Asking the Devil for the Lowdown

[first blogged on Halloween 2003] In honor of the upcoming season, let me write a bit about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Many of us were forced to read it in high school, but maybe you didn’t. Reject that foul Stephen King novel! Banish that evil Anne Rice tome! Tolle lege* this short tale of a young man’s dreadful walk with the devil.

I think the reason “Young Goodman Brown” sticks in my mind as a great tale, other than my fascination with early America and affection for Hawthorne, is its clear description of how to set yourself up for believing a lie. Brown does three things in the first couple pages to seal his doom. He leaves his home at sunset to meet the devil in the forest. Apparently, he is searching for the truth. He wants to hear what the devil has to say for himself. And like an idiot, he starts his trip just before dusk. Darkness conceals many things, so if he really wanted to the truth, he would look for it in daylight when things can be seen for what they are. But at dusk, he walks deep into the forest–putting himself in a place where shadows conceal. How much can you see when you’re in a dense forest at night? Still, Brown thinks he can meet the father of lies in a place like this and reason with him. That’s his biggest mistake, and possibly the one which makes his doom inevitable. He thinks he can talk to the devil and parse his words for bits of truth. Of course, Old Scratch reels him in easily.

When Brown first objects to walking deeper into the trees, Old Scratch encourages him to present his arguments while they walk because he can always turn back. Too far, Brown says while walking. He must not be seen walking with the devil. Naturally, replies the devil, that’s why my dealings with your father and grandfather were kept secret. What! Can it be true? exclaims young Brown. Of course not, you idiot! You’re talking with the devil! He doesn’t tell the truth except to make a lie more plausible, because a slight miscalculation is an easier lie to shallow than a total fabrication. Brown doesn’t get it, unfortunately, so into the darkness he goes.

What about us? Do these steps apply to our quest for truth, even if we don’t have the devil penciled in for 10 p.m. Friday? Yes, they do.

1. Darkness conceals truth. Light describes wisdom and knowledge. Read the first few chapters of Proverbs for descriptions of wisdom and her methods. In order to shed light on the deep questions you’re asking, give yourself time and quiet reflection. Noise and busyness can act as clouds over the sun. Try to avoid them, but don’t think getting alone with your thoughts will draw all truth to you. You can come up with only so many answers when you’re the one confused.

2. Trees obstruct the light and hide the real world. In the forest, Brown found that the night only got darker. The same can happen to us in a forest of opinions. We can find wisdom in many counselors, but not all opinions are worth hearing. C.S. Lewis encouraged readers to postpone reading another contemporary book until they had read an old one, meaning a book written before last century. If we consume many modern books, we can become conditioned by a limited perspective particular to our day. By reading old books, we are better equipped to see beyond a limited modern perspective.

3. The devil does not have a worthy point of view. It’s common to try to hear both sides of an issue in order to form an unbiased opinion; but I’d like to suggest that some perspectives, some sides of particular issues, are completely wrong. Not everyone’s perspective is worth hearing. Some are logically inconsistent. Some are merely argumentative, taking up a position solely to conflict with another position. The better ones are internally sound, though they may be based on lies or ignorance. Some are completely right. It’s no shame to be partisan when your side is right.

I hope haven’t bored you back to your Doctorow novel. Have a good weekend, and try to avoid the cheap candy. Life is too short to eat waxy chocolate and those nasty orange rounds.

* “Take up and read”

9 thoughts on “Asking the Devil for the Lowdown”

  1. In this story there’s something alarming in that the real test of Brown’s character has come and gone long before he realizes it. Here’s his wife begging him to stay home. _Dude! You are supposed to cherish your wife!_ But he puts her off. Everything that happens afterwards is by way of consequence of that initial failure.

    I suspect that sort of thing happens often. We may be people who want, for sure, to have the resolution to do the right thing when the test comes. But guess what? It already passed.

    Kyrie eleison!

    There’s a phrase that Bob Dylan used, I believe, in connection with Hank Williams’s music – – something about “the old weird America.” I think of that in connection with another of Hawthorne’s stories, “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Do you know that one? I take the conclusion to be, not Hawthorne saying that Reuben had to kill his son (accidentally) to satisfy the offended Deity, but rather that, so twisted up inside had he become, that only when he committed this tragic act did he feel he had “paid for” his failure to keep his vow. I would be very disappointed in Hawthorne if he intended the former view. But that wouldn’t mean we _must_ accept it as the only way to read the tale.

