Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A Puritan Looks at "Young Goodman Brown" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

How's that for a title?  Thought it might get some hits.  However, this post is dead serious.  Last night I taught, for the first time, this fascinating "tale," which might be called an allegory. I taught it in conjunction with "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor.  Both must be read in light of the Christian world view or metanarrative, that of perfect creation, fall, redemption through Christ, and an eventual return to a perfect creation.  As I told my students, different churches interpret that sequence differently but all hold to the same basic sequence. 

But of course, they are very different stories. "Young Goodman Brown" is set in the Puritan landscape and more specifically in Salem.  This is not just any New England town in the 17th century, but the site of the hysteria and hypocrisy of the witch trials, a time engrained into American consciousness especially through The Crucible and the McCarthy times.  (These are, of course, Hollywood's version of the events, the media's interpretations.  They would portray the witch trials as the single most unjust time in American history, but I could think of a lot more.   Uh, let's start with slavery.)  The point here is not the facts, but the mythology of the witch trials.  Hawthorne was writing 150 years later, but he adopts the language and the religion of the time.  Hawthorne was in post-Puritan New England and drew from the rich Puritan heritage, but he was also post-faith. 

Some might say, "What rich Puritan heritage?" but from an intellectual and spiritual and political viewpoint, it is rich.  Read deTocqueville, for one--he attributes America of 1830 to New England.  Read The Valley of Vision and Jonathan Edwards.  I have often referred to myself as a 20th century Puritan, and here's why:  the Puritans were not as boring as we think they were.  We have them confused with the Victorians.  Yes, they did persecute those who dissented from their teachings, like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, and that is unforgivable from a modern viewpoint.  They were doing to others what had been done to them.  The only defense I can give is that their lives were hard, as were most people's then, and conformity was seen as a way to protect the community.  On the other side, they started Harvard; they were big drinkers; when Jonathan Edwards married, his wife wore green velvet (neat idea).  Puritans were aware of sin, but that doesn’t mean they were the dour people we think they were.  Life was hard for everyone back then, so let’s not conflate how hard their lives were with their doctrines.  They prized education and started many of our institutions and are responsible for much of our governmental ideas.

The Puritans were extremely conscious not just of sin as an abstract concept but also of personal sin.  They journalled about their spiritual struggles; those journals were burned at their death (we have Edwards' because of the circumstances of his death).  If I am extremely aware of my own struggles against sin, I am eventually going to be so about others, which leads to judgmentalism.  In YGB, the sense of sin as in us (inner sin nature) and all around us, tempting us, is portrayed in a dreamtype scenario.  

 YGB is on a pilgrimage.  He leaves his wife at sunset with a "present evil purpose" of meeting a character who bears resemblance both to his father and grandfather and to Satan (Satan takes on other appearances, especially of light, in Scripture).  This Satanic figure carries a staff that belonged to the Egyptian Magi (sorcerers) in Exodus.  The story is laden with Christian symbolism, and in a sense, as the story progresses deeper into the wilderness, the desert of the forest, the symbolism is turned on its head.  A black cloud of voices goes over his head, moving toward the "communion" of Satanic worship (some call this a witches' coven, but I'll stick with Satanic worship in this analysis).  The cloud parallels that of Hebrew 12, "so great a cloud of witnesses" or maybe the cloud of God's presence in the Old Testament.  The new converts will be baptized there (albeit in the good Presbyterian way, not the Baptist way--that would have been more dramatic but not in line with the Puritans' worship practices) in some substance that is either blood or liquid fire.  The "congregants" sing a hymn with the same tune Brown knows but different, blasphemous words.  Fire is the dominant symbol here, the fire of destruction and judgment and hell, although fire can also be symbolic of purification and "the bush that is not consumed."

 Ah, is it a dream?  Hawthorne says, "Be it so if the reader wishes."  I will not approach it as such, although it could be.  I don't like "And then I woke up" stories, and I think Hawthorne is above that.  Of course, we all have dreams and wake up thinking, "where did that come from?"  The images of the dreams can be so disturbing and violent that they linger with us and we wonder what is going on in our subconscious that we would dream that.  On the other hand, we probably forget most of our dreams anyway, so we probably dream many disturbing things that we don't remember.  Brown's dream is so awful that it sets him on a road to even greater despair.

Having met Satan in the forest, "his present evil purpose," and seeing an old woman who had taught him his catechism traveling on the road to the Satanic meeting, Brown decides not to go further with Satan and sits down.  In paragraph 41 he applauds himself for resisting.  One or two hypocrites he can deal with; he is self-righteous here, at this point not seeing his own sin.  And I think that is the core issue of the story:  is Brown so disturbed by his own sin, his own weakness toward the pull of Satan, or only by the great "exceeding sinfulness of sin" that is revealed to him in everyone else, even his pure and innocent wife?  

