Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachussetts. He died in Plymouth New Hampshire. One of his ancestors was John Hathorne who was the only judge in the witch trials who never repented his involvement.

His ancestors who came from England in 1630 were Puritans. It is thought that Hathorne added the -w- to his name to make it Hawthorne in his twenties in order to distance himself from these fervent ancestors.

He published his first work in 1828 when he was twenty-four. He published a series of short stories.

He was a Transcendentalist, a Romantic philosophy which believes in the goodness of human nature and a reliance on intuition and other promptings of the spiritual or natural person rather than relying on reason.

Despite his puritan ancestors, Hawthorne liked to take pot shots at puritanism. He is a Romantic and technically what is known as a dark Romantic.

He is most famous for his novel The Scarlet Letter which was published in 1859. Also famous is the House of the Seven Gables. His books often feature themes of sin and the inherent evil of humanity.

Young Goodman Brown

Unless I’ve missed it, we are not told what is special about this night that Goodman Brown is going out to have his tryst with the Devil. His wife, Faith, wants him to be there with her on this night ‘of all nights in the year’, but he has to go out on this night of all nights in the year.  He is clearly expecting to meet the Devil and has some business with him, but it’s not clear to me what that business is.

It turns out that all the people he thought pious, including his father and grandfather as well as various deacons and goodies and goodmen of the town and state are wicked to the core.

But what was his own mission exactly? I’m not clear. He clearly needs to do his dirty deed on this particular night and afterwards

He discusses meeting the Devil and then a man appears who has the look of his grandfather, it transpires. This man was in Boston only fifteen minutes previously and that seems pretty fast travel for the Seventeenth Century. The Devil says that Brown is late, and Brown answers that, ‘Faith kept me back a while.’ Ah, yes indeed. Faith has two meanings here, I think.

We hear from Good Cloyse that a young man is to be taken into communion with the witches that night, and we hear from Deacon Gookin that a young woman is to be inducted. We realise that this is Faith of course as Hawthorne intends us to, but of which poor Goodman Brown is ignorant. This is called Dramatic Irony according to Robert McKee, where the audience knows more than the character.

However, the story is well done. We are led step by step as our Goodman falls deeper into temptation and then, the scales are removed from his eyes and the Devil tells him that evil is the basic currency of human nature. He believes it and henceforth mistrusts the virtue of his own dear wife and his own pastor.

This is foreshadowed by Hawthorne at the outset of the journey when, after Faith has failed to convince him to stay home, she hopes that he finds all well on his return, to which he replies: ‘Amen’.  But when he returns has changed all due to his change in attitude, because as Hamlet says,

‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Goodman Brown is a lukewarm Satanist at the best. He begins by telling Old Nick that he has scruples in the matter that ‘thou wots’t of’. (You know of. English used to have two verbs for to know, like French and German an Welsh and Irish and other languages I know. One was ‘to wit’ which was to know a thing, and the other ‘to ken’ which is to be familiar with or know a person or place. German keeps the same two words. Ich weiss, and Ich kenn. There you go.


Puritan Salem is a favourite topic for writers from the movie The Witch, where the simple puritans are discombobulated by Black Phillip in the woods, to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

I guess it is all that repressed evil that must come out somewhere that is the interest.

I also was interested in the picture of a countryside that was filled with heathen darkness that was a real threat to the colonial settlers, and a landscape still full of Native Americans living with their full culture still flourishing.

Deals With The Devil

I recently did a version of one of my own stories, The Bewcastle Fairies with sound effects which has a similar theme.  I also did John Buchan’s A Journey of Little Profit which is also about a man tempted by the Devil’s bargains.

So, I’m quite fond of these. Usually, in the folk stories, like the various versions of the Devil’s Bridge story, the Devil is outwitted. In more artful stories, like Goethe’s Faust or Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus the Devil is a bit smarter, and even quite amiable.

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Music by The Heartwood Institute

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