    I’ll mention, finally, that Hawthorne’s journals are wonderful! Especially the earliest, the American Notebooks – – do you know it? Lovely pages with descriptions of bygone America, meetings with Thoreau … there is this amazing sequence in which Hawthorne and Thoreau are rambling around and get on a floe of ice floating down the river, and you think, good grief, what a loss to American letters if those wto had fallen in and drowned! One exquisite section from the journal, in which H. writes about staying home with his little boy while Mrs. Hawthorne and Una are visiting elsewhere, was published a few years ago as a separate book called something like Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny. But it’s not a cuteby book. But I would say, get the whole American Notebooks. Now I am about 4/5 through the sequel, his English Notebooks, also very good, but not as lively as the American.

  2. I don’t know, Dale. Saying his failure stems from rejecting his wife’s advice seems too strong a statement. He doesn’t speak harshly to her when she asks him to stay. Are we always to follow our wives bidding as a part of cherishing?

    In the story, his wife, Faith, is symbolic of his own faith or the Christian Faith, and he loses her in a sense that night and rejects her throughout his life afterward, even though she always stays with him. So leaving Faith at the beginning is telling for him and humorous when you think of the way Free Thinkers talk about themselves.

    I’m unfamiliar with the other things you mentioned. I should read that short story soon and blog on it.

  3. My daughter bought me the Hawthorne Journals quite by accident.

    They are green, and she knew I liked green books.

    I LOVE them!

    My oldest son is much into horror fiction.

    I read O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and haven’t slept well since. It’s been years, and I cannot shake that story.

    No horror for me.

  4. Brown brushes off his wife. He doesn’t really listen to her. She tries to tell him that she is afraid, and he deliberately pretends to misunderstand her (“What, dontcha trust me?”). It’s a failure of love. At the end of the story, we see that the failure to love has characterized Brown’s whole life. There’s an Auden poem that has a line, “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.” Brown hasn’t done that, although he has had a conventionally respectable life. Hawthorne has shown that beneath the surface of such a life may be spiritual burnt-outness, and it seems to have begun with a “small” matter.

  5. I loathe this story. It drips with venom for christianity. In addition to this it’s poorly written. I’m sure most people suspect early on this is one of those ‘it’s a dream’ stories. But why then does he head out on the road? What’s going on? what’s he up to? And why does the dream affect him so much? (The repeated references to the pink ribbons is overdone; hardly what we would call subtle.) The fact the teacher’s union forces this on school kids shows us how intense the anti-christian bias is in those circles. I’m baffled by the way so many christians have an affection for Hawthorne, when he so obviously despised them.

  6. I don’t understand where you’re coming from, sr. This is a story about a man leaving the faith. Everything the devil says is a lie–everything, and the reader should see that because as you said it isn’t subtle at all. I don’t think they wrote subtly in Hawthorne’s day, but he was a master nonetheless. I’m sorry you don’t see that.

    The way Brown soaks in every lie the devil give him shows his willful foolishness. You can even hear the same words as if they came from Brown when he says things like, “That picture of piousness I had for a school teacher, I’ll bet she was a witch.” From small steps like that, Brown eventually believes the entire town is devoted to the devil, which is just as stupid as his initial belief that he would get the truth from the devil.

    Was this story a dream? I don’t believe it was. “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.” Hawthorne throws out that line like Rod Sterling in The Twilight Zone as if as to say that if the reader will feel better thinking Brown’s dance with the devil was all a dream, let him think so because I don’t care. I don’t think that’s a confession that none of it really happened, as the rest of Brown’s life indicates.

  7. sr, as a reader of Hawthorne for decades, I would ask that you retract your statements that Hawthorne despised Christians and, in “Young Goodman Brown,” has written a story that drips with venom for Christianity; or else provide argument and evidence in support of these interesting claims. Is it possible that you are thinking of a different author and that your memories of the story are old or based on a hurried reading – – or perhaps on memories of a teacher who skewed the story in order to make it seem to support his/her own anti-Christian agenda?

    To be sure, Hawthorne’s writing exposes falseness and wickedness in the hearts of people who, outwardly, may be conventionally “good Christians.” But that isn’t anti-Christian.

    My impression of Hawthorne the man is that he was reserved in the expression – – even in his private notebooks – – of his own personal faith. Also, I have the impression that in his time and place – – let’s say Massachusetts in the 1830s and 1840s – – the religion of “gentlefolks” tended towards emphasis on the ethical and to fall short as regards Christian doctrine. The influence of Romanticism was, I suppose, pretty pervasive int hose circles.

    I don’t know that Hawthorne, then, had a lot of opportunity to encounter robust, orthodox Christian preaching. Did he believe that Jesus Christ was the true Son of God, eternally begotten of His Father from eternity, and as regards His manhood, born of a woman in time, but ever and always One Person? Did he believe that by His shed blood and death He made atonement for the sins of all people without exception, and was raised the third day for the justification of believers? I don’t know. If he didn’t, I think there is still reason to hope that he was truly a regenerate Christian. But only God can judge the heart.

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