Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nathaniel Hawthorne: American Magic Realism in Young Goodman Brown

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Although magic realism has been seen by many critics and scholars to be a product of Eastern European and Latin American writers, the genre has been practiced in the United State by writers of different generations.

If one thinks of magic realism as a literary genre that mingles fantastic or dreamlike elements with realism, that places fabulous stories in a normal, quotidian contemporary world, then writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, John Cheever, Toni Morrison and William Kennedy qualify for inclusion in the magic realism genre.

Let’s taken Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” to illustrate my point. The story opens with a description of a man about to be hung from Owl Creek Bridge. At that deadly instant time seems to distort and slow down, with the man’s consciousness considering a miraculous escape by swimming in the river below him. In a flashback —the hero— Peyton Farquhar (an Alabama planter) longs to aid the Confederate army and is captured. Then his death by hanging is a foregone conclusion. But the rope snaps and Farquhar falls into the river below, manages to remove the noose, evading the soldiers' bullets. Out of the river Farquhar disappears into the forest, arriving back at his house. As he is about to embrace his wife, readers learn that Farquhar is in fact dead in the noose hanging below Owl Creek Bridge, having hallucinated the whole escape episode.
Who can dispute that Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek isn’t a hallucinatory story that contains all the serious elements of magic realism?

Drawing on native fables, folk tales, fairy tales, and puritan myths, American writers, as we shall see, have a body of work that display hallucinating trickery, dream sequences, and often plain distortion and bending of what we accept as the real natural world.

Given the abundance of material this article will deal with one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's works only: “Young Goodman Brown.”

Rather than novels Nathaniel Hawthorne cultivated 'romances' —which allow the writer a quicker suspension of disbelief and more latitude than novels — that border on fantasies and dreams, one can say that romances such as The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables do contain elements of magic realism. In particular, I like the closing scene of The House of The Seven Gables in which Uncle Venner "seemed to hear a strain of music and fancied that Alice Pyncheon ... had given one farewell touch of a spirit's joy upon her harpsichord as she floated heavenward from the House of the Seven Gables." This scene is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fabulous scene in which Remedios the Beauty —a character in One Hundred Years of Solitude— ascends to heaven in the midst of flapping sheets.

But it is in Hawthorne's short stories where we find magic realism in full display; or as critic R. P. Blackmur put it, these stories are the "daydreams which edge toward nightmare." I want to focus on his short story "Young Goodman Brown" to highlight the features of magic realism.

In this short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” much like Dante, "had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through ... " In this dense dark forest Brown meets a traveler who happens to be the devil himself, yet the stranger bears a strong family resemblance such as that of father and son. If this scene isn't terrifying in itself, at least is sinister enough to foreshadow what is to come. Delirious, bewildered, and right in the midst of a hellish nightmare brought to reality by the tangible proof of his wife's ribbons, Young Goodman Brown watches the full liturgy of a black mass:

"There is my wife, Faith." As he spoke, he pointed his staff at a female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary dame, who had taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin."

And the entire town he sees there in that wicked witches worship—of the devil! After delighting readers with such hallucinating scenes, Hawthorne's narrator asks: "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?"

In an ironic twist, when Young Goodman Brown dies, the entire community —all the participants of the black mass— follow him through town in a long procession as he is "borne to his grave." Was this a second black mass?

While many critics consider this story a horror story —much like Stephen King’s novels— there is more to it, for all the elements of magic realism —including props such as a staff that resembles a snake, ribbons that materialize, clothing, the shape-changing devil, and an animated forest— mentioned above are all present.

Read "Young Goodman Brown" in contemporary American English: available in KINDLE $1.99 - Or
NOOK Barnes&Noble $1.99. If you don't own either KINDLE or NOOK at this time you may download "Young Goodman Brown" into your computer for only $0.99. Use the Paypal button below:

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