Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Symbolism in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown"

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale, "Young Goodman Brown" is an image of the author as a symbolist. Hawthorne introduces deeper meaning into everyday objects and places such as a ribbon, a walking stick, and a path in the forest to develop the overall theme of the story, which is the questioning of one's faith and the inevitable evil in mankind.

The pink ribbons, worn in the hair of Brown's wife, Faith are introduced to the reader in the first paragraph when Faith is described " thrust (ing) her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap" (0). Hawthorne is allowing the reader to envision childishness, innocence, and an almost playful nature. Hawthorne mentions the ribbons casually several times before the reader is aware of the significance they play in Brown's journey into the night. As Brown is looking up to the sky at a dark cloud passing overhead, "something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon. 'My Faith is gone!' cried he" (14). Brown has lost the naivet of his faith. The color pink is also significant as it is a median between two colors; red, which could be seen as evil, fire, or the devil, and white, which represents all that is pure and good.

The walking stick, or staff, carried by the mysterious man in the forest is described as being "remarkable…which bore the likeness of a great black snake…it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent"(10). This description, typical of Hawthorne, is using the Biblical symbol of the devil, the snake. Hawthorn goes on to describe the man/devil as " he of the serpent" at one point "shaking himself so violently, that his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy"(11). When the man touches the old lady with his staff, she instantly knows who it is; "The devil!" she screamed (11).

The path in the forest, along with the forest itself, is significant in showing the evil that surrounds mankind. The deeper into the forest Brown travels, the more apparent the evil becomes. There is a distinct difference between Brown's town, where the people are bustling about doing their day's activities, and the path in the forest, which is described as " a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees…it was all as lonely as could be"(10). After Brown and the man have traveled a bit, Brown exclaims, "Too far! Too far!" yet keeps walking. He is struggling with his faith, with keeping out of evil, yet his questions and curiosity pull him forward. The forest represents evil itself. When Brown tells the man that his father and grandfather have never been in the woods and describes his family as "a race of honest men and good Christians," the man corrects him by saying, "I have been well acquainted with your family…they were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path"(11). This is when Brown begins to realize that no one is invulnerable to evil ways. Hawthorne describes Brown as running down the path "rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil"(15). This probably left a mark with some of Hawthorne's Christian readers of the 1800s, who considered man to be a creature of evil, and only faith alone could save one's soul. There is importance in the fact that Brown takes the journey partly with the man/devil but mainly by himself, meaning that the spiritual journey one takes in life has to be done alone.

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Brown is a dynamic character, changing from an innocent man of faith into a bitter, miserable person. Perhaps this is because he actually participated in the evil, thereby giving himself over to it. It can be said that in the times of the witch-hunts, the Puritans might have questioned their faith and battled with sins and desires silently, and Hawthorne does an excellent job putting this into light. The use of symbolism in this story show that evil can be found anywhere, even places often overlooked

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