Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and the dark temptations of paranoia

There’s something to be said for paranoia, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Our prehistoric ancestors faced a brutal, unforgiving world where misjudging a threat could prove fatal. Suspicion of strangers was a natural instinct, and a well-developed sense of “friend or foe” might mean you were more likely to survive and pass on your genes.

Long after the survival threat to homo sapiens became less pressing, the paranoid proclivity remained. When it is triggered by environmental or genetic factors, and causes abnormal suspiciousness and delusions of persecution or danger, clinicians call it “paranoid personality disorder.” As Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has observed, “…it’s interesting to note how many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionary ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.”

Many authors, artists and film-makers have been fascinated by the alienation present in paranoia, and while it seems to be a modernist concern (consider: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”) the theme surfaced in literature well before the advent of Freudian psychiatry. While Nathaniel Hawthorne did not set out to directly address the impact of paranoia in “Young Goodman Brown,” his haunting short story has retained its appeal long after its 1835 publication, I would argue, precisely because it taps into the feelings of isolation, fear of the Other, and, yes, the dark temptations of paranoia that are part of the human condition.

What do I mean by the dark temptations of paranoia? It’s that natural, and gratifying, inclination to blame others for our misfortune. It includes our very human tendency to bear grudges, to question the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends, to fear being exploited or deceived, and to credulously accept conspiracy theories. And “It wasn’t my fault. They were out to get me” offers a tempting explanation for trouble, one that neatly shifts any blame for failure or disappointment onto malevolent others.

Paranoid reality or paranoid dream?

Many literary critics have seen “Young Goodman Brown” (along with The Scarlet Letter) as part of Hawthorne’s critique of Calvinist theology as practiced in New England, especially the Puritan fascination with predestination and the role of the Elect—those divinely-selected Christians assured of a place in heaven. Certainly the story is crammed with religious symbolism and imagery and touches on many of these themes. Yet the universal appeal of the story lies in its portrayal of a young man struggling with his growing sense that the world has turned against him, and the open question as to whether his new-found disillusionment with family and friends is grounded in reality or reflects a delusional dream-state.

As with many horror stories, “Young Goodman Brown” relies on a series of small revelations, dark imagery, and hints of the supernatural to build suspense. Goodman Brown of Salem sets off on a mysterious journey with, we are told, an “evil purpose”; his wife, Faith, (“aptly named”) tries to entice him to stay home, but he refuses.

Once in the dark forest, Goodman Brown encounters an older man, a “fellow-traveler” whose companionship is not “wholly unexpected” by Goodman. Hawthorne foreshadows events to come as Goodman Brown wonders: “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

Soon we learn that the devil, indeed, is at his elbow (disguised as his grandfather and carrying a staff “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”), that his religious mentor Goody Cloyse is a witch, and that Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather before him had embraced the occult.

When Goodman Brown reaches the clearing where the devil worshipers will hold their Satanic ceremony of initiation, he recognizes “a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity.” And these “grave, reputable, and pious people” are joined by “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame”—good and wicked, sinners and saints joined in their “homage to the prince of all.” He is staggered by the enormity of the deception, aghast at his discovery that the Elect of his community are part of this “impious assembly,” one he has come to join.

Even worse, however, is discovering that the young woman also awaiting “baptism” into this congregation, “trembling before that unhallowed altar,” is his own wife. Young Goodman Brown hesitates, and then calls on his wife to join in resisting “the evil one.” In a flash he finds himself alone, “amid calm night and solitude,” but whether Faith has also turned away from Satan, “he knew not.”

When he returns to Salem Goodman Brown is a changed man, shrinking from contact from the minister, snubbing his wife when he meets her. Then, in an intriguing twist, Hawthorne introduces doubt about the reality of Young Goodman Brown’s experience. Perhaps he hasn’t uncovered a coven of “fiend-worshippers” but instead imagined the scene:

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.

Is Goodman Brown’s nightmarish experience just that: a nightmare? Or has he discovered the reality behind the scrim of Puritan convention? The psychic damage has been done, in either case, for he can no longer encounter the townspeople, or his wife, without seeing them as secretly in league with the Devil.

A modern psychiatrist, rejecting prima facie the existence of Satan, might very well diagnose Goodman Brown as harboring paranoid fantasies. His belief that everyone around him had joined a sinister, and hidden, conspiracy would suggest paranoid personality disorder. (If the people of Salem were actually involved in witchcraft and secret devil worship, then the situation becomes much more complex.)

Contemporary demons

We may no longer believe in witches or the presence of Satan, but we still confront our own contemporary demons. Paranoia continues to have its artistic fascination. The Puritans of the Bay Colony had theological underpinnings for their fears, ours stem more often from half-baked ideologies (for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories) or junk science.

There has been a brisk demand for horror films trading on the thrill of group paranoia. It’s why Hollywood has fashioned four film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a science-fiction story of alien invaders who secretly transform humans into “pod-people.”

The first film version came in 1956 (reflecting concerns about Communist subversion), the best-known remake followed in 1978 (trading off post-Watergate paranoia), the third in 1993 (with fears of toxic waste and a compromised environment as a backdrop), and the most recent in 2007, retitled The Invasion, (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and featuring a plot revolving around an alien virus).

Since the AIDs epidemic, paranoia about infection has been a continuing theme in popular culture, whether in the form of science fiction thrillers about pandemics (Twelve Monkeys, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men) or in the current fascination with vampires (the Twilight series, HBO’s “True Blood,” 30 Days of Night). Then there is 2007’s very popular I Am Legend, the most recent cinematic version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (following The Last Man on Earth in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971), which offers moviegoers both infectious disease and vampirism.

Fearing a global epidemic is not irrational, as the spread of AIDs and the outbreaks of bird flu in China and foot and mouth disease in Britain have highlighted the danger, but the probability of an unchecked pandemic is much less than Hollywood screenwriters would have you think, and the probability of vampire and zombie attacks approaches nil. But in troubled times, cathartic fear and loathing (the stuff of group paranoia) always plays well at the box office.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

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One thought on “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and the dark temptations of paranoia

  1. I’m actually doing a paper about this subject on Young Goodman Brown. I think it’s interesting to point out that from a religious point of view, that even if what Brown saw was real the fact that he lost his faith leaves Satan victorious. The fact that this takes place in Salem of all places helps drive the feeling home.

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