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Criticism from Rita K. Gollin's Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Truth of Dreams

Criticism from Rita K. Gollin's Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Truth of Dreams, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1979.

[On reading "Young Goodman Brown" and other dream stories]

Three of Hawthorne's most successful stories fulfill his ambition "to write a dream." . . . In each, the atmosphere and setting, as well as the protagonist's state of mind and his strange adventures are all associated with dreams, and together determine meaning. The stories subordinate plot to psychological and moral truth, and the reader is invited to respond to each story's detail as a dreamer responds to his dream, accepting inconsistencies and transformations, apparent "eccentricities and aimlessness," sensing "a leading idea running through the whole" (115).

"The Celestial Rail-road," "Young Goodman Brown," and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" are all parabolic stories of self-discovery, of bewilderment only partly dispelled, of night journeys terminated but not completed. In each, a protagonist tries to understand what happens as he moves from perception to understanding; he is soon adrift on his memories, desires, and submerged feelings of guilt, carried toward horrifying vortices of self-knowledge. Moral confrontation is also self-betrayal. At once agent and observer, he confronts demonic figures in a dark place illuminated by infernal fires, a place symbolically equivalent to the depths of his own mind*. The central figure avoids acknowledging the horrors within, but he acknowledges that he harbors them. He ends no longer the self-confident individual who set off on a quest at the beginning of his tale (115-16).

[On theme and allegory in "Young Goodman Brown"]

"Young Goodman Brown" is the story of a literal journey into the forest, yet Hawthorne has so contrived the journey that it must also be read as a journey into the self, into the interior world of dreams (123).

At each stage of his progress through the forest, Goodman Brown's problem is one many readers have: he wants simple answers. But Hawthorne never gives simple answers. Brown's journey is real whether or not it was dreamed: it conveys the tormenting knowledge all men confront in dreams, knowledge that produces the fiends of the haunted mind. Whether he has dreamed or really participated in evil rites, Goodman Brown has confronted evil as one-though only one-inevitable fact of life. The burden of his midnight vision is that evil exists; but Brown's mistake is to confuse partial knowledge with absolute truth. His nightmare knowledge of evil in all men obliterates his ability to believe in human virtue (128).

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