For the settlers and Puritans, the American forest was a place of darkness and unknown, inhabited by poisonous vegetation, unfamiliar creatures, and potentially hostile Native American groups. The forest was the center of the natural forces that controlled Puritan life and most certainly Puritan death, uncontainable and unpredictable. What was perhaps most terrifying about the forest, however, was that it represented a pre-Christian world, void of accepted morality. Any Puritan who strayed there might find himself also in a pre-Christian state, beyond decency, and perhaps even beyond the reach of the hand of God. Writing within the framework of Puritan understanding of the civilized versus the uncivilized world, the American forest is the intimidating setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and an ideal location for Goodman Brown’s encounter with the devil. Within the work, the forest serves as a symbol with multiple meanings, relaying a breadth of simultaneous meanings for the work as a whole. In Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the forest serves as a symbol for both the dream-state and sexual desire. Within each of these contexts, the forest contributes to an understanding of unacceptable human behavior and desire as occurring in private and secret space, rather than public space.
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The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary terms defines a symbol as “something that, although it is of interest in its own right, stands for or suggests something larger and more complex-often an idea or a range of interrelated ideas, attitudes, and practices” (Murfin 504). But symbols have greater range than implications within literature and formalistic criticism. The psychological theories of Sigmund Freud suggest that symbols are the language of the unconscious mind, through which the id expresses unacceptable desires in dreams (Emig 176). The forest in “Young Goodman Brown” is a symbol for the unconscious dreaming mind, or the space where the id reigns. The most obvious evidence that suggests that the forest symbolizes the dreaming mind is that Goodman Brown’s journey into the woods takes place at night when he should be dreaming, or as Goodman Brown states when he sets out at dusk, “‘twixt now and sunrise” (Hawthorne 12). Hawthorne even echoes the notion that Goodman Brown may be dreaming in the literal sense at the conclusion of the piece with the question, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” (Hawthorne 30). Whether Hawthorne intended for the reader to conclude that Goodman Brown was literally dreaming is inconsequential, as his excursion in the forest functions perfectly as a Freudian dream. Goodman Brown’s journey into the forest even includes Freud’s key elements of dreams, condensation and displacement (Emig 176). Condensation begins with Goodman Brown’s meeting of the dark stranger, who comments on Goodman Brown’s lateness, saying, “The clock of the Old South was striking as I came through Boston, and that is full fifteen minutes ago” (Hawthorne 13). Time for the stranger is accelerated, as he is able to travel the twenty-five or so miles from Boston to Salem in fifteen minutes. Condensation continues when Goodman Brown carries a staff that mirrors the one that the stranger possesses. After realizing that Faith has been captured or possibly killed by his satanic consort, he “grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run” (Hawthorne 23). Displacement also occurs through the appearance of members of the devilish coven, who are all persons previously familiar to Goodman Brown. The appearance of Goody Cloyse (Hawthorne 18), for example, allows Goodman Brown to consider her fall from grace, rather than the condition of his own soul or his own spiritual hypocrisy, as displayed by his willingness to follow the stranger in the forest. Considering the spiritual states of others allows Goodman Brown to contemplate his own faith, without the serious internal implications of considering his own fall, which would be unacceptable for his Puritan psyche. The appearance of Goody Cloyse, who had catechized Goodman Brown (Hawthorne 18), and other people from his past also allows the displacement of events and encounters that have occurred throughout his life. Mirroring the dream-state, events and encounters in the forest are irrational and follow no logical order. Finally, the forest provides the dream-state environment where Goodman Brown’s unconscious mind can express and process unacceptable desire, such as the desire to rebel against his Puritan way of life in exchange for the power and excitement of witchcraft. When travelling through the forest in search of the devilish procession and Faith, Goodman Brown flies “brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy” (Hawthorne 23). While Goodman Brown could not contemplate rebellion against his faith in the public sphere of Salem, in the forest he is able to openly question his faith and even blaspheme without fear of repercussion.
