Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” challenges preconceived notions of religion and offers another view. His view of religion is pessimistic, as his titular protagonist de-evolves into a disillusioned old man whose “dying hour was gloom” (12). Melissa McFarland Pennell highlights the central problem of this story when she observes, “[Brown] perceives the actual, sees what his imagination induces, […] accepts what the devil insinuates [and] never questions the validity of the scenes and sounds that he detects, but he does begin to doubt heaven” (35).
Brown’s uncurious nature towards the events pertaining to religion that are happening around him leads us to question the meaning of faith and religion. Alfred Kazin notes that “the belief in salvation through the extraordinary, complex and ultimately inexplicable will of God that kept the Puritans snug and safe [was] something Hawthorne couldn’t bring himself to believe” (29). Though various critics have commented that Hawthorne did not agree with the Puritanical approach of Christianity, I am not suggesting that his attack on religion here is an act of rebellion; instead, Brown’s muteness challenges the readers to question our preconceived notion of religion, and this lack of curiosity in Brown thus highlights the assumptions made about religion.
Ultimately, Hawthorne distinguishes between faith and religion, and proposes that there are differences despite being similar, thus inviting us to review our attitudes towards religion.
One critique of religion that Hawthorne offers is that religion impedes conjugal bliss, which is the hallmark of a happy marriage. James C. Keil reveals that the constructions of female identity by the Puritans “were based on Eve’s seduction by the devil and her deception of Adam in the Garden of Eden” (40). This suggests that females were “sexually predatory”(39), a characteristic of Faith that Hawthorne subtly hinted at in the opening of the story with the repeated thrusting motions of her head and the images of her “pink ribbons” (1). The pink ribbons are a symbol of her femininity, and the repetitive insistence of them suggests that she is engaging in coquetry. Keil also points out that “Puritans feared that love of spouse could rival and interfere with love of Christ.” When Brown was about to set off on his journey, Faith implored that he “tarry with me this night,” “when her lips were close to his ear” (1). As expected of Brown based on this religious gendering, he defended himself by questioning her faith in him instead. This inherent conflict between the constructions of female identity and religious obligation becomes an obstacle in their marriage, such that when Brown returns from his trip, he “passed on [Faith] without a greeting” (11).
The sexual imagery in the opening paragraph where Brown “put his head back” while Faith “thrust her own pretty head into the street”(1), followed by Brown rejecting Faith’s advances when he rejects her request to delay his trip mirrors an unfulfilling act of penetrative sex. Faith’s sexual aggressiveness compounded by Brown’s passivity prompts Keil to further suggest that Brown might have been a virgin when he entered the forest, and in light of the Puritan ideal, it may be rightly so. Brown’s trip into the forest signals a shift in the story’s focus from his conscious to his subconscious that is represented by the darkness of the forest. To Keil, the forest symbolizes moral wilderness and chaos for the Puritans. He supports his claim as he asserts that this assumption would make “Brown’s focus on stains and bloodspots covering the earth that much more vivid and significant” (footnotes, 53). In light of the contradictory constructions of gender, his virginal state thus implies that religion is a repressive force that disallows him from seeking sexual fulfillment.
Reginald Cook provides another interpretation of this forest scene when he proposes that “the descent is symbolized from daylight into night, from consciousness to subconsciousness, from reality to illusion, from physical to psychical, from light to dark” (478). What Brown discovers in the forest leads him to exclaim that “My Faith is gone!” (7). He discovers that “evil is the nature of mankind” (478). This is a pivotal moment in the story as it signifies his ready acceptance of the loss of his beliefs that he grew up with. When he returned to his village after his discovery, he lost faith in his community and subsequently distanced himself from them. D. M. McKeithan puts forth the interpretation that Brown was committing a sin that was not explicitly mentioned by Hawthorne, but “he had confidence in his ability to indulge in the sin – whatever it was – once more and then resist all future temptations” (94). This would thus highlight the hypocrisy of Brown, for he is allowed to indulge in sin while judging the rest of his community.
Though McKeithan explains that Brown saw evil in everyone because “his sin led him to consider all other people sinful [and] came eventually to judge others by himself” (96), I am more inclined to agree with Cook’s interpretation that “the symbolic forest of the night is, in effect, young Goodman Brown’s own soul where belief turns into doubt, faith into skepticism” (479), because that would more effectively account for his stoic belief that his ancestors “are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness” (3). Cook’s interpretation would also make Brown’s final isolation more poignant, and his initial urgency at returning to Faith more real, if he originally believed that there was sincere piety in his community. Regardless, Brown’s ready refutation of his religion makes us question our treatment of religion: What is the basis of a religion? In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne seems to be suggesting that if one can renounce his religion so readily and without question, then perhaps religion is arbitrary and unnecessary.
However, we have to note that faith and religion seems to be two separate issues. Faith becomes allegorical in this story as it is the name of Brown’s wife as well as an abstract noun. Keil highlights that “in Hawthorne’s lifetime women, thought to be morally superior to men, were entrusted with preparing children for Christian salvation” (40). This thus alludes to the idea that Faith/faith salvages. Religion, on the other hand, though ideologically linked, is made separate in this story. Here, religion refers to the performative acts of faith. This is what Hawthorne seems to reject. He refused to take part when the congregation were “singing a holy psalm” (11), and turned away when the family “knelt down at prayer” (12). Yet, Hawthorne does not dismiss faith because “[shrinking] from the bosom of Faith” may lead to a “[gloomy] dying hour” (12). Hawthorne’s narration eventually creates an emulsion of faith and religion, and he is careful to point out that the outward performance of faith is in fact, hypocritical.
Through Brown’s unquestioning acceptance of the devil’s insinuation, Hawthorne reveals his critique of religion. By symbolically evoking the image of Faith’s sexuality, her pink ribbons, he reveals Brown’s conflict between the ideologies of marriage and religion. He critiques the contradictory gendering of the Puritans and suggests that it has the potential to make one impotent. Brown’s ready acceptance to refute his lifelong religious beliefs further questions the basis of religion. Nonetheless, as he shatters the myth of religion, he is careful to show that whilst faith is an intrinsic part of religion, it is distinct and separate, and ultimately, he recognizes that faith has the potential to salvage.
Cook, Reginald. ‘The Forest of Goodman Brown’s Night: A Reading of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”’ The New England Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3. (Sep., 1970), pp. 473-481. < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0028-4866%28197009%2943%3A3%3C473%3ATFOGB N%3E2.0.CO%3B2-W >
Kazin, Alfred. “Hawthorne and His Puritans”. God and the American Writer. New York: Vintage Books. Pp. 24-39.
Keil, James C. ‘Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender.’ The New England Quarterly, Vol. 69, No.1. (Mar., 1996), pp. 33-55. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00284866%28199603%2969%3A1%3C33%3AH%22GB EN%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F>
McKeithan, D. M. ‘Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: An Interpretation.’ Modern Language Notes, Vol. 67, No. 2. (Feb., 1952), pp. 93-96. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0149-6611%28195202%2967%3A2%3C93%3AH%22GBAI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F>
Pennell, Melissa McFarland. “Young Goodman Brown”. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Greenwood Press, Westport. Pp. 34-38.