September 27, 2011 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Begging those in the humanities: How do you teach Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown?"

Yo yo yo help a sister out: How do you get a bunch of 18+ students in a required class to dig this story? So far my class has not been digging anything with a historical component. I would like to make the concept of original sin slightly more interesting than what they're going to have for lunch.
posted by angrycat to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oh lord, I went through this twice in college with the same septagenarian professor who adored Hawthorne and had some very firm opinions about Hawthorne's writing -- in that every Hawthorne story held a much less conservative message than it appeared at first glance -- and this story. I'll try to remember his ideas of it as best I can:

Basically, the story is a hallucination built around the fact that the protagonist is maturing, morally and sexually, into a world of moral ambiguity. The old black-and-white good-vs.-evil things are starting to lose their grasp on him, and his trip to the wilderness isn't about Christian faith, but the induction into the "dark brotherhood" (I think that was how it was phrased) of everyone who makes decisions that live in the gray areas. His abandonment of Faith was an abandonment of childish things and ... damn, that's about as much as I can remember.
posted by griphus at 8:16 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not so sure "Original Sin" is the angle I'd work, so much as I would "hypocrisy" or "downfall of someone you admire" or even "downfall of someone you thought was awesome and thought you didn't measure up to them".

Consider: the thing that freaks Brown out isn't "sin" in general, it's him seeing all these people who had been held up to him all his life as being saintly, moral, God-fearing people, and the "Devil" is showing him that actually they'd been in cahoots with HIM all along instead. In fact, Brown's big dilemma is that he thinks he's the one giving into temptation by forming an allegiance with the Devil, while everyone else in his town is all god-fearing; but he comes to believe that not only was he wrong about them, but that they're all secretly wanting him to join them in that sin and his assertion that "No, I won't" at the end is his attempt to embrace morality and hold up TO the codes they'd publically instilled in him; and it's such a mind-fuck that he can't trust anyone ever again, not even Faith (because he's not sure whether she was able to resist, and he's also freaked out she was also considering joining the devil in the first place).

And there are plenty of contemporary examples of "people you admired that turned out to be shits", or "turning away from doing something wrong at the last minute even though people are pressuring you to give in", or even "finding out everyone's a hypocrite and now you can't trust anyone". Or, screw contemporary examples, maybe the kids have their own stories.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:17 AM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: Basically those dark, gloomy themes of loss of everything good is Hawthorne's wrapper for a story about the acceptance of moral ambiguity being true maturity.
posted by griphus at 8:17 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Become an adult is a good read -- the pink ribbons representing innocence -- realizing that you and those around you are sinners in the old school sense -- but what to do with the weird ending of his being a miserable son of a bitch. A damning indictment of adulthood?
posted by angrycat at 8:55 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think it is so much an indictment of adulthood—that's far too general an assessment. I'm not saying that griphus is wrong, but the idea of the arrival of the innocent into a world of moral ambiguity is not necessarily "[a] damning indictment of adulthood" so much as a meditation on the complexities of morality. Note, too, that Hawthorne is describing his ancestral culture. If he's indicting anything, it is a culture that tries to cling to such a facile morality. The story exposes how a Puritan view of the world as being populated by saints and sinners, and the accompanying paranoia about backsliding and corruption, in fact turns in on itself. So, it is Brown—a model Puritan at the start of the story—who becomes the withdrawn outsider, rather than the supposed "sinners" he encounters on his little midnight tour. I read it as something much closer to what EmpressCallipygos describes, though again, I think there' s more to it than simply "some people you admire actually suck."
posted by synecdoche at 2:37 PM on September 27, 2011

I was all set to defend my perception to synecdoche, but realized I was assuming something that probably affected my answer. So instead, I have a queston of my own: what is the AGE of these students?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:47 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: I teach this to college freshmen and I usually play up the allegory angle with a nice lecture on the puritan experience. Once they have that in their heads, they can easily see the hypocrisy of Brown and also the loss of innocence, etc. etc. The thing I have learned is that students often don't appreciate things they can't grasp a context for, and they often don't appreciate things when they can't see what the author is attempting to do. I will usually give freshmen a history lecture (10-15 minutes and it usually links to other things we've discusses prior -- they love the idea of Lewis and Clark as it compares to other things going on in 1830s America) for context and demonstrate a close reading early in the semester. Then I ask them more open questions (what's up with the Devil here?) and ask them to use the book to show their evidence.

