Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown: The American Nightmare

The surrender to sin in America is a species of Satanism. Whether through seduction or submission, depravity is the mantra of the modern world and the modern world makes excuse readily available. I am weak. Human beings are only human. As long as no one gets hurt… If it feels good… The vindications go on and on, as do the licenses. But even so, the acceptance of immorality goes with a bizarre show of morality: a façade of American Puritanism that glosses over American Hedonism. Though there seems to be common agreement that man is base and will act basely, the desire remains to appear civilized and self-controlled; like a Calvinist in Catholic’s clothing. What a goodly outside falsehood hath, writes the English Bard, and an American bard joins his chorus with a fable written in 1835, a story that has shaken the sleep and sanctimoniousness of his countrymen for generations. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is a tale of unspeakable devilry—of blatant, bacchanalian Satanism—that probes and prods the soul of America, whispering, “What is truth?” through the demonic cacophony of a Witch’s Sabbath.

When young Goodman Brown sets out on a mysterious journey from his seventeenth century Salem Village, Massachusetts, his young bride of three months, Faith, resplendent in the innocence of pink ribbons, persuades with her husband to remain. Goodman Brown resists her sweet arguments, tells her to say her prayers before bed, and marches forth on what is dubbed “his present evil purpose,” stepping into the gloom for the rest of his life. Beneath the red dusk and the black trees, he meets by covenant an older man with a staff that is more like a snake. They travel uneasily together—Goodman Brown expressing a strange doubt and a strange reluctance; the elder traveler expressing a strange knowledge of the younger traveler’s ancestry and a strange mirth at his hesitation as it pertains to his reputation among the villagers for such a midnight expedition in such company. Before much time passes, eerie and electric though it is, Goodman Brown finds himself inexplicably laughing wildly in the firelight of a wild gathering of worshippers in the wood, recoiling in despair before an imposing, sable, demonic figure who offers a baptism in fiery blood upon a hellish altar to the young man who stands surrounded by fiends whom he thought for years were friends. His old catechism teacher, a witch. His reverend minister and deacon, a pair of savage swine. His beautiful wife with her pink ribbons… Enough. Suffice it to say that Goodman Brown’s “dying hour was gloom.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s horrifying story strongly suggests that the Evil One’s baptism is not necessary to partake in the mystery of sin or the secret guilt of others. Hawthorne’s own great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, had served as a judge in the Salem witch trials (the only judge who refused to repent of his actions), and guilt and shame over this caused the young author to change his name by a “w.” Nathaniel Hawthorne hated the hopelessness and helplessness of his Puritan upbringing. He hated that any would hold that man was unhallowed. He hated that there was no way out, that faith was a thing lost. He hated that there was no possibility in a bride wearing pink ribbons—the balanced color of purity and passion. In his story of young Goodman Brown’s descent into madness and malice, Hawthorne hotly questions the flat rejection of innate and inescapable corruption, while, at the same time, despairing under a creed with no sacramental system.

The truth is that, though mankind is often depraved, he can still be saved. This is the mystery of salvation, which surpasses the mystery of sin. Hawthorne’s vision was overpowered by iniquity, unfortunately, and he wrestled with its reality in revolt against the overbearing Puritan sensibilities which he rejected. Americans nowadays are not as inclined to wrestle, nor to despair. There is instead widespread tacit approval of much of the evil man is inclined to commit, which attitude, when applied to tales like “Young Goodman Brown,” renders Hawthorne’s vision even darker than it already is. The veneer of American morality is alive and well and has reached communities and hypocrisies far beyond what Hawthorne presents in the little village of Salem. It is not uncommon or strange anymore to expect to find at every turn a veil of virtue that hides a soul dominated by Satan. It is the American nightmare.

When faith means so little, it will be as flimsy as young Goodman Brown’s when it comes to enemy attack. That is the danger of a faith that is only skin deep. When men give in to Satan with barely a struggle, allowing him to preside over the sins committed behind closed doors, theirs is the cry of Goodman Brown, “My Faith is gone… There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.” Though the world be given over to Satan, that does not mean that its inhabitants must give in to Satan. That is the great error. Though man is born in slavery to sin, that does not mean he cannot break free from its shackles. The American religious identity is one that secretly succumbs to sin. On the surface, all is proper or even pious, but the truth is that the civilized Christians of America shamelessly bow down before the altar of sin as unconscious servants of Satan. For it is only the Evil One that inspires and gives sanction to sin—which is an easier thing than the work of salvation—together with hollow promises of comfort.

In the words of the dark figure beneath the canopy of fire:

This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youth have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin, ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot.

This, in many ways, is the unspoken theme of the American moral conscience. The anguish that cries out in Hawthorne’s writings over innocence and evil has made its mark in American society today, and that mark is a type of complacency. Other scars and symptoms include cynicism, tolerance, and relativism—the usual devices the Devil makes use of to assuage the soul that is sick with sin without offering cure. And so is Satan worshipped in act across this country. It may only be a matter of time until he is worshipped explicitly—when the witches and wizards and the raging minions of hell will range beyond the midnight wood and revel in the public square. The longer society accepts corruption, the more corrupt society will become, until a portrait not unlike the one presented by Hawthorne in “Young Goodman Brown” is not unlikely. Despite what the Devil would have men believe, however, the human race is not depraved and depravity is not its communion. Though born in shadow, man was not born for shadow. There is a way out. Keep faith.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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