Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”

Tell Tale Heart

The Narrator

The narrator of the story is the protagonist as well as the antagonist himself. We are not given any information regarding his name or social life. He lives with an old man whom he loves. However, there is an indication in the story that he is a lonely person. This is evident from the point where he says that he is able to understand the feelings of the old man alone in the night because he himself has been through such thoughts and feelings.

The narrator’s character is ironic. An online article (n.d.) on the topic states that he appears to have a weird personality with serious psychological problems. He has a sharp sense of hearing. However, due to guilt, he is unable to distinguish between the real sounds and the imagined sounds. Even more disturbing is the fact that the loud shrieks of the old man did not disturb him. On the contrary, he was disturbed by the imagined sound of the old man’s heart to such an extent that he accepted his guilt. Due to his guilt, he is unable to distinguish between appearance and reality. At first, he is fooled by the sound of the heartbeat, and later he believes that the police are aware of the crime and are pretending to be cool just to enjoy the situation. For that matter, he calls them “villains” which actually highlights his own weakness. The moment he thought of the murder the plan got stuck with his day and night.

The narrator is actually a poor judge of his own character. He is unable to accept the fact that he is mentally ill. He defends himself by defining his madness as heightened sensory capacity. He says and I quote him directly:

“TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story (Poe, 1843)”.

He rather believes that his acute sense of hearing is proof of his sanity and not symptoms of madness. With this belief, he narrates the whole episode of murder along with its reasons without doubting his own sanity. Unfortunately, he is unable to betray his madness and spells out the whole plan before the police.

The above mentioned online article (n.d.) states that the protagonist in fact is a good example of Sigmund Freud’s theory of mind which indicates a mental condition in which a person is likely to harm the person he loves the most. The narrator loves the old man. He has absolutely no genuine reason to murder him. He is not after his money nor needs to take revenge for something. It is his “vulture eye” that is unbearable to him. The very sight of the eye made his “blood ran cold.” He becomes so much obsessed with the idea of separating the “Evil eye” from the body that he decides to kill the old man. His madness makes him believe that the eye is a burden on the old man. He felt a compulsion to rid the man from the eye to relieve his burden. He is unable to see that the eye is an important part of the old man’s body. After the murder, he begins to imagine the other parts of the body working against him. For that reason, he begins to hear the heartbeat of the old man in his mind. The heartbeat gets louder and louder and becomes unbearable “strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror (Poe, 1843)” which eventually forces him to accept his crime.

His sick mind is evident from the fact that he did not kill the old man in his sleep but rather waited for the time his evil eye would open. For seven nights he went into the old man’s room but came back because the eye was closed. On the eighth night, he was able to accomplish his task because the light fell on his eye and he couldn’t stop himself. Not only did he kill the old man but also dismembered him and hid the parts under the wooden planks in the room. His insanity is further evident from the point where he describes the whole situation of seven nights where it took him an hour to put his head inside the room and another hour to open the lantern just to throw a ray of light upon the old man. As he says “A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine (Poe, 1843).”

His overconfidence in himself led to his fall as he made the policemen sit at the place under which he had buried the body. Also every morning he would go to the old man and enquire about his night very confidently and enjoyed the situation. He was also very confident about the plan and was actually pleased with the way it had been carried out. He “chucked” at his plan and made fun of the ignorance of the old man. After murdering the old man he hid the body under the wooden planks and felt very confident as he himself narrates:

“I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye –not even his –could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out –no stain of any kind –no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all –ha! ha! (Poe, 1843)”

With the same confidence, he made the policemen search the house as he says “I smiled, –for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome (Poe, 1843)”. His overconfidence led to his fall.

The last paragraph of the story in fact confirms the insanity of the narrator. He hears the voice of the old man’s heart in his mind and is unable to control the situation. He begins to believe that the noise is also heard by the cops which made him more restless and nervous. He wanted the cops to go but since the guilt was in his mind he kept on hearing the sound louder and louder. The narrator’s character is credible and we can relate him to psychopaths who commit crimes for unexplained reasons.

