Artwork by Noshin Khan
Elements of Gothicism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”
By LoriAnn Alnaizy
Nathaniel Hawthorne will forever be etched in American literary history for his ability to probe the inner fears and complexities of the human psyche. With his well-known masterpieces like The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne established himself as a skillful master of symbolism and allegory, and he applied these elements together with a unique ability to intertwine the uncertainty of nature and destiny to make him one of the most remembered Romanticists in American literature. However, Hawthorne’s stories tend to link the supernatural to the inherent evil qualities of people, and this more accurately classifies him with Dark Romanticism, a sub-genre highly concerned with pushing the boundaries of morality and the imagination. Gothicism, which began around the same time as the Romantic Era, shares many similarities with Dark Romanticism, such as the use of highly emotional language, interrogations of religion and religious authorities, and an equal concern with the supernatural.
An excellent example that demonstrates the overlapping similarities of the two genres is Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” which is a frightful tale exposing a man’s inner trepidation and struggle against immorality which causes him to distrust his entire community and even his own beloved wife. The tale is rich with Gothic motifs and superbly demonstrates Hawthorne’s own attitude towards his notorious family heritage that goes back to the historical Puritan community of the late 1600s in Salem, Massachusetts. This paper will explore Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 short story “Young Goodman Brown” to demonstrate the many similarities it has with the Gothic genre, namely good versus evil, an affiliation with supernatural forces, and the bizarre; moreover, it will examine Hawthorne’s style and content that expose the inner fears and psychological instability of the self, which is also a key element of Gothicism.
Yvette Piggush (2007) explains that the American Romanticism movement of the early 1800s was essentially an extension of the same Romantic literature movement happening in Europe; however, in an attempt to sever themselves from their British historical roots and create a history of their own, American Romanticists sought to concern themselves with creating their own history, beliefs, and culture. One avenue American Romantics used to break away from English monarchal rigidity and hierarchy was the medium of literature, and while the overall atmosphere of Romanticism ensured the love of nature and embodied individualism and emotion, American Romantics wanted to entertain those values on their own turf and using their own versions of American individualism (Piggush, 2007).
Gothicism also became an immensely popular genre about the same time as Romanticism. Andrew Seeger (2004) writes that the explosive interest in the genre stemmed from an overall critique of social inequalities and expectations. Thus began a thirst for novels critiquing the status quo of the times while at the same time bringing romance and taboo subject matter to an increasing number of people who were distancing themselves from religious extremism and embracing individualism. Moreover, leisure reading increased, and in the long run other genres were affected by the Gothic movement (Seegar, 2004). Maggie Kilgour and David Richter agree in their 1998 article “The Rise of the Gothic Novel” that, following the Age of Reason in which the empirical method began to instill skepticism in place of blind faith, there was a transition, and indeed a hunger, for the terror infused in the Gothic novel. This terror, however, was generally frowned upon by the “elite” of society, and Gothic novels were considered tasteless and below the high culture standards of the aristocratic members of society. Therefore, those secretly indulging in Gothic novels felt a “guilty pleasure” towards them and their often taboo themes, and this, ironically, added to their appeal and popularity. The frightening terror associated with Gothic novels popularized the genre because the perceived fear was experienced in the comfort and safety of one’s own home, though the anxiety often remained well after closing the book (Kilgour & Richter, 1998).
Gothicism embraces rebellion and the sublime, addresses the fears of death and destruction, and probes the depths of sin and perversion, explains Clive Bloom in his book Gothic Horror (2007). In addition, Bloom (2007) adds that “the Gothic speaks to the dark side of domestic fiction: erotic, violent, perverse, bizarre, and obsessionally connected with contemporary fears” (p. 2). Dark Romanticism skims the surface of these fears that Gothicism does not shy from, and furthermore has an inclination towards symbolism in nature. Nature, for the Dark Romanticists like Hawthorne, was not the splendid and perpetually positive haven that some authors considered it to be. Rather, nature for Hawthorne, and likewise for the Gothics, often represents isolation as something to fear; it is uncertain territory. The forest and wilderness are often symbolic of sin, evil, and immorality. Moreover, Hawthorne draws on the American fear of the woods being synonymous with attacks and ambushes from native Indians who were often seen as pagan savages that lurked in the forest.
