The Influence of History and Puritanism on Young Goodman Brown

A historicist reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”

ENGL 295, Professor Kennedy

February 4, 2012

To read “Young Goodman Brown”:  http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/ygb.html

Young Goodman Brown entered the woods outside Salem, Massachusetts a Puritan without troubles or questions. Whatever he encountered that night, be it “witch… wizard… (the) devil himself” (Hawthorne 311) or his own “nature and… destiny” (Hawthorne 313), he came out faithless and suspicious. Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1835 “Young Goodman Brown” is set during the time of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. In “Young Goodman Brown” the religious diction, Puritanical inspiration, and the association of Indians with the devil are products of the author’s environment and the context of the setting.

Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” is steeped in Puritanism. Early on Puritans in New England set up a theocracy, officially making the church the political and social center of life in Salem (Campbell). Law required all villagers to attend church every week (Ushistory.org). Hawthorne uses religious phrasing to describe the scene in the woods. In choosing descriptive words with holy connotations Hawthorne makes the reader reevaluate what they associate these terms with. He calls the motley group that has gathered a “congregation” and a “worshipping assembly” (Hawthorne 313). These names are normally associated with church and to use them in connection with the devil is highly ironic. When Hawthorne calls the group, “proselytes” (Hawthorne 313) his audience would likely conjure up a specific image in their mind; that of a group of repentant, holy people on their knees, hands held high in praise of the Glory of God. This image contrasts sharply with the action of the story. It creates a dichotomy in the reader’s mind by confusing the normal connotations of these words with the events taking place in the story. Hawthorne’s choice of words also highlights the uniformity of life in Puritan New England.

The sole acceptable influence on life in Puritan New England was the church. It is the point of view through which Goodman Brown relates to his world. It is only natural then that Goodman Brown would, despite his fear and confusion, use sacred terms to describe the song he hears in the woods:

He paused… and heard the swell of what seemed a hymn, rolling solemnly from a distance, with the weight of many voices. He knew the tune; it was a familiar one in the choir of the village meeting-house. (312)

It is ironic that a group of “fiend worshippers” (Hawthorne 314) would sing a hymn, but it was the only type of music that the villagers would have been familiar with. In the 1600s hymns were the only songs allowed in Puritan towns: they rejected the use of most music privately and within the church (“Puritans”). Hawthorne suggests Goodman Brown, as well as the rest of the town, has little relation to life outside of the church. It is instinctive to try and manipulate the unfamiliar with ideas and beliefs that are well known. This singular context makes Goodman Brown’s loss of faith more hopeless.

In the seventeenth century the supernatural was part of everyday life: people believed that Satan was present and active on earth (“Puritans”). Puritans believed unreservedly in spirits and witches (“Puritans”). That belief is central to the story, for Goodman Brown is a Puritan of unwavering faith. He accepts spirits haunting the woods and readily conjures them in his mind:

The traveller 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. (307)

Given the prevailing opinion it is easy to see how more than 200 people could be accused of witchcraft (Blumberg). Hawthorne’s own great-great grandfather was one of three judges that presided over the Salem Witch Trials (“Nathaniel Hawthorne Biography”). Hawthorne satirizes the mass hysteria of the era by casting the entire village of Salem as devil worshippers. The devil takes great delight in announcing to Goodman Brown that the very people he “reverenced from youth” (Hawthorne 313) are among his followers. During the Salem Witch Trials there was such rampant paranoia that anyone could be accused and tried.  Hawthorne depicts the protagonist’s “moral and spiritual adviser” (Hawthorne 308), along with two prominent members of the church, as eager participants in this hellish gathering. In doing so he makes the distrust Puritans felt almost comical. There is no accusation or criticism that these villagers can indict one another with if they are all living in sin. The fact that Goody Cloyse does just this is laughable. Life for New Englanders was filled with fear: fear of Hell, of witches, and of the Indian tribes.

The history of Massachusetts is rife with conflict between Native Americans and colonists. The 1600s were particularly belligerent times for Native Americans in New England. At that time there were several confrontations between the indigenous tribes and the new settlers, such as the Pequot and King Williams War (Legends of America). By the nineteenth century Native Americans had been mostly subjugated and pushed further west; they were no longer fighting. The dominant opinion in the 1800s was that Native Americans were inferior and uncivilized.

Hawthorne’s treatment of Native Americans in “Young Goodman Brown” is influenced by the time of the setting. Colonists in the 1600s lived in fear of attacks by Native Americans. That fear combined with their belief in the devil naturally lead them to view Native Americans as a demonic people. The religious and social practices of these people were unfamiliar and strange to the straight-laced, conservative Puritans. Therefore, such strange practices were understood in terms of the Puritan way of life. An “Indian powwow” (Hawthorne 311), as described in “Young Goodman Brown”, is filled with all sorts of “deviltry” (Hawthorne 310). Goodman Brown associates Indians with witches and other evil spirits. The narrator states that the Native American’s religion contains “more hideous incantations than any English witchcraft” (Hawthorne 312). This xenophobia is prevalent throughout the story and it reflects the prejudices and the anxieties of seventeenth century Massachusetts.

“Young Goodman Brown” is an allegorical short story about the inherently evil nature of man and the loss of one’s faith. Hawthorne’s combination of religious allusions and diction with the action of the story reveal a critique of Puritan culture in the 1600s. Coming from a family of Puritans Hawthorne has a comprehensive knowledge of the lifestyle associated with the religion. Salem in the 1600s was a simple yet distressing place to live. It is dangerous for a man to have one perspective on life. In the end Goodman Brown emerges from the woods a broken man.

Works Cited

Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 24 Oct. 2007. Web. 08 Feb. 2012.

<http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/brief-

salem.html?c=y>.

Campbell, Donna M. “Puritanism in New England.” Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. 21 March. 2010. Web. 08 Feb. 2012

<http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/purdef.htm>

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” 1937. Theory Into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. By Ann B. Dobie. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. 307-15. Print.

Legends of America. “Indian Wars List and Timeline.” Legends of America. Web. 08 Feb. 2012. <http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-indianwartimeline.html>.

“Nathaniel Hawthorne Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Web. 08 Feb. 2012. <http://www.notablebiographies.com/Gi-He/Hawthorne-Nathaniel.html>.

“Puritans.” University of Notre Dame. Ed. Kay Kizer. Web. 08 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/puritans.html>.

Ushistory.org. “Puritan Life.” Ushistory.org. U.S. History Online Textbook, 2012. Web. 08 Feb. 2012. <http://www.ushistory.org/us/3d.asp>.