Monday, July 18, 2011

Revisiting the Classics

Someone recently wrote a comment on my Facebook about recalling the days when I was teaching (in my first college job) and she was a student there. What she indicated was that as she and her fellow classmates reminisce they all recall having to read “the dreaded Young Goodman Brown.” She said she remembered nothing of the story or its meaning, only the dread of having to read the story. And she wondered—should she read the story again, perhaps with the maturity of some life experiences that would make “the dreaded” story more meaningful.

That got me to thinking—there are many classics that we could revisit and appreciate now with some life experience informing us of deeper meaning.

And then I thought—why not help you revisit the classics. Starting with “Young Goodman Brown.” If you still think this story might fall into the dreaded category—go ahead, skip the rest of this post.

“Young Goodman Brown” is one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Written in 1835, it is widely regarded as his best-known short story. The primary characters are Young Goodman Brown himself, his wife Faith, and sundry characters who appear during the course of the story.
A quick interjected comment about the character’s name—Young Goodman Brown. Obviously, young is an adjective describing his youth. The family name of Brown is somewhat universal. And Goodman—well, that’s an honorific title that would have been used during Puritan times, one step below “gentleman.”

The story begins with young Goodman Brown taking leave of his wife to set out on an unspecified errand as night falls. They are newly weds, having only been married three months, and she somewhat petulantly begs him not to go. He tells her he must go—and so he leaves his sweet wife Faith, who is the picture of innocence with pink ribbons in her hair.

Ah—foreshadowing. The wife’s name is Faith.

Not long after setting out, young Goodman Brown encounters an unnamed character who upbraids him for being late. Goodman Brown replies “Faith kept me back a while.” The two begin to walk along, deeper into a darkening woods, and Goodman Brown begins to hang back complaining that his father never went so far into the woods. But, he is urged on by his traveling companion, who tells him:

``Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.''

The traveling companion is now identified as “he of the serpent.” So, clearly young Goodman Brown is on a dodgy errand and has met up with the devil, or at least the devil’s emissary. The quoted speech (above) clearly links historical events within the Puritan community with the forces of evil: the Salem witch trials, and the so-called King Philip’s war, where wholesale slaughter of American Indians was carried out by the settlers.

Young Goodman Brown is astonished to learn that his traveling companion is well acquainted with church leaders, the governor, and members of the council. As he digests this information, he sees a woman ahead of them on the path. She is Goody* Cloyse, who taught him catechism. Not wanting to be seen by her, Goodman Brown ducks into the woods, while his traveling companion stays on the path. When he encounters Goody Cloyse, she screams “the Devil” but they soon fall into friendly banter so it is clear they too are well acquainted. When she disappears, and young Goodman Brown is once again walking with his traveling companion, Brown demurs:
``Friend,'' said he, stubbornly, ``my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?''

His traveling companion suddenly disappears, leaving Goodman Brown sitting puzzled and contemplating what to do next. He then hears voices of two approaching travelers, who turn out to be the other people who instructed Brown in catechism—the minister and Deacon Gookin. They too are on their way to the same gathering as the devil, and Goody Cloyse. Goodman Brown cries out: ``With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!''

As he cries out this plaintive declaration, he hears a young woman’s voice. And looking up to the sky, he sees something fluttering down, which catches on a branch—a pink ribbon.

``My Faith is gone!'' cried he, after one stupefied moment. ``There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.''

He finally gives himself over to the forces of evil, and joins the gathered worshippers. Someone calls for the converts to be brought forward, and Goodman Brown steps forth. He hears the words of welcome:
``Welcome, my children,'' said the dark figure, ``to the communion of your race. Ye have found thus young your nature and your destiny. My children, look behind you!''

Goodman Brown beholds Faith in the gathering, and in a final desperate plea tries to save her: ``Faith! Faith!'' cried the husband, ``look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.'' The story solemnly informs the reader “whether Faith obeyed he knew not.”

The next morning, young Goodman Brown returns to his village, a changed man. He sees all the familiar loved figures—the minister, Deacon Gookin, Goody Cloyse, and finally his wife Faith who greets him happily.

The story wonders whether or not Brown had fallen asleep and only dreamed the witch-meeting.

Sorry, no answer to that question.

The ending informs us:

“And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”

After that summary, do you really need an interpretation? For myself, I like the thought that what Goodman Brown discovers in the darkened woods is that we are all mortal—we are not perfect, we are flawed. And the knowledge—the coming of age, if you will—overwhelms him. He cannot live a carefree satisfied life with that knowledge.

What do YOU think the story is telling the reader?

Now, I am taking requests. What classic would you like to see revisited? If I have read it, and can remember it, I will “teach” a class on it.

*Goody—a shortened version of Goodwife, corollary to Goodman


Anvilcloud said...

I enjoyed the summary so much that I'll skip the actual story.

Ruth said...

I have never heard of Young Goodman Brown. I had to read The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence in high school and hated it. Our daughters had to read the same book almost 30 years later and they felt the same way about it. But I re-read it when they brought it home and really enjoyed it, finding it very meaningful. Age and experience does change your perspective.

NCmountainwoman said...

Very interesting. I use my Kindle for re-visiting the classics, many of which are free downloads. There is something comforting about reading stories you know so well.

Nance said...

I've been on a classics kick lately, trying to catch some I had missed and revisiting some I'd loved. Hawthorne is not easy to read, I found when I was young; the rhythms of speech are odd to our ears and the formalities can be wearing. I was by far more drawn to the Transcendentalists. So I probably owe him another effort.

BTW, I followed your recommendation on "Lives Like Loaded Guns" and went on to recommend it myself. What an unexpected page-turner! There was a bit of Goodman Brown's mysterious visitor in Mabel Loomis Todd, methinks.

Teena in Toronto said...

Happy blogoversary :)

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Ironically, I was looking up "Young Goodman Brown" on the Internet following a reference that said if you wanted to understand the United States and Americans you had to read this short story. I almost emailed you to ask you if you had read this story as I missed it in my reading of the American literature of New England. Now I cannot remember where I found the first reference.