Religion plays a role in American literature throughout the nineteenth century. Some writers placed themselves on skeptical ground when it came to how one perceives God; contrasted with seventeenth century Puritanism, with its emphasis on how the individual relates to God through faith in Christ’s work, the new idea in America claimed that faith tends to falter, creating serious doubt as to Christianity’s validity. The famous novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, used an aesthetic of ambiguity to highlight the conflicts that occur within a person’s beliefs. Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” centers on a man (named after the title) who leaves his wife, Faith, and journeys into the woods. His travels lead him to a witch meet, comprised of people whom he admires in the strict Puritan religious community. The meeting causes him to question the authenticity of his convictions. Throughout the tale, Hawthorne illustrates the ambiguous relationship between Goodman Brown’s religious faith and his doubt about whether his beliefs should be taken seriously.
From the story’s start, Goodman Brown makes compromises concerning his Christianity, just when he leaves Faith at home. While surmising on his wife and nightly plans, he thinks, “ ‘…after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.’ With this excellent resolve for the future, goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (Hawthorne 606). Most scholars who research Hawthorne’s story conclude that Brown’s wife, Faith, symbolizes faith. Her name actually serves as an allegory of the virtue of faith itself. Goodman Brown, by entering the forest on an “evil” purpose, directly contradicts the warnings of his own conscience. In order to feel more comfortable with his decision, Brown must create a way to justify it to himself. Otherwise, his Christian conscience will nag at him, accusing him of warring against what constitutes goodness. Brown believes that after just one rebellious night, he will “cling” to the skirts of his faith and be on his way to Heaven. He trusts that whatever he does in the woods will have no detrimental effect on his spirituality. Yet why does Brown have such boldness to play around with evil? According to Leo B. Levy’s essay “The Problem of Faith in Young Goodman Brown,” Brown supports a strict determination to stand against his own evil impulses, and he also entertains innocent intentions in his purpose (Levy). Brown believes that if he puts himself in the way of temptation, then he will conquer evil itself. He desires to make himself stronger morally so as to avoid weakness and sin. Oddly, his justification for going into the woods consists of his desire to grow in his own faith. The reader beholds hypocrisy in Brown as a result of this compromise; he clings to one idea while acting in another way that contradicts it.
There also appears to be an inconsistency of belief when it comes to Brown’s ancestors. Brown meets an old man walking on the wooded path. The man carries with him a staff that wriggles itself like a living serpent (Hawthorne 607). The word “serpent” denotes a sense of evil or deception, a sense of the presence of Satan. Therefore, the old man, associating himself with that particular staff, symbolizes the devil himself. The old man tells Brown that “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman throughout the streets of Salem…I brought your father a pitch-pine knot to set fire to an Indian village” (Hawthorne 607). How is it that Brown’s Christ-following family could ever hold union with Satan if their religion preaches against the wiles of the devil? Would they rather not reject his companionship? But Hawthorne implies through the old man that that was indeed the case; Brown’s ancestors were under the influence of the devil when they persecuted those whom they deemed heretical and ungodly. The savagery of “lashing” and “setting fire” constitutes violent behavior that falls short of the Christian model of charity and forgiveness. By presenting the evidence of hypocrisy to Brown, the devil casts doubts as to the Puritans’ seriousness concerning their faith. The reader now discovers an ambiguity of intentions not only with Young Goodman Brown but also with those whom Brown wishes to defend. The Puritan insistence on good works seems to lack authenticity.
But if being a turncoat makes Brown’s faith seem discredible, Brown himself makes no such conclusion. Rather, he rebels against using hypocrisy as an excuse to turn against religion. Brown speaks about an old woman him and the devil encounter on the road: “ ‘What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven! Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?’ ”(Hawthorne 609). The woman in question is Goody Cloyse, a person who taught Brown the tenets of Puritanism. Brown’s initial reaction at seeing the old woman going down the same demonic path as him illicts shock: Why would such a faithful person turn on their own profession of faith? Yet he defends his beliefs against the demoralization that that hypocrisy causes. He does not think that Christianity loses its seriousness simply because humans fail to follow its mandates. By questioning rebellion, Brown ironically rebels against the purpose with which he set out into the woods to begin with. Now that he sees evil enveloping others, he desires to turn against his risky boldness and return to his wife, Faith, or rather, to simple trust in what his religion dictates to him. His original trust in God reaffirms itself in the midst of compromise. Instead of doubting his convictions, he now questions his deals with the devil. Now Brown needs to return to Faith and accept his limitations as a human being. No longer does he need to boldly place himself in the devil’s path.
