I heard that this month is National Short Story month, or something like that, so I decided to reread one of my all-time favorite short stories: “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love a good horror story and this one is about as good as it gets without having to rely on gore. In addition, there are a lot of thought-provoking ideas woven into the story, which makes it all the more interesting to read.
The story takes place in old Salem, where Goodman Brown takes leave of his wife, Faith, to venture into the forest at night for some unstated work that must be done on this specific night between dusk and dawn. On his journey he meets the devil and follows him to a ceremony, possibly a black mass or a witches sabbat, and there he witnesses all the upstanding citizens from his town, including church elders, participating in the dark ritual. He also meets his wife Faith, but before he takes the plunge into sin, he looks upward and prays for the strength to resist the evil one, and awakens unsure whether it was all real or a dream. He then lives the rest of his life as a cynic, distrusting the hypocrisy that he sees around him.
There is so much that I could write about this story, but I’ll try to keep it short. First, I’d like to talk about Faith. Goodman Brown’s wife symbolizes Brown’s own faith and virtue. But his faith is lost when he realizes that all people are essentially evil. At the ceremony, the devil states: “Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.”
One of my favorite metaphors which is prevalent in American literature is wilderness, representing the dark side of the human soul. This tale takes place in the wilderness, down “a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind.” Goodman Brown plunges into the wilderness, into the darkest corners of his own being, with complete abandon: “The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil.”
In the end he discovers that evil resides within himself, just as it resides within every hypocrite he sees on the streets in his village. He has lost his Faith and no longer finds solace in her bosom. He dies miserably, and “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”
There is not much that is cheerful in this story. It is dark all the way through and ends in cynicism. That said, it is such a great story and it forces one to look around and question notions of morality. Even if this is not the type of story you generally read, I highly recommend it. Click here to read it online.