Using “Young Goodman Brown” to scrutinize Nathaniel Hawthorne has set the story “Young Goodman Brown” in the seventeenth century much like other works from the author. Adhering to themes of Puritanical Christianity and hypocrisy, Hawthorne develops the story in a symbolic fashion. The characters, the symbols as well as the imagery have been derived from biblical as well as other sources and allow a greater understanding of Hawthorne’s unexplained sides. The psychoanalytic interpretation of “Young Goodman Brown” allows the reader to transcend into the inner world of Hawthorne that had been riddled with guilt for the actions of his forefathers. A number of elements in the story bear a great resemblance to the life of Hawthorne. The psychoanalytic exploration of this story allows the critic to look into Hawthorne’s personal life and his past on a number of counts. The changes in Young Goodman Brown’s life can be likened to the changes in Hawthorne’s own life.
Before proceeding further, it is necessary to relate that Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather John Hawthorne served as a judge during the witch hunt trials at Salem. This part of his family’s past affected Hawthorne throughout his life including his works. Most of Hawthorne’s works related to Puritanical themes are featured in Salem and are somehow related to the witch trials as well. It has been suggested that by penning this story, Hawthorne was indirectly trying to justify the actions of his forefathers. Hawthorne’s story implies that ordinary people can be turned into witches through satanic initiation. This would, in turn, indicate that the hunting of witches and their trials would be justified in Hawthorne’s eyes (Mellow 60).
Hawthorne’s attempts at personal justification were not new. In this regard, it must be related that Hawthorne’s original family name was Hathorne. The addition of a “w” to the family name was an innovation of the young Hawthorne after he graduated from college. Research suggests that Hawthorne attempted this antic to cover up his family identity and his family’s connection to the Salem witch trials (McFarland 18). This action makes it completely clear that Hawthorne was trying to break free from the guilt of his forefathers similar to Goodman Brown. Over the course of the story, Goodman Brown loses faith in the goodness of his forefathers and tends to separate himself from their identity. In this regard, it is noticeable that Goodman Brown tends to isolate himself socially from his family and his community as the story proceeds. This in itself tends to mirror Hawthorne’s connection to his family that loosened up over time.
Hawthorne was a staunch anti-Puritan and his work reflects this in detail. This projection stood in direct contrast to Hawthorne’s Puritanical family roots. Since Hawthorne was not highly proud of his family roots, he signals his shunning of social authority in “Young Goodman Brown” by rejecting the grave ritual of initiation. Goodman Brown is shown in the story as being initiated with pressure from “his own dead father” and mother as well as the mention of his grandfather. Even with this amount of social pressure, Goodman Brown refuses to bow down to social authority and instead leaves. The literary work of Hawthorne is clear proof that he had rejected his Puritanical roots much like Goodman Brown.
The use of imagery and symbolism such as representing Goodman Brown’s ancestors as the devil reflects Hawthorne’s ideas on his own ancestors. In the later part of his life, Hawthorne openly admitted to his ancestors being wrong about witches and their treatment of such people. Hawthorne notes in his book The Scarlet Letter that his first ancestor to set foot on American soil William Hawthorne was just as evil as his great-great-grandfather who had conducted the Salem witch trials (Hawthorne). The actions of his ancestors appeared as hypocritical to Hawthorne.
Hawthorne saw the Puritanical identity of his ancestors as being in conflict with their treatment of other people, especially witches. The injustice delivered to witches at the hands of Hawthorne’s ancestors is something that Hawthorne could not justify for the entirety of his life (Hawthorne 27). Hawthorne saw his ancestors as having chosen the path of the devil. This is indicated in Goodman Brown’s case when the old woman in the forest uses the staff to travel. Hawthorne uses this symbolization in order to indicate that his ancestors had actually assumed the manners of the devil and had stuck to them being Puritanical Christians. This, in Hawthorne’s and in Goodman Brown’s opinion, made them hypocrites.
Overall, it could be declared that “Young Goodman Brown” offers a glimpse into the mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne, including the ghosts of his past. The author has used various forms of scenarios, imagery, and symbolism in the story in order to indicate the evil carried out by his ancestors.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: St. Martins Press, 1991.
McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Mellow, James R. Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.