MeMail me if you want a really specific lesson plan.
posted by mrfuga0 at 3:23 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: I've always toyed around with the idea that his encounters on his way to the sabbat are all illusory -- a temptation for him to think badly of others. A test he fails, (and likewise, Puritan culture in general fails in charity) and that leads to his damnation.
posted by Malla at 3:40 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: I'd look at this from alternating autobiographical and historical perspectives.

The story is set during the Salem witch trials, at which Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather John Hathorne was a judge.

Not only was he a judge at the witch trials, he was "the only one who never repented of his actions", and Hawthorne was embarrassed at his ancestor enough, according to some scholars, that it was his primary motivation for changing his name by adding a 'w' soon after graduating from college.

And the witch trials and the heritage of evil were clearly on Hawthorne's mind in this passage spoken by Satan:

"Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war.

As well as a deep concern with the damning resemblances of ancestors and progeny:

"Yea, truly is it, and in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman
Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is. But--would your
worship believe it?--my broomstick hath strangely disappeared, stolen,
as I suspect, by that unhanged witch, Goody Cory, and that, too, when I
was all anointed with the juice of smallage, and cinquefoil, and wolf's

To cement the identification of young Goodman Brown with Hawthorne's ancestor, the story ends with what seems to be a remarkably accurate description of John Hathorne's tombstone:

And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave...they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

I think writing this story helped Hawthorne come to terms with what John Hathorne did by constructing a narrative of spiritual journey which left Goodman Brown/Hathorne in such a state that hanging witches was practically inevitable:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild
dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young
Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if
not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.
On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he
could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear
and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the
pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open
Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives
and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then
did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down
upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, waking suddenly at
midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or
eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered
to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away.

He has become paranoid and deeply suspicious about Satanic influences on the people around him, especially women, especially his wife.

At the same time, the story shows what Goodman Brown/Hathorne might have done to escape his evil destiny; all he had to do was cleave to his bride, trust her love for him, listen to her advice and follow it, and all this tragic horror could have been avoided.

This is an extremely radical departure from settled Christian doctrine, by the way, because Adam's Sin was uxoriousness, loving his wife too much and doing what she said in taking a bite of the apple.

And I think Hawthorne is saying that this will be his way out, too-- out of the malignant righteousness of Puritan Christianity, and out from under the crushing heritage of his evil ancestry. For as Satan says in the passage quoted above, Goodman Brown is the grandson of an evil man just as Hawthorne himself is, and Satan seeks to make sure that evil is reborn in a new generation.

Oh, and don't forget to mention Satan's passing reference to what we now recognize as the genocide of the Indians:

and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own
hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war.

posted by jamjam at 4:00 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Can I just tell you all that I love you all? For serious. Sorry I didn't respond sooner; my other job tutoring students who take the class I teach from other professors went CRAZY yesterday.

Anyways, these are community college students, 18+ with maybe an age average in the mid-twenties. You all are spot on about talking up the history of the Puritans -- that's especially important w/r/t seeing the forest as an ironic representation of evil -- as well as Hawthorne's bio attachment to the Salem witch trials. That reference to the Indian genocide I think, and will look up, is a specific reference to some Very Bad Shit a specific group of colonists pulled, I mean some major atrocities.

The man thing -- and the thing I keep forgetting -- is there is a real lack of historical context in my students' heads. My first assignment was re: a selection from A. Spiegelman's Maus. The selection didn't say: this is WWII, the Holocaust, yada yada, but it specifically referred to Auschwitz. And I swear to God, most of the students were all, 'what's Auschwitz?'

So the history, I will teach it. Thanks again all!
posted by angrycat at 8:22 AM on September 28, 2011

For the "miserable son of a bitch" component, I like to think of the similarities between this story and "The Minister's Black Veil"-- basically, there is an evil in everyone's heart, and our inability to signify this without despair leads to infinite distance between people. Very Hallmark stuff.

Ethan Brand, too, fixates on this evilness to the point of monomania. I think Hawthorne wanted Goodman Brown's hypocrisy-- which is a very specific, non-casual hypocrisy-- on trial along with that of the Puritans. I also think the autobiographical-historical approach sounds great.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:55 PM on September 28, 2011

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