The short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne has been a saga of great interest to scholars, students, writers and ordinary readers, over the many years since it was published. The story stands out as classic example of Hawthorne's talent at his craft, and the characters, the setting and the theme are extraordinarily interesting from many perspectives, and Hawthorne wrote it in such a way that it becomes a ghoulish nightmare, a devilish trek into the past. The ironies are powerful and obvious, and they contribute significantly to the themes. For this paper the focus will indeed be the theme and setting, how those elements contribute to the story, and why critics have explained the theme and setting in so many radically different ways.
The Story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne set this short story in Salem, a place that is notorious for weirdness, darkness, hangings, paranoia about witches, and other unknown evils. He is a Puritan and has only recently married Faith, so why would he leave his beautiful bride and venture into the dark New England woods alone? That fact has intrigued critics and scholars for many years. It seems every peer-reviewed article on Young Goodman Brown has a different theory or approach as to why he would do this D.J. Moores writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology explains that Brown goes off into the creepy woods to "seek himself" and in doing so is seeking to locate "his lost/unwanted parts, the psychic energies he keeps locked in the dungeon of the unconscious" (Moores, 2005, p. 1).
Moores asserts that this search by Brown is conducted because he is a Calvinist, and Calvinism is a branch of Christianity that holds humans are born into a sinful situation, and somehow in order to find peace -- and go to heaven when they die -- they must rid themselves of the shackles of sinfulness. They must fight through the sin and darkness and let God be their guide and master. Calvinists believe that people are not born with a love or appreciation for God, so they must learn to love Him because in the end, all people are at the mercy of God. Moores admits that a lot of scholars have observed Freudian themes in Young Goodman Brown, but he sees things in this story from a Jungian perspective; Karl Jung was at one time a colleague of Freud but Jung carved out his own theories and stands alone as an iconic psychological giant in history. To see Young Goodman Brown from a Jungian perspective is to understand Brown's sojourn into the evil woods as a way to confront his own demons.
Brown understands how un-Christian like it is for a loyal husband to trek into darkness with his wife left at home: "What a wretch am I do leave her on such an errand," he explains (p. 65), but nevertheless he is compelled to go. So in this particular analysis of the setting and theme, Brown is entering a shadowy environment (the forest) gives him a chance for "psychic growth"; when he steps into the forest, he is leaving the world of "Puritan morality and civilization" and entering the darker shadowy world where nature is in charge, far away from the "repressive confines of Christian values" (Moores, p. 4).
Meanwhile, a reader is reminded that Hawthorne didn't necessarily choose Salem, Massachusetts, as a setting for this story just because of the legacy of the witchcraft trials held a hundred and fifty years prior to the writing of the story. Hawthorne in fact was born in Salem, and he addressed the darkness associated with Salem in more than one of his books and stories. But the themes woven into the story are very much linked to the past and to that darkness, as in fact Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather was a judge during the Salem witch trials, and some critics have suggested that Hawthorne wrote the story to purge those connections from his own legacy. The setting for Brown's trek into the woods may remind some readers of what a journey into hell might be like. The trees sound like they are part of a poltergeist.
The "gloomiest trees" Brown had ever seen are there; they have "innumerable trunks and thick boughs" but ironically the path leads nowhere. How could a path grow "wilder and drearier and more faintly traced" but then, boom, it "vanishes at length"? This approach to writing elicits fantasy and fear in the reader, as Hawthorn no doubt intended. The nightmare sequence leads not just to Brown being frightened and beaten down emotionally, and harassed by images of townsfolk, he actually breaks, and loses faith. Meantime, his wife's name (Faith) plays a significant thematic role because the reader knows Brown initially had lost her (at least temporarily) when he decided to go into the forest on an "errand."
She did not want him to go, as though she suspected something untoward might happen to him. When your name is Faith in a fictional masterpiece, you are often given special insights and power. And after Brown was broken down in the forest, apparently irreparably, he also has lost faith in his religion, in his work, he has lost faith in his wife as well. Is he really "ruined for life" or did Hawthorne use Brown's wild experience to point out Hawthorn's own criticisms of Christianity, and its link to -- and need for -- unblinking faith (which is all people really have when they consider the Christian promise of afterlife because there is no proof heaven is really out there or up there)?
Author Katalin G. Kallay explains that there must be more to this story than simply a "religious exhortation against sin" and it is easy to agree with this critic. Since one of the main themes is faith, it is interesting the Hawthorne lets Brown leave his beautiful young bride even though she urged him not to go. He feels guilty (according to Kallay) through the very act of leaving his wife because he "convinces himself to go on" (Kallay, 86) and justifies his launch into the dark unknown by thinking to himself: "After this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven" (Hawthorne quoted by Kallay, 86). The author points out that "good women" were (according to Puritan values) given a free pass to heaven because of their wholesome family values, hence Brown would have been quite confident that his wife Faith was going to heaven no matter what kind of a mess Brown would find himself in during this pilgrimage into the scary forest (Kallay, 87). The argument that Moores put forward earlier in this paper (that Brown was boldly confronting his dark demons but not necessarily passing literary judgment on Christianity or Calvinism) seems to hold up for Kallay as well, when Brown roars, "Come witch, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown!" Kallay comments that at this precise moment in the story, Brown actually transforms himself into a "Spector" and lends his "bodily form completely to the Devil's service" (92).
Meanwhile, essayist Meghan Harmon believes that Hawthorne may have been inspired to create the macabre story through his impressions of the writings of Puritan minister and author Cotton Mather. Mather wrote about "…what he firmly believed to be the devil's work in Salem" (Harmon, 2011, p. 28). Mather, after all, believed in demons and witches, and wrote (in his book Wonders of the Invisible World) that "Daemons might impose the shapes of innocent persons in their spectral exhibitions upon the sufferers" (Mather, 15) (Harmon, 29). It does follow that if Hawthorne was indeed influenced by Mather's writing, that explains the familiar people he saw in the forest that had turned into something other than…