Hawthorne wrote during the American Romantic Era that began a short period after the American Revolution and lasted up until the mid-1800s. Many of Hawthorne’s stories are set in Puritan New England. The US History website explains that “Puritan law was extremely strict; men and women were severely punished for a variety of crimes. Even a child could be put to death for cursing his parents” (2013). Attending church was mandatory for every citizen, and fines were issued for those who dared stray from the uniform appearance and mindset of the Puritans; indeed, strict adherence to the church’s laws was expected. Louise DeSalvo’s 1987 article entitled “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Feminists” stresses that Hawthorne’s real-life connections to the rigid conformist attitudes of Puritan New England were often subjects for scorn with him. According to DeSalvo, Hawthorne’s lineage went back to the beginnings of the Puritan colonies. Hawthorne’s great, great, great grandfather, William Hathorne, first brought the Hathorne family into New England territories in 1630. Hawthorne’s great, great grandfather was John Hathorne, a Puritan magistrate who participated in sentencing and condemning to death women convicted of practicing witchcraft in the notorious Salem Witch Trials (DeSalvo, 1987). Generations later and as Hawthorne grew and discovered his family history and involvement in the disgraceful witch trials, he added the w to his last name in an attempt to distance himself from their history. Furthermore, Hawthorne’s own mother gave birth to her first child outside of marriage and lived on the margins of her community, rejected by the large majority of people. He later wrote his famous novel The Scarlet Letter after her death, perhaps as an elegy to her death and a conviction to the progressive mindset of women’s rights that were in their beginnings during Hawthorne’s lifetime (DeSalvo, 1987). Hawthorne would draw upon all these personal connections to history for many of his tales that criticize the seemingly hypocritical Puritan societies whose ideologies still had lingering influence when his own mother gave birth outside of marriage. For Hawthorne, the church represented a great hypocrisy; on one hand its leaders preached a Merciful God and infinite forgiveness, yet they had no forgiveness for anyone who slipped from the path of virtue, and the church was relentlessly harsh and punitive towards such people. Hawthorne sharply criticizes this hypocrisy in “Young Goodman Brown” and ties it together with elements of both Dark Romanticism and Gothicism.
Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” takes place in a Salem village, presumably during the time of the Puritan colonies, because the spoken dialogue resembles that of the Early Modern English Period, and religion is a core element of the story. From the beginning Goodman Brown’s trip is filled with bad omens. Specifically, Brown’s allegorical wife, Faith, feels worried about her husband’s departure and admits to him that she will have bad dreams in his absence. Brown says he must go and tells her, “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee” (Hawthorne, 1851, p. 1). As her pink ribbons dance in the wind around her somber-looking face, Brown feels reluctant to go but insists to himself that after this night’s journey, he will not leave her side as he hopes to live a better life after tonight.
Color is often used as symbolism by Hawthorne, according to the English Department of the University of North Carolina website (2012). Hawthorne uses pink to describe Faith’s innocence and fickleness towards religion; furthermore, pink is a mixture of the binary opposites of red and white, and can symbolize something in between the purity of white and the evil (and sometimes passion) of blood red. Hawthorne most likely names the protagonist Goodman Brown firstly because all gentleman in Puritan times were referred to as “Goodman,” and secondly because the name Brown is also a mix of white and black, again possibly referring to Brown’s internal dilemma concerning his own degree of faith, as he is later asked by his companion why he was late and replies, “Faith kept me back awhile” (Hawthorne, 1851, p. 1). Black is the essence of evil, and the companion’s staff in the forest is black; Goodman Brown remarks, “[it] bore the likeness of great black snake, so curiously wrought that it almost be seen to twist wriggle itself like a living serpent” (p.1). The words “black and snake” create an evil image with an evil intention; therefore, caution and suspicion arise from the symbolism of color (UNC, 2012).
