How Might Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan Ancestry and Background Influence a Story Like “Young Goodman Brown”?
The Puritan Influence in Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (repr. in Thomas R. Arp, and Greg Johnson, Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 8th ed. 316) is a short story with strong Puritan influence. Puritanism is a religion demanding strict moral conduct and strong faith. Puritans held that Christians should do only what the Bible commanded. Analyzing “Young Goodman Brown” is dependant upon understanding the Puritan faith. The influence of the Puritan religion is vivid in literary elements such as setting, allegory, and theme. The primary setting of “Young Goodman Brown” is the forest.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born into a family that possessed prominent Puritan ancestors, and the shame he experienced as a result of their actions, as well as his odd fascination with them, had a significant impact on his life and his writings. Though it would be an overstatement to say that Hawthorne's knowledge of the Puritan way of life was his only source of inspiration, this knowledge was certainly influential as it is often reflected in the majority of his work. Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804, Hawthorne was born in a town whose Puritan past is well-known as a result of the infamous Salem witch trials.One important, though briefly mentioned, symbol of Hester and Dimmesdale's growth occurs when Pearl receives a golden chain from a shipmaster. This chain is described as “becoming a part of her.” The chain itself can be seen as a symbol of the golden link between heaven and Earth. When Pearl takes and wears the golden chain, it is shown that she, and her parents, have been “redeemed” because they have learned so much as a result of their sin. The Scarlet Letter was surely inspired in part by Hawthorne's Puritan ancestors as he was criticizing their cruelty by displaying Hester and Dimmesdale as kind people who made a mistake and became better people as a result. The novel also has a more modern lesson because being overly critical of others is a problem that has always plagued humanity. This is part of the reason why The Scarlet Letter is such an important work of American literature as its comments on a harsh society are still fairly relevant. In addition to his many novels, Hawthorne wrote many short stories like “The Minister's Black Veil.” Published in 1836, “The Minister's Black Veil” is about a minister named Reverend Hooper who begins to wear a black veil over his face. He has his Puritan faith, which he earnestly cherishes, and guards, the love of his wife, ‘Faith,’ whom he adores, and his ancestral upbringing, the deep-seated principles enshrined in Puritanism. These three elemental things help Goodman to navigate between good and evil; they form the platform from which Goodman decides his fate. As Brown faces the devil’s temptation, people easily persuade him to abandon what once grounded him, Puritanism. The Puritan values of the 1600s as well as the people’s openness to mystical ideas defined good and evil and influenced some Puritans to question the truth and abandon their faith just like Eve of the bible who challenged God’s truth before leaving it under the wiles of the snake, the devil.
In the initial stages of the story, Brown’s relationship with his wife, faith, is much like that of Adam and Eve, a perfect couple; however, Brown is about to embark on an evil journey, which he knows his wife would not approve. “…and after this one night I will follow her into heaven. With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (Hawthorne 16). Temptation in “Young Goodman Brown” is represented in the moment when Brown travels into the forest defiantly just as Eve ate from the tree of life. Just like Eve, Brown is in search of knowledge, which Satan uses to lure people away. Once tainted by her sins, Eve felt the need to cover herself from the shame that ensued. The same way, shame affects Young Goodman Brown; as he enters deep into his journey, Brown tells the elder that his ancestors would never travel on such an unthinkable errand. In response, the elder replies, “I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say” (Hawthorne 18). The elder goes on to describe the evil doings of Brown’s father and grandfather. The shame that Brown feels is enough to convince him to continue on the journey even though he is sure his actions violate his Puritan faith. In the biblical context of Adam and Eve, the end to their innocence and abandonment of trust underscored their punishment. Initially, Adam and Eve were to enjoy life in the Garden of Eden without toiling; however, after sinning, the punishment was upon them whereby, Adam was to work for food while Eve was to experience labor pain in giving birth. In the case of Young Goodman Brown, punishment is in the death of his soul; he too has to live a life filled with doubt and uncertainty. “Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer; he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away” (Hawthorne 23.)
In either case, through a description of the three mentioned stories, “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “The Birthmark,” readers come to understand the many ways in which Nathaniel Hawthorne conveyed his beliefs regarding sin. The conclusion is reached that all humans must have some form of sin, whether it be it the form of selfishness, passion, or any other manner, and that most people try to conceal these sins in order to appear perfect. Hawthorne also believes that sin can often times be so small that it goes unnoticed, yet it impacts the entirety of the sinner’s life. Many other similarities, besides the persistent theme of evil and sin, can be observed in Hawthorne’s works, yet this theme seems to be perhaps the most common and most apparent topic throughout his writings.
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