She’s a Blessed Angel on Earth

I had planned on discussing Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful” today, but after reading Alvin Hawkin’s page and seeing that he was expecting something curmudgeonly, I decided I’d better switch to “Young Goodman Brown,” a tale that may well explain the grouchiness of some of our most noble citizens, and might even explain Bush’s desire to destroy the forces of evil.

“Young Goodman Brown” seems to be an attempt to explain what happens when a man loses “faith,” faith in God, faith in himself, and, most of all, faith in others. It follows the adventures of a recently married young man who on his first night away from his wife. As he is about to leave on his journey, his wife Faith approaches him and says, “A lone woman is troubled with’ such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!” Now, I’m not sure what “tarry” meant in 1850, but I can imagine what it must mean today. Despite, her pleas, though, Brown says he must make his journey this very night. Of course, he doesn’t bother to tell her he has an appointment in the woods with the Devil.

At least for a moment he feels badly about leaving her:

Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Well; she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.”

With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose.

It’s interesting that he, too, talks of “dreams.” Of course, he’s counting on his Faith to save him from whatever “evil purpose” he has for this trip. The hypocrisy, of course, needs no comment.

It’s not long, though, before we find out the purpose of his trip, but since the Puritans associated the woods with the devil, there’s little surprise here. Although the gentleman’s name he is meeting never comes up, the description of his staff leaves little doubt:

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.

Ambiguous as always, Hawthorne quickly adds, “This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Deception be damned, we have certainly met the devil himself, or at the very least one of his minions.

Before long, it becomes very clear that the devil is trying to recruit this “young, good man.” At first Brown argues that he can’t possibly join because he comes from a long line of upstanding Puritan forefathers. The devil counters nicely:

“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.

And here we’ve always been taught those Puritans were fine, upstanding Christian gentlemen, the true forefathers of American democracy. Ah, but what’s a few heathen women or children or Quakers among real Christians?

Obviously shaken by this discovery that his noble ancestors had had dealings with the devil, Goodman plays his trump card:

“Well, then, to end the matter at once,” said Goodman Brown, considerably nettled, “there is my wife, Faith. It would break her dear little heart; and I’d rather break my own!”

“Nay, if that be the case,” answered the other, “e’en go thy ways, Goodman Brown. I would not, for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us, that Faith should come to any harm.”

Ah, yes, his adorable Faith left home alone at night troubled by the same dreams that brought him here, hopefully not watching the Playboy Channel.

Soon the devil introduces him to several of the people in the forest apparently on their way to the coven meeting. First there is Goody Cloyse, who taught Goodman his catechism. Next he hears the minister and Deacon Gookin talking on their way to the meeting. He is nearly, but not quite, overcome by this revelation:

Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree, for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburthened with the heavy sickness of his heart. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a Heaven above him.

“With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” cried Goodman Brown.

It’s not, however, until Goodman hears a familiar voice flying over head and finds a familiar pink ribbon on the ground that he really seems to lose faith:

“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.”

Knowing that his beloved wife is on her way to the same meeting he is on his way to is too much for Goodman.

Overcome by this evidence that all are tempted by the devil, Goodman rushes through the woods on his way to the devil’s meeting:

In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew, among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter, as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man.

Ironic, indeed, that within a short amount of time this righteous man could be transformed into such a hideous shape.

When he finally reaches the coven, Goodman is confronted with more confirmation of the sinful nature of mankind:

Either the sudden gleams of light, flashing over the obscure field, bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity.

and

It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.

The proceedings begin with a voice calling out, “Bring forth the converts” and:

At the word, Goodman Brown stepped forth from the shadow of the trees, and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart. He could have well-nigh sworn, that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smokewreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back.

Again, the voice calls out, as if in confirmation of Goodman’s worst fears:

“Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream! Now are ye undeceived!-Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.

Who could believe that the heart, that symbol of love, could be the seat of all that was wicked?

Still, despite the overwhelming evidence that almost everyone he has ever loved has joined forces with the Devil, Goodman is able to resist the devil’s temptations and call out in despair:

“Faith! Faith!” cried the husband. “Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!”

Unfortunately, he never finds out whether his wife is able to resist or not:

Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not. Hardly had he spoken, when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind, which died heavily away through the forest.

Notice how Hawthorne almost makes it appear that Goodman has been whisked away as in a dream? We know Goodman has saved himself from the Devil’s immediate temptation, but the question remains whether he has truly been able to save himself from the Devil.

Goodman is never the same man after this night. When he returns home he refuses to kiss his wife Faith, as if he suspected her of being in alliance with the devil. As a result of that single night, he became a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.”

Old Goodman Brown, that noble, righteous Puritan ancestor apparently lost faith in everyone except himself, and as a result:

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.

Despite having everything in life that most people would wish for, he lived in gloom the rest of his life, sure of his own righteousness, but doubting the virtue of everyone else.

If he, himself, was able to resist the devil, why is he so convinced that his wife Faith was unable to resist the devil? Was she guilty of anything he wasn’t also guilty of? Or, did he also lose faith in himself? Is that the real source of his gloom? If we are all sinners, and that may well be the case, then why wasn’t he able to recognize that and forgive those who have sinned?

When I served in Vietnam, I certainly saw the dark side of human nature, both on our side and the Viet Cong side. There’s little doubt in my mind that in the wrong place at the wrong time most human beings will do things they shouldn’t do and wouldn’t normally do.

We are all sinners, or at least potential sinners, and the only thing that saves us is the forgiveness and love that we hold in our hearts for each other.

If there is a Devil, his ultimate victory would certainly be our losing faith in each other. We can deny that victory not by denying our own nature, but by overcoming it and forgiving those who sin while trying to overcome it.

Loren Webster

What do you think?