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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Winter reading: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”

It’s been a colder than usual winter in New England, with heavy snowfall and low temperatures well into March, but then again, cold is a relative matter.

I was reminded of that relativity when I re-read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” this winter, a short story set in the bitterly cold Yukon wilderness, a harsh environment that London knew well from his days as a miner and adventurer during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s. Bitter cold meant temperatures that could reach 75 degrees below zero, and according to London the “Yukon Code” cautioned against traveling alone “after the frost has dropped below zero fifty degrees or more.”

My father introduced me to Jack London when I was young, and I devoured “The Call of the Wild” and “Burning Daylight” and many of London’s other adventure stories. Today I wonder if my father gravitated to London because he identified with him: both were voracious readers, self-educated men who became writers, and both lost their fathers (to desertion for London, to divorce for my father) as they became teen-agers.

London’s stories are long on description and plot, and short on character development. He set out to write page-turners because, like Dickens, much of his fiction appeared serially in newspapers and magazines. London first published “To Build a Fire” in Youth’s Companion in 1902 and a second, revised version (the one you will find in anthologies) in The Century Magazine in 1908. (The complete story is here.)

What makes London’s stories powerful is their authenticity. He gives us the insider’s view of life in the Yukon in “To Build a Fire,” which lends a matter-of-fact, journalistic quality to story. (London prided himself on getting the details right, tartly explaining to the copy editor at Youth’s Companion who had the temerity to question the story’s factuality that fires couldn’t be built with mittened hands.)

A killing cold

The cold takes on a personality of its own in “To Build a Fire”: relentless, unforgiving, a merciless force that kills the unexposed human in just minutes. The protagonist in the story is overmatched, “a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter.” London faults this novice for both his ignorance and his arrogance; the only creature with any sense is the man’s “big native husky, the proper wolf dog” who instinctively knows that it is too cold to travel.

The man plans to follow the trail back to camp and his fellow miners, where he eagerly anticipates a hot supper waiting. He ignores the advice given by old-timers, not to travel alone in such extreme conditions. And since he has not formed any emotional bond with his husky, London tells us “the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man.”

When the man blunders into a branch of the Henderson river—a dangerous misstep as it drenches his feet and legs—he reacts promptly, starting a small fire and gradually and carefully feeding it. Belatedly he recognizes the danger:

…He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire–that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.

But the man makes another—disastrous—rookie mistake: he has built his fire under a snow-laden birch tree. When the snow capsizes onto the fire, extinguishing it, he is shocked “as though he just heard his own sentence of death.”

From this point “To Build a Fire” moves inexorably, grimly, towards its end. The man’s frantic efforts to build another fire fail—his bare hands are crippled by the cold, and he realizes why the old-timers insisted that “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.” The newcomer thinks of killing the dog and warming his hands in its carcass, but he no longer has the strength to hold the dog, draw his knife and finish him off. “A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him,” London writes, adding, “This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him.”

Re-reading the story after many years, I was most struck by London’s dispassion in recounting the last few hours of this chechaquo‘s life. (London never mentions the man’s name in The Century Magazine version of the story). There is no sense of tragedy, for London portrays the man as a victim of his own foolhardiness, an amateur who has lost this Darwinian contest.

London finishes the story quickly. We are told: “Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.” (I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” in which he muses that for the destruction of world ice “Is also great/And would suffice.”) In the last paragraph of the story, we learn that the man “drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” His husky confirms that this is indeed, the end, as he crawls close to the man “and caught the scent of death.”

A heroic contrast

It would be a mistake to conclude from “To Build a Fire” that London viewed Man vs. Nature as a necessarily unequal contest. As an outdoorsman he admired those men whose physical and mental strength allowed them to prevail despite the harshest of circumstances. In his novel “Burning Daylight,” his hero Eliam Harmish (who is nicknamed Burning Daylight) represents the Omega of the Alaskan outdoorsman—virile, a canny veteran, and yet with a test-pilot’s appetite for risk.

But Harmish knows the rules, knows the danger, and in the first chapters of the novel his initial mythic battle with the harsh Northern elements—through a two-thousand-mile dog-sled trip on a dare—represents a deliberate and conscious test of manhood. He makes the epic journey carrying the mail from Circle City to Dyea and back in sixty days, in frigid weather, nearly killing one Indian companion and wearing down another. By accomplishing the near-impossible “[h]e had performed one more exploit that would make the Yukon ring with his name–he, Burning Daylight, the king of travelers and dog-mushers.”

Even as Eliam Harmish celebrates his victory, London sounds a warning note: “At the sharpest hazards of trail and river and famine, the message was that other men might die, but that he would pull through triumphant. It was the old, old lie of Life fooling itself, believing itself–immortal and indestructible, bound to achieve over other lives and win to its heart’s desire.” And later in the novel Burning Daylight will learn that he, too, can fail.

Yet London, a student of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and a socialist and materialist, balanced his fatalism with a romantic insistence that only by confronting life head-on and taking great risks could we become fully human. The reward is worth the risk. “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet,” London’s “Credo” proclaims, adding, “The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved


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