Is Goodman Brown truly experiencing a black mass, or is his adventure in the forest an elaborate dream? This question has puzzled scholars ever since the 1835 publication of this famous short story. As a result of this ambiguity, most notably introduced by Hawthorne’s open invitation, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” (Hawthorne 536), the true meaning of the story has been argued for decades. In his analysis of the text, Paul W. Miller declares, “In the absence of any final answer to this problem [his state of consciousness], I conclude that the witches Goodman Brown saw were genuine” (Miller 260). This statement, in addition to being ludicrous, is also quite telling of the struggle toward understanding of this piece. As a result of this baseless assertion, Miller concludes that Brown “…is not representative of all mankind…”(Miller 261). Although this statement is arguable, Miller has a complete lack of evidence in making this assertion. Upon further investigation, it is revealed that not only is Young Goodman Brown dreaming for the body of the piece, but his struggle with ominous dreams proves the benefit of a life lived in moderation of good and evil.
In order to understand the complexities of Hawthorne’s purpose in writing this piece, one must first investigate whether or not the body of the story is a dream sequence, or an actual account. Goodman Brown begins the story by revealing that he has an “evil purpose” (Hawthorne, 528). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, evil is defined as “The antithesis of good in all its principal senses” (“evil”). With this definition in mind, one can then look at what the “antithesis of good” is in the text. In the Puritan society, the citizens were expected to maintain a devout lifestyle. As such, any deviation from the moral code of the village would be considered ‘evil’. After all, if one acts against the laws, they are also acting against God. Although the exact purpose is never brought to light, one can infer by the context of the story that his mission is not one that would be accepted by the Puritan society which he calls his home.
The beginning of this story, in which it is discovered that Brown has an errand, is generally accepted as having occurred. Where the boundary between reality and imagination blurs occurs shortly after Brown leaves the town, and is walking through the forest:
He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude (Hawthorne 528-529).
This quote marks the end of Brown’s direct interaction with Faith, and directly precedes his meeting with the devil. In this section, there is a distinct style change in the description of the setting. Prior, the descriptions of the setting had to do entirely with the interaction between characters; it is notable that the first seven paragraphs are almost entirely dialogue between Goodman Brown and Faith. However, upon reaching the eighth paragraph, there is a sudden shift into this description of the forest, and its possession of seemingly supernatural elements.
This supernatural description has often led scholars astray in the designation of this story as a conscious account or an intricate dream. However, while many of these strange elements seem attributable to magic, there are still excerpts that hint at his state. When Goodman Brown meets the old man in the forest, the narrator remarks, “[T]he second traveler…[bore] a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still they might have been taken for father and son” (Hawthorne 529). This instance is a prime example of a concept seen in psychology, known as ‘projection’. According to Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist who studied the unconscious, projection “occurs when a person sees in another qualities that they themself possess” (Randolph). Young Goodman Brown sees a sense of evil and wrongdoing in this man, and is often seen throughout the piece denouncing the inherent badness which he sees. However, this is merely a ploy by Brown’s unconscious to avoid admitting to himself that he, as a human being, is inherently evil. Because of this instance, which occurs very early in the story, I would argue that Miller’s assertion that Brown “moves from a simple state of simple faith in God and his fellow man to an evil state involving damnation” (Miller 255) is incorrect. In seeing his own evil qualities in another, Brown reveals that he is not wholly good; rather, his nature is also inherently evil.
This realization of evil potential is further solidified later in the story, at the black mass. during the course of the ceremony, the description of the scene is rife with words such as “fiend” and “hag”(Hawthorne 535). While one may read this as the narrator’s disdain toward the surroundings, this is another instance of the Jungian priciple coloring the language of the account. Goodman Brown is just as much a part of the ceremony as the people pointed out as being demons.
This scene is also a prime example of another property of dreams: the mirror-reversal of desires. According to Raymond Lloyd Richmond, holder of a doctorate in psychology, “dreams often mean the opposite of what they seem to mean” (Richmond). While Brown’s experience with the demons in the forest may seem to be a negative experience for him, these images are actually his unconscious making a statement about his need for evil. This is seen in the middle stages of the story, when he tells the devil that he will go no further. In a seemingly-official and pious manner, Brown declares, “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (Hawthorne 532). In this moment, he seems to be completely cemented in his beliefs. However, merely moments later, Brown is seen saying, “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a nae. Come, devil for to thee is this world given” (Hawthorne 533). This is a very drastic change in attitudes toward the devil, and is brought on by a suspicion of hearing Faith’s voice among the followers. A drastic change in his behavior regarding God and the devil shows that he has had the potential to be evil all along.
This epiphany, that Goodman Brown is unconsciously seeking evil, leads one to believe that Brown is also seeking a balance in his life. In the Puritan society, so much emphasis is placed on being devout in faith that one begins to live in extremes. As a result, certain natural desires for evil are not fulfilled. For example, when Goodman Brown returns from his night in the forest, Faith “…almost kiss[es] him in front of the whole village” (Hawthorne 536). In his other works, particularly The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne makes it clear that public displays of affection were strictly disallowed in a Puritan society. The bestowal of a kiss, a normal human desire, is not permitted by Goodman Brown’s society. As a result, one can see that the natural wants and needs of the people are not being fulfilled. According to Ezra Pound, “Civilization itself is a certain sane balance of values” (“Balance”). This idea, that one must live life in moderation, is best seen through Hawthorne’s use of the other townspeople in the black mass. While none of the others are notably happy, their nonchalant existence in the face of a seemingly-damning ceremony reveals that there is much more happiness to be had than a devout life could ever hope to supply.
As one can see, it is very clear in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” that the state of consciousness is very closely-tied to one’s interpretation of the piece as a whole. In analyzing the true value of the story, one must first prove that Goodman Brown is, indeed, dreaming during the main part of the story. After one comes to this realization, they discover the universal implication of the piece. The key to happiness lies not in one’s fervor in one side of the struggle between opposing forces; rather, it lies in the acceptance of both sides as parts of the human existence, and the incorporation of these elements into creating one’s identity.