A writer’s literary works often reflect certain circumstances of his or her private life as well as peculiar personal characteristics. Such is the case with one of the most prominent writers of American Romanticism, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Born in the city of Salem, Massachusetts, which is notorious for its witch trials, Hawthorne was raised in Puritan society and remained faithful to its beliefs and values throughout his life.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Hawthorne’s writings reflect many of Puritan ideas, including the inevitability of the original sin, the natural peccancy of humankind, and the human propensity for the evil.
These themes are rendered in Hawthorne’s literary works, including short stories “Young Goodman Brown” and “Wakefield,” using his peculiar style, characterized by descriptiveness combined with wide use of various symbolic images.
A theme common for both of the short stories is the journey of a man who distances from his fair en devout wife.
In “Young Goodman Brown” the main character walks away into the night for a purpose unknown to the reader, leaving his young wife Faith anxious about the possible outcome of his journey.
Goodman Brown pursues an idea that he admits to being far from praiseworthy but is full of decisiveness to return to his wife once his errand is completed: “With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” 1289).
In contrast, the main character of the other story, “Wakefield,” leaves his wife at dusk as well but does not fully realize what he is going to do and for what purpose.
Wakefield is described by Hawthorne as an irresolute man who finds himself astonished at the necessity of taking decisions concerning his future life: “The vagueness of the project, and the convulsive effort with which he plunges into the execution of it, are equally characteristic of a feeble-minded man” (“Wakefield” 1300).
Strolling away from the proper path of life and breaking the commonly accepted social norms by leaving their wives home, both characters are punished for their apostasy, and this is yet another topic of Hawthorne’s short stories.
As Goodman Brown and Wakefield proceed further and further from their homes, wives, and traditional values — the former widens the physical distance, and the latter extends the time gap, — they become in a certain sense heretics as compared to the rest of the well-behaved society.
The result of their deviation is quite ruinous for both. Young Goodman Brown loses what he had as his strongest defense against the evil, his faith: having witnessed dreadful things occur during his walk into the night, “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream” (Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” 1297).
Goodman Brown is never the same, as he cannot find consolation in what serves as a consolation for the others, in his faith: it is forever gone. Wakefield experiences an estrangement of another kind. He does not stray away in the wilderness and remains in the bustling center of the city of London.
However, despite his physical presence in that everyday bustle Wakefield is still away from it since he is not perceived by other people as a living being: “He had contrived, or rather he had happened, to dissever himself from the world —to vanish — to give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead” (Hawthorne, “Wakefield” 1302).
By overthrowing the commonly accepted order of things, Wakefield steps out of the general system and finds himself nobody else but “the Outcast of the Universe,” ignored and neglected by people loyal to the system (Hawthorne, “Wakefield” 1303).
Complicated as his topics are, Hawthorne employs an original style to develop them and to get the message of his stories through to the readers.
An extremely powerful device used by the writer to create a sense of presence in what is going on is following the main character on his heels. Both in “Young Goodman Brown” and “Wakefield” the reader can trace each step of the main characters.
Goodman Brown’s journey into the forbidden forest is described in the least detail, from the density of the trees to the creatures inhabiting the woods. Similar to a detective story, Wakefield’s adventure is tracked from the porch of his house to the refuge where he was hiding for twenty years.
And still, despite such detailed spying on the characters, Hawthorne manages to maintain intrigue and to create a sense of suspense that does not release the reader till the end of the story.
How does the writer succeed in it? The secret is found in not rendering the objective truth but describing the situation from the main character himself. All that the reader gets to know are the inner thoughts and emotions of Goodman Brown or Wakefield.
Such limitedness in the point of view allows Hawthorne both to present a clear picture of the situation and to keep the mystery concerning the objective truth unrevealed.
Adding to the descriptive power of Hawthorne’s style is his wide use of symbolic images that provide vivid visual support to the key ideas of his short stories. One of the most widespread symbolic figures is the image of a devout wife.
In “Young Goodman Brown,” the young Faith stands for all the proper and worthy that her husband has in his life. She is his ultimate stronghold, the only memory of which helps him move on through the forbidden forest.
However, when the horrors of the forbidden forest overcome him, Goodman Brown surrenders to the evil powers and cries “My Faith is gone!” (Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” 1294). This is the moment when he bids farewell both to his wife and to his religious devotion.
For the family man Wakefield, his wife is a symbol of warmth, affection, sympathy and care that the — following a strange whim that his wife would probably call “a little strangeness“ — decides to put to the test (Hawthorne, “Wakefield” 1299).
Once Wakefield leaves his cozy house, he distances himself from all the warm human feelings and sensations and condemns himself to a state which Hawthorne describes as close to death: “The dead have nearly as much chance of revisiting their earthly homes as the self-banished Wakefield” (“Wakefield” 1301).
Woman as a symbol of life helps Hawthorne render the message of the dangers that await a man once he declines the bliss of matrimonial happiness.
A Puritan by birth and upbringing, Hawthorne reflects on the themes of apostasy and punishment in his short stories. His peculiar writing style features a combination of a sense of presence with a limited point of view that helps to create an atmosphere of suspense.
Symbolic images among which the image of the wife is the most significant addition to the descriptive power of Hawthorne’s style and emphasize the key messages of the short stories.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Wakefield.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. B. Eds. Nina Baym, Arnold Krupat, and Robert S. Levine. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 1298–1303. Print.
—. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Vol. B. Eds. Nina Baym, Arnold Krupat, and Robert S. Levine. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 1289–98. Print.