Article Summary: Levy, Leo B., "The Problem of Faith in `Young Goodman Brown'”, Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 75(3) July 1975: 375-87.
In "The Problem of Faith in `Young Goodman Brown'” (Journal of English and Germanic Philology, July, 1975), Leo Levy finds that the story is ambiguous about whether the protagonist is dreaming, mentally disturbed or undergoing a crisis of faith (Faith) because all three elements are present in the story. Although the most important event in the story is the witch’s Sabbath in the forest, Hawthorne never makes it clear if this was a real or imaginary experience, although Goodman Brown most certainly believes it really happened. It changes his life and personality completely in that it makes him suspicious of everyone in Salem Village, including his wife Faith. Since it is real for him, Hawthorne indicates that it does not matter if it was only a dream or hallucination. His faith, trust and innocence, perhaps symbolized by the pink ribbons on his wife’s cap, are lost forever and he cannot recover them. Even if it was a nightmare, it became the most important part of Brown’s concrete, daily reality.
After summarizing the story in five paragraphs, Levy goes on to explain that Brown never knows if Faith was truly able to resist evil, and implies that he will never know for certain. According to Levy’s Freudian viewpoint, the desire to act on evil impulses resides in the id, while conscience and morality are in the superego, which are in conflict for control of his ego or conscious personality. This is the part of Brown that finally cries out to be saved, causing the witch’s Sabbath to vanish, so the story is really about “the defeat of the id by the ego and the superego” (Levy 378) This leaves him gloomy, withdrawn and depressed afterwards because he has repressed in instincts and impulses.
Levy regards this as only a partially correct interpretation of the story, however, since religion and theology are really the central themes for Hawthorne. Viewed from this perspective, Brown is depressed because he realizes that everyone in the world is sinful and depraved after all, just as John Calvin and the Puritans always claimed. He understood this only superficially before he spent the night in the woods, but has now come to understand it on a very profound level. This is also how Henry James explains the story, even though he regards it as basically irrational. Perhaps no one can be saved at all, since even Faith may have made a secret agreement with the Devil, just as Brown fears. He sees other members of the Salem Village church who he thought were above suspicion are actually part of Satan’s congregation, including at least two who are later executed for witchcraft.
Levy points out how many critics disagree about whether Faith is even a real character at all or just a symbol and allegory of Calvinist religious beliefs. Perhaps she is both, but in Brown’s mind he can also call out to her in an effort to save himself from damnation. Yet Brown is unsure of her, even until the day he dies, and can only know that he was able to resist the Devil at the last minute. Faith gives the appearance of being an angel, but perhaps this is simply part of the whole grand deception of Satan. Nor is there any agreement about whether her pink ribbons symbolize purity and innocence or sinfulness and sensuality. According to Levy, Hawthorne seems to be saying that “that faith is a self-consistent principle, however unreliable and unpredictable” (Levy 382). Yet for Brown, when he sees the ribbons floating in the forest, his own faith is destroyed forever, as if it has abandoned him. In purely religious terms, then, Young Goodman Brown is left totally alone at the end of the story, unable to find his faith again, and this is how he will go to his grave.
Levy, Leo B., "The Problem of Faith in `Young Goodman Brown'”, Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 75(3) July 1975: 375-87.