly, to the devil by deliberately entering into a pack with evil – thinking somehow he could escape the consequences of such a contract. In the beginning of the story he believed that he could “after this one night I’ll cling to Faith’s skirts and follow her into heaven”. The moment Goodman Brown set out on his journey with an evil purpose in mind he not only lost his religious faith but his wife, Faith. As if these two words were interlocked. “What thou shalt loose in Heaven shalt be loose on Earth, and what thou shalt bound in Heaven should be bound on Earth.” She never looked the same to him from the very first night he returned from his meeting. That seems to be the most sorrowful part of the bargain with his gaining the wisdom of the world. As Christ says in the New Testament, “what have you gain if you gain the whole world but lost your very soul?”
The word “Goodman,” in the name Goodman Brown, tells us that Nathaniel Hawthorne is more then suggesting that a “good man” can get so caught up, in becoming all that he can be, in the world that he looses his very soul and humanity in the process.
I have written on the mathematics of Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) La Divina Commedia: “Conquest of Genesis: A Study In Universal Creation Mathematics”, published by the Edwin Mellen Press, 1998
URLs (on these mathematics)
I am a lifetime member of the Dante Society of America out of Cambridge, Mass.