Yet what occurs when Brown, seeking his wife, Faith, calls out her name in the woods? Faith’s pink ribbon falls form the sky and lands on a tree. Brown’s soul fills with horror: “ ‘My Faith is gone!’ cried he, after one stupefied moment. ‘There is no good on earth and sin is but a name. Come devil! For to thee is this world given’” (Hawthorne 611). For Brown, Faith’s lost ribbon signifies that she wanders in the sinful, dark forest just as he. As a result she, who stood as Brown’s Christian conscience, loses herself within the same maze. Faith stands guilty of hypocrisy as well, not adhering to her own convictions. The quality of faith itself seems inconsistent. Brown feels “stupefied” in that he never expected his own personal faith to give way so easily to temptation. He no longer has a wife to return home to (or rather, a faith to cling to in the face of doubt). According to Darrel Abel in The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne’s Fiction, the pink ribbon’s existence in the woods proves that the defenses that Brown’s God sets around Brown’s consciousness do not protect him from the human tendency to gauge the nature of sin. He yields to the Devil’s persuasion; as a result, he loses faith in all he believes in (Abel 131). Brown gives way to despair. The phrase “there is no good on earth” illustrates Brown’s belief that evil rules every aspect of life and that pretending otherwise means folly. Even the religious term “sin” fails to explain the full potential of evil in the world. The reality of wickedness grows on a more rampant level for Brown’s soul, distilling the optimism he held on to.
However, Brown’s despair does not engender so much fear in him as it does a kind of bold confidence to accept the condition of his own sinfulness. Brown, reaching his ultimate level of insanity, runs through the woods shouting “Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself! And here comes goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you!” (Hawthorne 611). Brown revels in the revelation that his own heart is wicked to the point to where he seriously believes he can equal another’s sinfulness. Why should he run away from his true self? Boasting in your own rebellion constitutes a more suitable response to the reality of sin. Though he may be afraid of the people the Puritans warned him about (Indians, witches, wizards) he counts himself as a figure just as worthy to be feared. His religious faith often warns to be cautious with those who accept sin. Yet Brown ignores this tenet, rushing headlong to meet sinners, this time, not to strengthen his faith, but to oppose it boldly, accepting his relationship to the sinner rather than his differences from them. At this point in the story, one may conclude that Brown abandons Christianity altogether, fully convinced that its teachings fail to give hope to the individual in a world riddled with evil.
Amazingly, though, faith returns to Brown’s despairing heart, giving him hope for the future. As he enters the secret witch meet in the forest, he beholds the same people that populate the Puritan community. One may think that this fact would enforce Brown’s rebellion against God, but Hawthorne writes “ ‘But where is Faith?’ thought goodman Brown; and, as hope came into his heart, he trembled (Hawthorne 612). Brown, to this point, lingers in shock as to the failings of faith. But he still holds on to the as equally shocking possibility that faith still exists within himself. He returns to the basic tenet of Christianity, that faith needs to exist in order to make sense of the world around him. Brown expects Christianity’s presence in the midst of all the wicked revelers that surround him. This reinstatement of faith makes Brown “tremble” emotionally, for now he realizes that the world does not consist only in unchecked sin, that there still lurks hope for the sinner. He may even be “trembling” with a sense of guilt, knowing that he unfaithfully follows God. His heavenly Father may very well exist still, giving him hope despite his failure to perfectly uphold his religious convictions.
But by the time Brown wakes inside the forest, his mind suffers under the confusion the witch meet produces in him. When he returns to his Puritan homeland, the sight of his relatives engenders disdain within him. Hawthorne writes “Old deacon Gookin was at domestic worship and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the window. ‘What God doth the wizard pray to?’ quoth goodman Brown” (Hawthorne 614). Brown refuses to believe in the deacon’s prayer; he assures himself that the man hypocritically prays to God for guidance. He no longer has a mutual relationship with his religious family due to his distrust of their intentions. Confusion, instead of sure faith, guides his thoughts now. The denouement raises the possibility that all was a dream, but the effect the dream reproduces on Brown is more important than whether or not it actually happened (Pennell 36). It is impossible to know whether or not the deacon is praying to the Christian God or to Satan. Hence, the reader must make his or her mind up regarding Brown’s experience; was it truth that Brown beheld in the woods or a trick of the devil? Brown will never be able to trust anyone ever again. He now lives with the conflicting emotions of ambiguity rather than absolute faith in God, or in the progress of his fellow Christians.
Because Hawthorne displays multiple possibilities within his fiction, the reader is allowed to make their own decision as to what actually happened. Yet how does anyone make a decision when everything is so unclear? The only solution lies in faith in one’s interpretation. Humans must pick one direction to travel in life, whether it is faith in God or not. For nineteenth century Americans, the meaning of life holds many possibilities. Hawthorne believed the main goal of literature was to represent the ambiguity that plagues our lives and how it shapes people. Basing one’s life on the hypocrisy of others and oneself can create a state similar to goodman Browns: “sad, darkly meditative, distrustful, and desperate” (Hawthorne 614). Every person must decide on what is more authentic: faith in absolute hope or absolute despair.