In several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, “Young Goodman Brown” in particular, the female character seems to be the occasion for the disillusionment of the protagonist. Young Goodman Brown desires order and predictability because he wants control over his existence. However, intangibles such as emotions, the future and especially his mortality provoke anxiety in Brown, because they are unpredictable and not concrete. If Brown could control the intangible, he could establish order and predictability in his world. Woman is the ideal substitute for the intangible, for she is mysterious, and yet she is concrete and subject to control particularly because of the conventions of the marriage relationship. For Brown, then, to master woman is to master the intangible.
Young Goodman Brown is a newlywed Puritan who leaves his wife, Faith on what he terms “an errand,” which the reader later learns to be a meeting with the devil. Brown believes he can face and resist the devil. Initially, his wife, Faith, begs him to stay, and Brown patronizingly soothes her only to discover her as one of the devil’s converts. Ultimately, Brown holds Faith most culpable for his disillusion with the supposed elect of his community.
When Brown sets out on his journey, Faith confesses her fears to Brown as she attempts to convince Brown to stay home. She explains, “A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself” (133). The prospect of an evening of isolation causes Faith to be anxious; the loss of her husband’s companionship deprives her of a predictable world, but her discomfort is of no concern to Brown. Instead, reassuring his wife from the doctrine of his theology, Brown tells her to “say thy prayers…and go to bed…no harm will come to thee” (133). Initially, Brown’s control of Faith arises from his doctrine that one can manipulate his surroundings by adhering to a set of theological guidelines. Young Goodman Brown believes that a recipe of prayer and evasion will placate his ignorant wife. Doctrinal wisdom degenerates into some kind of magical incantation that Brown proscribes.
Brown’s complacency and security in his theology is disturbed, however, as he encounters his intended companion. The devil tempts Brown with accusations against kinsmen and other respected citizens of Brown’s community. Brown, although astonished, is unshaken until he encounters the first physical presence on the road to the devil’s orgy. Goody Cloyse, “a very pious and exemplary dame, who had taught him his catechism” (137) appears on the road just ahead of Brown and his companion. Goody Cloyse represents for Brown spiritual authority, and he silently attends to colloquy between the devil and the old woman. Her appearance on the forest path disturbs Brown, because her presence alerts him that what he believes to be predictable is in fact not predictable: Goody Cloyse is not what he expected her to be. In Brown’s ordered...