Gothicism deliberately plays with the emotions of readers by inciting suspicion in them, typically in the beginning to catch their attention. Suspicion from the reader about events to come or suspicious characters is the catalyst to excite the reading experience. Hawthorne makes the reader suspicious of Brown’s journey. Brown says, “[Faith] talks of dreams, too. Methought as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But no, no; ‘t kill her to think it. Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven” (Hawthorne, 1851, p. 1). The former quote introduces a suspenseful nighttime journey, which is unusual because people at that time normally traveled during the day as there were no good means to see well at night.
The night is a key motif for Gothicism and through symbolism instigates both real and imaginary fears for the reader. Quite literally the darkness of night takes away sight and creates an atmosphere of not knowing what lies ahead. As Brown enters the forest, he immediately acknowledges that “there may be a devilish Indian behind every tree” (p. 1). Conflicts with Native-American Indians were a major problem to the Puritan colonies in the seventeenth century, and the communities were always in fear of attacks; certainly ambushes took place in the forest where the Indians knew the territory better than the Puritans. Moreover, the Indians were considered pagan savages and mostly associated with evil and barbarism (UNC, 2012). Brown does not know what lies ahead; he calls his journey an “evil purpose” and notes that the solitude of the night traveler is eerie. Brown describes the tree tops overtaking him and the “narrow path creep[ing] through” (Hawthorne, 1851, p. 1). Hawthorne was famous for his use of symbolic language; thus, night for him is often used to indicate the conflict between good and evil. The night often masks the evil intentions of his characters. The night is when the good people are at home and the wicked are out and about frolicking with sinful intentions. The night is also a time when hunting animals, like wolves, owls, and snakes, use the cover of darkness to sneak up on their prey; this is another reason why no one would intentionally enter a dark forest in those days. Furthermore, the night is a time when one sleeps, and with sleep comes the possibility of nightmares; thus, the night is used to maximize fear and suspense.
The forest is the key setting for “Young Goodman Brown,” and bears a striking resemblance to typically Gothic settings. Hawthorne has written about the forest in other stories, like The Scarlet Letter, sometimes using alternative names like woods, wilderness, and nature. The forest can denote different themes depending on the context; sometimes it can be a place of refuge for his characters, a typical Romanticist meaning of the wilderness. However, for the Dark Romanticists and the Gothics, the forest represents a more sinister playground to hide foul deeds and meet vile characters. Accordingly, Brown meets his vile friend under the dark cover of night in the middle of the woods. Brown’s associate is not given a name, and Hawthorne only calls him by vague names, such as, the “elder person” and “fellow-traveler,” but the reader interprets the old man as the Devil in the appearance of a man (p. 2). As previously mentioned, the traveler has a black staff which reminds Brown of a live serpent.
The supernatural can be defined as a force beyond the realm of human understanding which often defies the laws of nature; it can have good or evil associations. Gothicism and Dark Romanticism probe deep into the fears of this unknown realm. H.P. Lovecraft (2007) writes that Gothicism dwells on the supernatural to magnify emotions related to the unknown or the inexplicable. He continues,
Creatures and forces of the supernatural have specific abilities to transcend both time and space…[they] are understood to be of immense power and able to manifest themselves to human beings either at their own will or through invocation. Although (usually) immaterial, the supernatural planes are deemed to be superior to the visible and material and are feared and held in awe accordingly. (pp. 17-18)
Dark Romanticism is equally interested in the supernatural and exploring the inexplicable. Lovecraft explains that humans are prone to be interested in sensations of awe and fear and the unpredictability of life. Indeed, Hawthorne seems to delight in suggesting that the Devil has his hand in the deeds of all of mankind. The Devil tells Brown:
I have been well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem…and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine know, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village...they were my good friends, both. (Hawthorne, 1851, p. 3)
The supernatural continues to be a central theme of the story when Brown is worried that his beloved Faith is also a friend of the Devil. Upon having this thought, Brown begins laughing hysterically; Hawthorne calls his state one of being “maddened with despair” (p. 6). Brown takes the Devil’s staff, which the Devil left behind for him, and sets off in search of the Devil’s convention. Hawthorne writes that “Brown grasped his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run...still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil” (p. 6). Hawthorne hauntingly describes the heart of the woods accordingly by Gothic standards, stretching the imagination of the reader by personifying the forest: “the whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds—the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians...as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn” (p. 6).