After applauding himself, however, the cloud moves over head and the pink ribbons of his wife's bonnet fall before him.  Even she is susceptible.  He flies by foot to the "coven" or "communion" and one wonders to what extent we depend on Hawthorne for these images.  It is a KKK meeting without the racism.  Four trees burn (not sure on that symbol).  The new converts are called forward.  At the end of his experience he calls to Faith to resist, and the "dream" is over.  He has put her above himself; her salvation is more important to him than even his own.  This could be because of the role of women in salvation (is woman the temptress [Eve] or the deliverer/means of delivery [Mary].   If Faith gives in, what hope would there be for Brown?  Or is this symbolic of Christ dying for the church, the masculine giving himself for the feminine?  Before the crucifixion, Christ is portrayed as agonizing over bearing the burden of the world's sin.  Again, the scriptural and theological symbols abound, but I think we should be careful to construct a consistent reading of the symbols. 

When I saw the movie Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, I recognized the story as "Young Goodman Brown".  The parallels are startling, although the temptations in EWS are all sexual (the movie is almost pornographic) whereas that is only a part of the temptations in YGB, which is more realistic.  Why are we fixated on sexual temptations in this age?  Why does purity only means sexual purity to most people?  Perhaps we see how powerful sexual temptations are, but they are not all of sin.

Brown has seen the depth of sin, and even worse; he has seen the depth of hypocrisy.  It might be that hypocrisy, hiding one's sin, is much worse than just sinning.  Luther said to "sin boldly," meaning, of course, not to be hypocritical and namby-pamby about it.  If you are going to be a sinner, be honest about it.  Everything in the story is exaggerated and juxtaposed and therefore dreamlike.  It's unlikely the whole town would be blatant hypocrites and no one would be truly faithful, but the corporate sin of Salem is being called into question also.  

Brown is never the same.  Like Adam and Eve, he has fallen--he has come to know good and evil, he is like God but this is knowledge he should not have.  He is in despair and fear the rest of his life.  He never recovers.  

Hawthorne does not write of grace, but let grace not be a silky covering to make us unaware of sin, blind to it.  Where sin abounded, grace abounded more.  And thus we come to O'Connor.  I will post below my class notes on her story; they are more in the line of questions. I do suggest that these be taught together; they both are about "a good man" theologically, and they draw the distinction between the 20th century Christian realism of a Roman Catholic (living in a Protestant world) and a post-Puritan.

Flannery O’Connor is one writer where you have to take her as a whole body of work, not just one story. Grace and redemption, because we are totally depraved.  She was Roman Catholic living in the South.  Said that the Catholics put their crazy people in monasteries and convents but the Protestants let their crazy people loose.  She did not think that good people went to heaven or were redeemed—only those who accepted grace, and only bad people could do that.  Her stories are “Southern Gothic” in that respect and seem very weird and violent.  Much like Faulkner’s but with Christ in the background, which didn’t apply to Faulkner at all.

O'Connor saw all of her fiction, certainly including this story, as realistic, demandingly unsentimental, but ultimately hopeful. Her inspiration as a writer came from a deeply felt faith in Roman Catholicism, which she claimed informed all of her stories. She wrote, "The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism" (source: The Habit of Being, p. 90). A recurrent theme throughout her writings was the action of divine grace in the horribly imperfect, often revolting, generally funny world of human beings, a theme very much present in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." This story affords perhaps the best place to start in exploring the work of this rather eccentric, certainly unique literary voice.  (not original with me)

O’Connor’s story title:  A good man is hard to find—Roman 3:  Also, the rich young ruler said to Christ, “Good teacher” and Jesus response was “There is none good, but God.”  So she is presenting a radically different world view in the 20th century.  Goodness does not come from background or behavior or reputation, but transformative grace.

Do you think O’Connor likes her characters?  Are they round or flat?  Dynamic or static?  Are they foils for the writer’s overall purpose?  Is the Misfit more sympathetic than the grandma?  Are we supposed to find the characters funny, or responsible for their outcomes?  What does the grandmother do that makes her unflattering?

Where does she describe the characters unflatteringly?
Why are the children so smartmouthed?  Is this a realistic portrayal of a famly? 
O’Connor made a big point of observing, but does she observe everything?  Does she only observe the trivial and smallness in the people?  The grandmother is so foolish, and so selfish, not wanting the children to be saved.
The trees were full of silver white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.  What is the meaning of mean?

The phrase “I know you are a good man” comes up from the grandmother, who is deluded about sin and evil, twice.  P. 37 and to the misfit 88, 90, 98.  Why would she say this? 

What is good?  What is evil?  Is transformation possible? 

How important is the setting of the south, even Ga, to this story? 

The misfit repeats a theological argument from Lewis.  However, he excuses his lack of faith.  He does not accept his own responsibility for evil he does, therefore he can’t accept grace.

Before he is going to kill her, she reaches out to touch him, to show him grace.  Or is she hallucinating?  Does the misfit accept grace?  How does he end?  If she has been transformed, an epiphany, it won’t matter because she’s about to die.

Is this a dark comedy, like Fargo?  Comedy in the traditional sense means things come out well.  And nothing does here.  Cynical?

Is the story effective?  Why or why not?  Do you believe you would understand the story without the background about her?


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