Young Goodman Brown
I began my Hawthorne reading task with The Birth-Mark. I picked this story because I am familiar with the Maypole of Merrymount and Young Goodman Brown, and I wanted to try something different. I was pleasantly surprised with The Birth-Mark, in my mind it far surpasses the latter two stories. I think one of the most admirable traits of Hawthorne is his ability to write as though actions are taking place somewhere in the present. Aylmer could very well live today, somewhere in the world with his laboratory in the backyard. Men like Young Goodman Brown are everywhere in today’s society, and, still, there are those who try and destroy that which they do not understand or refuse to understand like the Puritans in The Maypole of Merrymount. The Birth-Mark grapples with the scientific progress of the time. I think the theme of humans trying to control nature with unfavorable results is prevalent in many works of the time, most notably Frankenstein. The fixation that Aylmer has on Georgiana’s birthmark is unnatural. Hawthorne correlates this quest for perfection with Aylmer’s intentions of formulating an elixir of life and mastering the art of alchemy. Maybe Hawthorne is drawing a parallel here between the scientists of his day trying to control nature and by the failure of scientists to do this in the past. Aylmer’s attempt to control nature leads to the death of his wife which is unnecessary, she is quite content with the minor facial blemish until he makes a big deal about it. Maybe this too is a parallel between the mass majority being content with the state of the world and a certain few who would like to make it better, and, in turn, destroy it. I can understand Hawthorne’s idea. I live in constant fear of nuclear war and the technology that has made it available. But, I am grateful for the medical advances we have today. It is a double-edge sword. (I am not implying that Aylmer is an evil man, I do not think he is aware of the chaos he can arouse. In fact, he is merely concerned with progress and saving humans from their own mortality and “humanness”.)
There is one imparticular line from the story that I sound most engaging:
Hawthorne’s description “The scenery and the figures of actual life were perfectly represented, but with that bewitching, yet indescribably difference, which always makes a picture, an image, or a shadow, so much more attractive than the original.” When I read this I stopped mid-story. This is a common theme throughout Romantic poetry I have encountered. Immediately it reminded me of Shelly’s “To A Sky-Lark” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Keats. Both of these poems describe unattainable perfection. The skylark’s song is beautiful, but it flies so high we are unable to see the creature and hense, the song seems to come from the heavens. In “Ode…”, Keats spends much time describing the beauty of the grecian scene on the vase but then refutes it with “cold pastoral”. Those two words could describe this short story. From the outside, Aylmer thinks that everything on Georgiana would be perfect if she didn’t have the birthmark. What he doesn’t realize is perfection is unattainable, except in our minds.
The Maypole of Merrymount describes a maypole, and it’s significance in American history. Hawthorne creates a scene of revelry (almost a Mardi Gras scene) and has it destroyed by the Puritans. This story reminds me of the Christian Creation Story with the maypole being the Garden of Eden and the Puritans being allegorical figures of Satan. Hawthorne seems to blame the demise of the American freespirit on the Puritans. I don’t have much to comment on this story it is really a cut and dry case. I think Hawthorne is harsh on the Puritans. I read somewhere that the view we have of the Puritans today is somewhat misleading. They did not always wear black and never laughed. Maybe to some, they did cause the utopic garden of America to be shattered. After reading The Maypole of Merry Mount and Young Goodman Brown it is quite obvious the contempt Hawthorne holds for the Puritans. In Young Goodman Brown, Brown is led on a path where he encounters the devil and realizes that everyone surrounding him in his Puritan neighborhood is evil at heart. He learns his father and grandfather before him did the devil’s work, as well as the women he holds with utmost admiration. Brown turns from “Faith” (his wife in one sense and his actual faith in another) when he learns that everything he believed in is a sham.
I feel as though I cannot write about this story without mentioning the fact that it is a story about good and evil where evil prevails. Goodman Brown is a weak man presumably coming from weak stock. I suppose according to Hawthorne it is the existence of Puritan blood in his veins, which makes him a cowardly man. He is a conformist, instead of standing against the wrongs of his community he embraces the same fate as everyone else. The theme of the story carries through to today’s society. Oftentimes people will join groups or subscribe to ideologies they otherwise would not due to that fact that so many of their kin and respected leaders do. The story made me think of Thoreau. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau actions toward the Mexican War are the antitheses of those that would have been done by Young Goodman Brown.