Now the reader senses that Brown is indeed on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Dark Romanticism and Gothicism often entertain the notion that madness lurks in the seemingly sanest of people. Gothicism often addresses insanity and the psychological threshold between the sane and the insane. In the 1800s, little was known about insanity; this explains why insanity was a source of fascination for the Gothics at the time, who were preoccupied with realms of the unknown. Insanity in the Puritan era was even more bewildering; the mentally unstable were often accused of practicing witchcraft and rejected by their community because no cure or definite cause was known (US History, 2013). Brown appears to be losing his mind in the middle of the story, and Hawthorne describes his mental breakdown in the following terms: “[Brown] was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors...‘Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself’...brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy” (Hawthorne, 1851, p. 7). Brown’s audacity to challenge the Devil declares his mental instability.
As Barbara Ellis (1993) explains in her article “Some Observations about Hawthorne’s Women”, many of Hawthorne’s tales display the main male characters as undergoing a change, which often equates to developing insanity, over the course of the text; on the contrary, his female or heroine characters remain calm and controlled despite the hardships they suffer, often as a direct result of the oppressive male characters. She continues that it was no coincidence on Hawthorne’s part to attribute typical feminine qualities of hysteria and irrationality to the male characters to show that masculinity and femininity traits were fluid, and that Hawthorne felt strong women were nothing to be feared or viewed as threatening. Hawthorne stressed that men could also be weakened, psychologically broken, and obsessed.
Hawthorne’s novels usually involve obsession: obsession with self-inflicted guilt, obsession with atonement from one’s actions, and obsession with fear of exposure. Brown is obsessed with losing his faith, writes Leo Levy in his article “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown’” (1975). Levy explains that Brown’s faith in God is slipping away from him, and his symbolically-named wife, Faith, beckons him back to her before he sets out on his journey. Brown shuns her requests and keeps his appointment with the Devil under the cover of the dark forest. Brown is later taken by surprise when he sees many familiar faces, people he thought were the best in his community, greeting the Devil like an old friend while Brown chooses to hide behind a rock and continue the charade of a God-fearing man. Afterwards when Brown attends the Devil’s ceremony and sees his beloved Faith as a new convert to evil, he begins to lose all hope and strength in God. He joins Faith in standing before the altar of the Devil; in other words, on the verge of wickedness, and they both contemplate their secret guilt and the Devil prepares to perversely mark them as belonging to his covenant. Brown cries to Faith, “Faith! Faith! Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one” (Hawthorne, 1851, p.11). Immediately Brown awakens from his “dream” (it is not clear to the reader if the incident is real or a hallucination) on the forest path where he began. The story ends with Brown returning to his wife, never fully trusting her, though she never gives him a reason to distrust her faith; in addition, his entire outlook on life and religion remains gloomy and distrustful, and he dies a cold-hearted and resentful man (Levy, 1975). Thus, Hawthorne concludes the story on a bitter note to berate Puritan values in which fundamentalism did not allow its members make their own religious choices, and to suggest that often those most respectable in their religious communities privately indulge in sin.
In conclusion, Hawthorne used his work to indirectly mediate his perspective on religion and to condemn and separate himself from the notorious Puritan history within his own family blood ties. Using his typically brilliant methods of symbolism, irony, and ambiguity, Hawthorne constructed “Young Goodman Brown” to represent the average human’s struggle between good and evil. By using both elements of Gothicism and Dark Romanticism, Hawthorne made the tale come alive with suspense and fear for Brown’s rendezvous with evil. Hawthorne once again demonstrates his literary ability to probe the human’s seemingly fragile psychological state and fears associated with being exposed as faithless and fraudulent.
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LoriAnn Alnaizy is an American student at the American University of Sharjah in her senior year who is majoring in English Literature. She hopes to continue her studies in graduate school next fall or spring. She enjoyed writing her submission to Asrar because she finds Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing fascinating and believes his allegorical symbolism is unmatched. The submission, which appears below, is a paper for her Seminar in English class, which focused on Gothic literature and which she found extremely interesting.