Nathaniel Hawthornes unusual story, Young Goodman Brown, is a tale that can be analyzed through many different perspectives. The author uses mystery and bizarre scenarios that create gaps in the plot, leaving the reader asking questions about what the intent of Hawthornes style is. To answer these questions, many readers approach the story with a type of critical analysis, such as authorial intention, historical and biographical criticism, mythological and archetypal criticism, or reader response criticism. All may apply to this particular story, depending on the reader.
Authorial intent criticism is based on the idea that whatever meaning coming from the passage is none other than what the author intended it to be. This type of approach may be beneficial or may cause more confusion to some readers. If you were to know what the author intended a certain complicated passage to mean, it would be much easier to grasp the meaning of the entire text. There is one problem related to this approach, however. If the author is not present or has no notes explaining the intention of a passage, it is impossible to have questions answered.
This is the problem that I ran into while reading Hawthornes Young Goodman Brown. The plot to Hawthornes story is filled with mystery, leaving the reader questioning certain scenes and acts. For example, the biggest question that I had for Hawthorne was did he intend for Young Goodman Browns experience in the forest gathering to be a dream or a hallucination, or was it real? Some students question whether or not the dark traveler who was waiting for Brown was the Devil or was an alter ego for Brown himself. Unfortunately, these are both intent questions that cannot be answered.
Almost opposite in character is reader response criticism. This is an approach where the readers interpretation of the text is how it is supposed to be seen. How the reader responds to actions, conflicts, circumstances, and other gaps left within the story is what makes the plot form. With every different reader, and every different reading, a new plot is formed, and none of these readings are any more correct than the other. It is the methodology and transaction between the reader and the text interpretation that counts, and has nothing to do with the intent of the author.
With my questions unanswered about Hawthornes intent, I was forced to use reader response and provide my own interpretation. I personally believe that Brown was dreaming and that he lived his afterlife unhappy for foolish distrust in his own faith. A reader response critic would tell me that my interpretation was correct, but only for me. Any other reader would have to have his or her own reaction and own interpretation for it to be reader response. Some authors, like Hawthorne, write so that their intent is to provoke a reader response type of criticism.
Reader response and authorial intent approaches may compliment each other, but they are two different ways to read a story. Historical background and biographical criticism are almost identical, so they tend to be grouped together. This approach dissects a story by using information taken from the authors life, or information about the period in which the author lived. Critics believe that particular occurrences in the authors life have a great influence on the events an author writes about, characters that the author creates, or feelings that their characters experience.
An example of historical and biographical criticism from Young Goodman Brown would be both the Salem witch trials, and the questioning of religious beliefs going on around Hawthorne at the time in which he wrote this story. The story is based on Brown going on a “coming of age” journey, where he experiences a questioning in Faith (both literally and figuratively), and comes across a gathering of friends practicing witchcraft. A historical and biographical critic would say that the questioning of Faith and witchcraft are directly influenced by the contemporary concerns happening all around Hawthorne.
Mythological and archetypal criticism is used to explain common themes and symbols that come up in stories since the beginning of literature. This approach makes sense of different entities incorporated into the story, such as the color of an object or a characters appearance and purpose. Explanation of their meanings comes from past stories that force the reader to think a certain way about the object. An example of mythological and archetypal criticism in Young Goodman Brown is the serpentine staff that the unidentified traveler has.
Christianity has linked snakes to evil by identifying the devil as a snake in the story of the Garden of Eden. The snake tricks Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. The serpentine staff in Hawthornes story seems to be leading Brown into a path that goes against all of his morals. When he follows the serpentine staff into the forest, he comes out a different and hateful man. This could be interpreted that the snake is an archetype for evil. Mythological and archetypal criticism is similar to historical criticism in that it uses the past that the reader already knows to convey certain thoughts of meaning to a passage.
The Thames River could mean something totally different to a reader who has no knowledge of mythological archetypes about rivers, or no historical knowledge of events that happened on the river. With using the two approaches, the reader could both to say that the river stands for death and rebirth, and that the Thames was the river that sailors would sail down heading for a new land, leaving their old home behind. Authorial intent works with almost all of the other criticisms. It is the author who gets to decide which way to sway the reader through certain passages.
They can point the reader in a mythological and archetypal direction, they could use events in their own life to tell a personal experience, and they can even force the reader to struggle enough to use their own reader response criticism. The type of response that reader criticism gets is determined by their knowledge of all of the other approaches. If I read Young Goodman Brown and know about certain archetypes, I will be reading the story both archetypally and through reader response. It is easy to use reader response with another type of analysis together because it is the readers decision that is right.
Personally, I have a hard time using just reader response criticism because most of the time I read stories thinking that there is a right way and a wrong way to read it, when reader response would say that any way is the correct way. I enjoy using archetypes and historical background to decipher what the author is intending for a certain symbol. It makes me feel like I understand what they were thinking when they wrote the selected reading. Stories would be boring if authors did not include gaps for analysis, especially a story such as Hawthornes Young Goodman Brown.