Study Guide

Young Goodman Brown Versions of Reality

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Versions of Reality

It was as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that, with lonely footsteps, he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude. (8)

We get it: the woods are creepy. Trees look like witches; normal night noises sound like creepy devils coming out to get you. The point here is that Hawthorne is setting us up for confusion. Just like Brown, the dark woods are confusing our sense of truth and fiction.

"There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree," said Goodman Brown, to himself; and he glanced fearfully behind him, as he added, "What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!"

Young Goodman Brown's idea that "there may be a devilish Indian behind every tree" is probably not strictly accurate. But it sure lets us know that his fear and anxiety are real—and that his imagination is probably over-active.

So saying, he threw it down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life, being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to the Egyptian magi. Of this fact, however, Goodman Brown could not take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and, looking down again, beheld neither Goody Cloyse nor the serpentine staff, but his fellow-traveller alone, who waited for him as calmly as if nothing had happened. (35-36)

So: is the staff alive or not? Is Goody Cloyse there, or not? We don't know. Instead of giving a more reliable viewpoint than young Goodman Brown's, the narrator actually deepens the story's sense of uncertainty and ambiguity.

As they went, he plucked a branch of maple to serve for a walking-stick, and began to strip it of the twigs and little boughs that were wet with evening dew. The moment his fingers touched them, they became strangely withered and dried up, as with a week's sunshine. (38)

Okay, this is definite evidence that the traveler has supernatural powers. Right? The plants do become "strangely withered and dried up." But maybe Goodman Brown is just dreaming it, after all.

At the word, Goodman Brown stepped forth from the shadow of the trees and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart. He could have well-nigh sworn that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke wreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?

Check out the phrase "could have well-night sworn." Even Brown isn't sure what's going on. Everything that happens to him could have a perfectly logical explanation—or it could be evidence that he's surrounded by his very own "loathful brotherhood."

But he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought, when the minister and good old deacon Gookin seized his arms and led him to the blazing rock. Thither came also the slender form of a veiled female, led between Goody Cloyse, that pious teacher of the catechism, and Martha Carrier, who had received the devil's promise to be queen of hell. A rampant hag was she. And there stood the proselytes beneath the canopy of fire. (61)

Notice here how the ambiguity has dropped again. We get people's proper names, without any "might have been" or "looked like." But is this the narrator's voice telling us that these events are really happening—or is it just Hawthorne writing what Goodman Brown thinks is happening?

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame? (68)

Here, ambiguous description creates an intensifying atmosphere of danger and menace. The stone basin first seems to contain water, then blood, then flame. (Talk about bad to worse.) The witches and devil-worshippers in "Young Goodman Brown" are never what they seem at first glance—and neither are their accessories.

Whether Faith obeyed he knew not. Hardly had he spoken when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind which died heavily away through the forest. He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew. (69-70)

And it's over. Whew. But instead of explaining whether the assembly was fantasy or reality, Hawthorne keeps Brown in the same place, changes mood and atmosphere, and keeps the reader guessing.

The next morning young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man. The good old minister was taking a walk along the graveyard to get an appetite for breakfast and meditate his sermon, and bestowed a blessing, as he passed, on Goodman Brown. He shrank from the venerable saint as if to avoid an anathema.

Young Goodman Brown has begun to stand out as an anti-social figure. It is possible that the people of Salem really are good and innocent, and that everything Brown saw really was a dream—but he's apparently not taking any chances.

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting? (71-72)

Gee, Hawthorne, we don't know. Had he? How about clueing us in, since you're the one who wrote the thing?

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