by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Given the tragic events that took place in the Boston area last week, it's quite a relief for this metro Boston transplant to share a New England item of interest with you that isn't sickening or depressing or traumatizing for a change. Rarely has an otherwise somber short story so cheered me up! Of course, "Young Goodman Brown" isn't oppressive or gloomy from a storytelling point of view. Not at all. Hawthorne is in peak form throughout this c. 1700, Salem Village-set tale of the young Goodman Brown's symbolic struggle with faith and a possible late night meeting with the devil in a forest outside of town. Three reasons why the story wowed me: 1) Loved the "modern" manner in which Hawthorne's prose playfully gussies up the more supernatural aspects of the story while leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the supernatural elements really are only conjured up in the title character's Puritan mind. Here, for instance, we learn about a nondescript "traveller," later identified as the devil, that young Goodman Brown meets in the "dreary" forest after sunset one night: "But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light" (60). 2) The devil character, as befits his wily reputation in some circles, is a smooth talker who gets plenty of great dialogue to go along with the best phallic symbol props in the whole affair. Given the Salem Village setting and the fact that one of Hawthorne's own ancestors is said to have presided over the witch trials at Salem, here's a choice pre-"Sympathy for the Devil" soundbite where the traveler--considering the story's suggestion that evil is to be found inside man rather than without, significantly a lookalike for Goodman Brown--introduces himself and reveals the nature of his game: "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" (60). 3) Despite its economy of scale, this lean 13-page tale isn't lacking in either ambition or execution. How else to explain the confidence of an author who can have a fiendish character convincingly declaim "Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race" on one page (69) and then have his narrator innocently ask, "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?" on the very next--before answering "Be it so if you will; but alas!" with a plot twist even more devastatingly laden with gloom than a supernatural ending could even hint at? An exceptionally satisfying piece of work.
"Young Goodman Brown," which should be easy enough to find online for those inclined, is the fourth piece in Hawthorne's 1846 Mosses from an Old Manse as assembled in the still lovely town of Concord, Massachusetts. I read the Modern Library Classics edition of the work (New York: 2003, 58-70).