In both, Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” the protagonists, Young Goodman Brown and the narrator experience a journey into the subconscious. Both stories have an overlap that blurs the boundaries of reality and fantasy. It is truly the supernatural aspects of these two stories that force the protagonists and the reader to delve into the realm of the subconscious and to scrutinize good versus evil and real versus imaginary.
Both stories have a setting of gloom and foreboding that alludes to where the stories are heading. In Young Goodman Brown, his wife Faith pleads with him to postpone the journey until sunrise. She speaks of dreams and Young Goodman Brown wonders if she has been warned in a dream about his journey that night. Hawthorne uses this dream to preface the story and the reader infers that his journey is sinister in nature. Unlike Hawthorne’s story, Poe’s tale has no such preface. It starts with the journey already underway. Hawthorne’s tale consists mostly of the journey and the nightmarish happenings along the way.
Poe’s tale has the gloomy journey taking the narrator to the house of his childhood friend in an attempt to help his friend gain back his health. It is not until once he has reached his destination that his experiences are supernatural in appearance. In “Young Goodman Brown” it is the journey into the woods that leads Brown into a supernatural experience. It makes Brown fearful of what could be hiding behind any of the trees. He even exclaims, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow” (606). It is exactly at this moment that he comes upon the man he has set out to meet.
This man remarks how he came from Boston to Salem in fifteen minutes and according to the footnote this signifies supernatural powers as one would not be able to travel that distance so quickly. It is also commented that the man resembles Brown greatly. This could be because the theory of the time was that the devil could take the shape of anyone, or could mean that Brown was truly dreaming and this is how his subconscious pictures the devil. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the story starts with the narrator saying that he is overcome with a feeling of gloom upon first seeing the house.
He compares the windows to vacant eyes. The narrator goes on to tell how the house appears to him but then tries to explain it away as his overactive imagination. Both stories tell of supernatural occurances. Hawthorne’s story has many examples of the supernatural. One of the examples, the serpent staff the traveler has seems to come alive however, he reasons it away as the way the light or lack thereof making it appear alive. Another example is Hawthorne’s use of Salem, Massachusetts which was infamous for the Salem witch trials.
Hawthorne also uses Goody Cloyse’s recipe of all plants associated with witchcraft and her talking of her missing broomstick that she accuses Goody Cory of stealing to suggest witchcraft. In reality, Sarah Cloyse was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials and Martha Cory was hanged for witchcraft. When the traveler took a maple branch to serve as a walking cane, the twigs seemed to wither at his touch. All of these, Hawthorne uses to weave a tale seemingly of supernatural happenings while also suggesting it is actually Goodman Brown’s subconscious creating the whole event.
When Brown reaches the clearing he sees a rock that resembles a pulpit with vines all over it on fire. He sees a congregation of people, many of whom he knows from town. They were singing hymns of sin and evil after which flames shoot up from the rock. All of this serves to heighten the suspense of the story and give the tale a fevered pitch that he uses to evoke a nightmarish imagery. The mass of foliage, that had overgrown the summit of the rock, was all on fire, blazing high into the night, and fitfully illuminating the whole field. (611) And with the final peal of that dreadful anthem, there ame a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice of guilty man, in homage to the prince of all.
The four blazing pines threw up a loftier flame, and obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke-wreaths, above the impious assembly. (612) The next morning Brown awakens in the forest and goes back to town. Everything and everyone seem to be back to normal. Brown wonders if it could have all been a dream. If Brown truly did fall asleep in the woods and dream the tale, then what was the true reason for his trip?
It is never explained, which would then imply to the reader that Hawthorne intended for the readers to lean toward the supernatural explanation. The end result in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is that regardless of the reality, Brown is forever changed into a dark, distrustful person. Poe, like Hawthorne, has many examples of the supernatural throughout the story. One example is described when the narrator sees the house and it appears that a gloomy atmosphere hangs only around the house. Another example happens after a freak storm during the narrator’s reading of “Mad Trist” to Usher.
He is reading this to Usher to help to calm him from the storm. However, with every noise described in the story, Usher and the narrator hear the same noise in reality. Usher goes from little grip on reality to no grip and draws his friend into his hallucinations. Usher tells his friend that he knows he buried his sister alive but has done nothing to rectify this. Usher seems more on the fringe of madness and quickly descends further into the depths of it. Also, at the end of the tale, when Usher dies the house crumbles, is swallowed up by the land and the tarn.
Usher’s friend narrowly escapes and wants nothing more than to distance himself from all that transpired. Poe uses very descriptive wording to take the reader on the path with the narrator into the subconscious. It starts with the telling of the conditions of the day of the journey. Then continues with the description of the house and of his visit with Usher. During his visit they read books on heaven and hell, a voyage to the land of death and back, a book on a demon coming to earth to prove that women damn men to hell, and a book with recorded procedures for torturing heretics.
This all serves to set the stage. “Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror…” (698) . Poe creates an allusion of a downward spiral into insanity. The reader, too, feels as though they are being drawn into a psychotic nether world . Feelings that are caused by the way that Poe writes. The reader feels the mounting horror fear, and suspense along with the narrator until finally the narrator’s worst fears are realized. The suspense builds with the storm and the reading of “Mad Trist” which concludes with Usher stating, “Madman!
I tell you that she now stands at the door! ” (701) Usher was speaking of his “dead” sister that he had just explained to his friend that they entombed her while she was still alive. In the end, neither Brown nor the narrator in Poe’s tale seem able to tell fact from fiction. Both tales deal with the subconscious and leave both men and the reader wondering how much was real and how much of it was products of their imagination. It is through the supernatural qualities in each story that the writer evokes the conclusions from the reader.
The reader is then left to decide what has actually occurred and what is just imagination or dreams. But the reader also realizes that it no longer matters if what the protagonists experienced was real or not, their lives were irreparably changed nonetheless.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th ed.
- Nina Baym. New York & London: Norton. 605-614 Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Fall of the House of Usher. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th ed.