In Hawthorne’s piece, the forest is also a symbol of sexual desire. Goodman Brown has been married only three months (Hawthorne 12) and, considering his Puritan faith, was likely sexually inexperienced. Despite the desire that Goodman Brown should have been feeling about his wife, who is described as “pretty” (Hawthorne 12) and “a blessed angel on earth,” there is evidence that Goodman Brown is quite sexually repressed. At the conclusion of the piece, Faith is so overjoyed to see her husband that she “almost kissed her husband before the whole village” (Hawthorne 30). In the Puritan culture, such an act would have been unconceivable. As a product of his socialization, Goodman Brown is also highly concerned with sexual misdeeds. The stranger in the forest speaks of “how elder of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households” and “fair damselsâ€¦have dug little graves in the garden” (Hawthorne 27-28). These acts were appalling to Goodman Brown, but were fascinating enough to warrant his journey into the forest. The contrast between Goodman Brown’s Puritan attitudes towards sex and his presence in the sinful forest signify his mixed feelings regarding his own sexuality. The emphasis on the presence of female characters and their level of sexual maturity is also significant. Present in the forest are Goody Cloyse, the woman who catechized him, along with a procession of other women, described as “high dames,” “wives of honored husbands,” “widows,” “ancient maidens, all of excellent repute,” and “fair young girls, who trembled lest their mothers should espy them” (Hawthorne 25). Any mention of male figures at the meeting is much less notable. The most important female presence at the gathering, however, is Faith, with her pink ribbons, vaguely suggestive of both sexuality and innocence. In relation to the forest as symbol of sexual desire, Faith’s presence there is paramount. Goodman Brown’s uncertainty about his sexuality is specifically confusion about his sexual relationship with his wife. She is a personification of child-like innocence with pink ribbons in her hair and “a blessed angel on earth.” In the red light of the forest (Hawthorne 24), implying sexual passion, he is torn between his desire for his wife and the possibility of sexually soiling her.
In conjunction with sexual desire, the forest can also be used as the typical nature-symbol, representing the natural order of the world. While religious law regarding human sexuality is man-made, sexual desire can be seen as a natural occurrence. When Goodman Brown refuses to give in to his own passion in the forest, he is choosing contrived repression over natural order. It is this refusal that leads to his undoing; his life is desolate and “his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 31) as a result of the strict sexual code he imposes on himself. His repression also leads to a distrust and withdrawal from his wife. When Goodman Brown cries, “Faith!…[L]ook up to heaven, and resist the wicked one” (Hawthorne 29), he is actually asking her to deny her sexuality. Although the gathering disappears before his suspicions can be confirmed, he suspects her of infidelity and wantonness, and so “shrank from the bosom of Faith” (Hawthorne 30-31). The same fear of female sexuality is present when Goodman Brown returns to the town the next morning and encounters Goody Cloyse catechizing a young girl-he “snatched away the child as from the grasp of the fiend himself” (Hawthorne 30). Although the woman is teaching the girl morality and Puritan law, as a presence of the forest, she could initiate the girl into sexual awareness. Goodman Brown’s reaction is ironic, as he both removes the girl from religious instruction and possibly sexual awareness, forcing her to follow in the footsteps of his future desolation as a result of denying natural order.
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In Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the forest is a symbol that richness and expansive meaning to the work. The dual meanings of the forest as dream-state and sexual desire work in conjunction with one another, suggesting that the forest is a realm where the unconscious mind of Goodman Brown can process unacceptable desire, and that those desires are primarily sexual in nature. Goodman Brown’s journey into the forest is in all effect a “wet dream,” or unconscious manifestation of desire. Looking at the work through these frames opens up the thematic possibilities of the piece-Hawthorne could be offering criticism of the Puritan church, sexual repression, or Puritanical views of female sexuality. As a trope in traditional narrative, the forest implies a personal journey that results in an internal change of the protagonist. Goodman Brown does embark on a personal journey in the forest, encountering his desire, and ultimately choosing repression. Hawthorne’s forest, however, also serves the function of a space within the unconscious or self. There the protagonist can express a longing for the unacceptable in the seclusion of the forest, apart from the influence of Salem and his Puritan God.
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