I very rarely read short stories much preferring a novel in which I can lose myself for hours at a time. However, this week, just so that I will be able to follow a forthcoming lecture, I’ve found myself reading not only the Edgar Allan Poe tale about which I wrote a couple of days ago, but also an equally disturbing piece by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown.
What is it with these nineteenth century story-tellers? Did they get paid by the amount of misery they could engender in their readers? Or perhaps where Hawthorne was concerned it was the amount of guilt. He doesn’t seem to like anyone and he certainly doesn’t seem to want to see any good in anyone. I bet he was real fun to have around as a neighbour. The story’s last sentence might be about his main character but I bet it sums him up just as perfectly:
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
You really want to know this chap, don’t you?
As I mentioned before, I was primarily reading these stories with an eye to the narrative voice and I can see why the lecturer has set them. One is first person and the other third, but our students should be well beyond that. What I’ve found interesting in this respect is the difference in timbre. Reading the Poe is a bit like listening to an agitated piccolo, whereas the Hawthorne narrator is at the other end of the scale, grumbling along the bass line like a grumpy old bassoon, or possibly even a contra-bassoon. And, when it comes to discussion I am going to have to remember that that is what I should be focussing on, because what I really want to talk about is the nature of the moral point that Hawthorne is making.
As far as I can see what happens is that Young Goodman Brown leaves his wife of three months and goes out into the forest to be initiated into the service of the devil. When he gets there he finds that everyone he knows and has previously respected, clergy and laity alike, is already an initiate. Furthermore, there is one other candidate for initiation, the wife he thought he had left behind, presumably, deliberately called Faith. Goodman Brown calls upon heaven to save him and the scene vanishes. Returning home, uncertain whether what he has experienced was real, Goodman Brown is now so disillusioned with everyone around him that he thereafter leads a perfectly miserable life leading up to the final sentence that I’ve already quoted.
What am I supposed to make of this? As far as I can see Goodman Brown has done the right thing. I might not believe in the devil, but I do believe in evil and he’s turned his back on it, yet his life is a perfect hell and there’s no suggestion that there is anything better awaiting him in any after life. Was Hawthorne that cynical about the world in which he lived? Did he really think all his neighbours, not to mention his family, were agents of darkness? Does anyone happen to know what written on his tombstone, because I bet his dying hour wasn’t exactly light filled either?