September 07, 2005

The Chief Horror of the Scene: Hawthorne's Heart of Darkness

I have discovered that I much prefer Hawthorne's short fiction to his longer works. In this case that basically means that I liked Young Goodman Brown a great deal more than I liked The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne, it would appear, had something of a Puritan fetish. His love/hate relationship with them (his ancestors) and their actions emerges over and over again in his writing, and this yielded some fascinating results. In the story, Goodman Brown leaves behind his young wife, Faith (despite her protestations that he remain) for a meeting in the midst of a dark and gloomy forest with Satan himself.

Satan and Goodman journey through the forest together, and as they go deeper and deeper Goodman begins to have doubts about this meeting that he is attending. But each time he resolves to turn back, he is confronted by a member of his community who he had formerly believed to be above reproach; the woman who taught him his catechism, the minister, etc. And all of these people are on their way to the meeting, as well.

When he finally arrives, already questioning the very foundation of everything he has ever believed, he joins the group of new initiates and finds Faith among them. Faith, before now, has been his only anchor to everything he thought he knew about humanity and virtue before entering the forest. Now even that has been stripped away. And yet, at the critical moment, Goodman cries out to Faith to resist the devil, and at once everyone around him vanishes (including her). He returns to town the next morning and finds everything exactly as he left it. Was it all a dream? Lies from Satan? Did any of it really happen?

Whether it did or not, Goodman Brown lives out the rest of his long days certain that Satan is watching him from behind the eyes of everyone around him. He becomes a paranoid and embittered old man, and "his dying hour [is] gloom."

I think that the title of this work, the characters, and the development of the plot and themes carry strong ties to medieval morality plays in the vein of Everyman. "Young Goodman Brown" is a very simple and generic title for a character that we should all be identifying with in his struggles with himself and the evils around him. Faith is clearly a somewhat allegorical character of the type often found in morality plays, and Goodman's actions bear this out.

Goodman leaves his Faith behind at the beginning of the story. "Poor little Faith! . . . What a wretch am I, to leave her . . ." He spends the rest of the story attempting to cling to his Faith. "With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!" And, finally, he loses his Faith entirely at the end. "My Faith is gone!" ". . . he shrank from the bosom of Faith . . . and turned away." And, of course, Satan is the prominent antagonist in the story, using every trick in his arsenal to take possession of Goodman's soul.

In particular, there are two interesting aspects of how the story develops. All of the imagery in the story is a direct reflection of the descent of the character into darkness and evil, while the outward appearance of the people around him is a direct contrast to their true natures. Satan, when Goodman meets him in the forest, is dressed "in grave and decent attire." And, of course, everyone he meets along his way, though formerly revered as among most pious in his community, is in fact evil.

The use of color in the story is especially significant . . . there isn't any. Goodman enters the gloomy forest and things just get darker, from grays to blacks, from there. The only two colors mentioned are the distinctive pink of Faith's ribbon, and the red of the satanic fire. This lack of color and light is a reflection of the darkness that Goodman is shocked to discover in the human heart. (As a side-note, Goodman is in possession of Faith's ribbon when he meets her before Satan in the woods, but she has it back again the next morning. This, though Goodman fails to notice it, seems to indicate that she was never actually in the woods at all.)

The key moment in the story for me comes near the end, when Faith and Goodman are together, standing before the devil. He says to them, "Depending on 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."

Satan has put into words what Goodman was already beginning to suspect as his journey drew to a close. Earlier on Hawthorne describes a bone-chilling scene: the forest, thick and dark, full of terrifying sounds, nothing even remotely indicative of any sort of comfort or light. "But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors . . . The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man." In the midst of a scene full of darkness and evil, the heart of darkness is within Goodman Brown ("the horror, the horror").

Standing before Satan, he hears a mixture of lies and half-truths, and believes because of what he has been shown. Satan has revealed to him something that he should already have learned from scripture (that man is basically evil), but has left out half the story. Goodman has no more faith, no more hope. Having been told that evil is his only happiness, he chooses not to be happy at all.

Posted by Jared at September 7, 2005 02:53 PM | TrackBack