Puritans, the Devil, and American Literature

August 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

“The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne are both short stories that illustrate Puritan ideas about the place of evil in human nature. Both short stories revolve around a central character and his personal struggle with the “Devil.” Tom Walker conspires with the Devil for monetary gain, while Goodman Brown’s interaction with the Devil causes him to question his faith. The authors utilize the literary device of allegory to depict Puritan ideas of good and evil, as evidenced by Tom Walker and Goodman Brown, and the complementary characters of Faith and Tom Walker’s Wife.

“The Devil and Tom Walker” and “Young Goodman Brown” both use a central character to illustrate a secondary meaning. Tom Walker is used to illustrate the Puritan ideal of evil, human greed. He is described to us as a miserly, unkempt, and brash old man—traits that give him a specific and realistic personality. However, as the narrative develops, one is able to understand the abstract meaning that Tom Walker’s character represents. In the story, Tom Walker sells himself to the Devil in order to obtain monetary wealth: “You are the usurer for my money!” said the black legs, with delight. “When will you want the rhino?” This very night.” “Done!” said the devil. “Done!” said Tom Walker. —So they shook hands, and struck a bargain” (Irving, 10). Tom Walker’s pact with the Devil represents humanity’s natural greed—the desire for more.

In much the same fashion as Tom Walker, Goodman Brown is used as an allegory to illustrate a secondary meaning. Goodman Brown embodies a Puritan ideal of evil by representing man himself; Hawthorne’s protagonist is introduced as a young religious man, but this image quickly fades once Goodman Brown is revealed to be meeting with the Devil. Goodman Brown attempts to keep his faith as he ventures deeper and deeper into the forest with the Devil by his side, “having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples, touching the matter thou wot’st of” (Hawthorne, 2). Ultimately, he succumbs to the evil he has witnessed within his own acquaintances: “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come devil! for to thee is this world given” (Hawthorne, 5). Goodman Brown represents man himself—he attempts to follow his own path through life, but cannot avoid the evils the world has to offer.

Tom Walker and Goodman Brown illustrate human greed and humanity, respectively. However, Faith is used to illustrate a Puritan ideal of goodness: faith in humanity. Although Faith is a fairly flat character, she plays an instrumental role in the development of the story and its themes. When Goodman Brown ventures into the woods to meet with the Devil, he is hesitant to follow the Devil any farther due to his love of Faith, “Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven! Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?” (Hawthorne, 4). Faith represents Goodman Brown’s faith in humanity, and is all that is keeping him from going farther with the Devil. Likewise, “Faith” is what causes Goodman Brown to later follow the Devil to the ceremony. After he hears his Faith “uttering lamentations”, Goodman Brown loses not only Faith, but his faith in humanity as well. Faith represents a personal bond to humanity, and is used by Hawthorne to illustrate Puritan ideals of good and evil.

Faith is seemingly the polar opposite of Tom Walker’s wife. In spite of this, Tom Walker’s wife is used by Irving to illustrate a Puritan ideal of evil, a human greed that is in many ways compatible with her mate’s. Much like her husband, she is described as a miserly woman: “He had a wife as miserly as himself; they were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each other” (Irving, 1). Her greed is evident, moreover, in her specific actions: “…she urged her husband to comply with the black man’s terms and secure what would make them wealthy for life…At length she determined to drive the bargain on her own account, and if she succeeded, to keep all the gain to herself” (Irving, 6). She initially wants her husband to form a pact with the Devil for her own monetary gain, but after her husband refuses, she intends to do so herself for uniquely selfish purposes. Tom Walker’s wife represents the inner greed in humans, and is a depiction of Puritan ideals of good and evil.

In creating characters who are at once individualized and symbolic, Hawthorne and Irving use allegory to depict Puritan ideas of good and evil, as evidenced by Tom Walker and Goodman Brown, and Faith and Tom Walker’s Wife. Both stories, through such devices, allude to common human characteristics such as faith and greed. As in The Crucible, characters are seen questioning their faith and falling victim to their own inert greed. In this later work of American literature, Abigail Williams’ greed is evident accuses Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft out of desire to have John Proctor all to herself. Thomas Putnam’s greed is seen when he is accused of telling his daughter to accuse villagers of witchcraft in order to purchase their auctioned land. Reverend Hale and John Proctor begin to waver in their faith after all the accusations of witchcraft in Salem, almost as Goodman Brown wavers in his faith. In each narrative, distinct and somewhat realistic characters are used to represent Puritan ideals of good and evil.

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