Young Goodman Brown

Goodman Brown

Goodman Brown is a simple person from Salem. He believes in the goodness of the world around him. He is the protagonist of the story since the whole story is about his trip to the forest, his encounter with different people and finally a change in his views about the world around him. Goodman Brown is Hawthorn’s tool to identify the conflict between determinism and free will. Brown believes that he and people around him have control over their natural impulses. He goes for a journey to understand the nature of the control over his self. In an online article (2006) Leslie P. Walker states that “Brown’s journey into the heathen wilderness is in reality a journey into his own body, into his own nature”. This is evident from the words uttered by Brown in the beginning of the story as he says “what if the devil himself should be at my very elbow.” Here we can see that the first part of the story shows his determination to control his animal instincts. The later half of the story shows a negative development in his character as his faith is shattered. Brown gets to meet different characters of his community which symbolically suggest the different stages of his soul’s erosion. Critics such as Finelli and Miller (2006) state in the above mentioned article that Goodman is a weak person and “Brown’s loss of faith in Goody Cloyse is symbolic of the weakening of his resolve to stand firm against the devil.” As he went deep into the forest he felt “faint and overburden with the heavy sickness of his heart (Hawthorne, 1835).” He is beginning to experience reality as he sees so many supposedly good people in the forest. At the same time he is unable to understand that he too is becoming one with the creatures of the forests as he shouts “Ha!Ha!Ha!…let us hear which will laugh loudest…hear comes Goodman Brown (Hawthorne, 1835).” Brown appears as an innocent fool who is not aware of the reality and for that matter he is not able to comprehend the nature of his fellow traveler and keeps on calling him his friend. He says:

“My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept (Hawthorne, 1835).”

The negative development in Brown’s character becomes obvious in the climax scene when he sees his wife in the forest. His flesh conquers his soul and he shouts “my faith is gone… there is no good on earth; and sin is but a name (Hawthorne, 1835).”Brown’s fall symbolically reminds us of Adam’s fall who is unable to resist the temptations. Brown’s plagued body becomes evident as he hears the “frightful sounds” which are actually the sounds from within his soul. Goodman Brown is a round character as we se a total change in his character from the beginning to the end of the story.

Faith Brown

Faith is Brown’s wife. An Online article titled “Young Goodman Brown- A Character Analysis of the Female Characters (n.d)” states that apparently she is a typical Puritan wife who is obedient and is concerned about her husband. She is a typical 1800s woman who has been described as sweet, angelic and pretty. She showed her reluctance over her husband’s decision to visit the forest and says “Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year (Hawthorne, 1835)”. Probably she uttered these words out of her love for her husband or probably she was aware of the actual happenings in the forest. We are introduced to her through Brown as he calls her “My Love and my Faith.” She wears pink ribbon on her cap which symbolizes her feminine self, her innocence and sexuality at the same time.

Reading between the lines “Faith” symbolizes Brown’s religious faith in goodness. As he talks about his wife he also talks about his faith in God. Literally he leaves his wife behind to visit the forest but symbolically he is leaving behind his religious faith. Faith also represents the force of goodness in the world. Brown told the old man that he was late because “Faith kept me back a while”. Brown viewed Faith as his guide to morality. Brown decides to follow his wife to heaven by holding her skirts once the journey is completed. When Brown found out that Faith was also corrupt he loses all hope and shouts “My faith is gone (Hawthorne, 1835)”. Saying so he runs towards the witches. Faith exposes Brown to the reality of the world as he says:

“With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” cried Goodman Brown.”Friend,” said he, stubbornly, “my mind is made up. 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, 1835).”

The article “Flawed Characters of Young Goodman Brown, Rappaccini’s Daughter, and The Birthmark” (n.d.) many critics are of the view that Faith has a flawed character. She cannot control herself and submits herself to the Devil. Her husband’s call “Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one” falls flat on her. It is also believed that through Faith Hawthorn has criticized the Puritan morality. Through Faith he has highlighted the hypocrisy among Puritans as apparently Faith is innocent but in reality she submits herself to evil. Faith’s character is credible and she has successfully conveyed the different intention of the author to the readers.

The Traveler

Critics have given different interpretations regarding the nature of the “Fellow Traveler”. Some believe that it was Brown’s father and many believe that it was the devil himself. Upon close reading of the story one can say that the traveler was the devil himself. The writer gives us few indications with adjectives such as “devilish Indians” or the “the devil himself” etc. The traveler was decently dressed up and was fifty years old. He resembled Brown and knew him which gives us an indication that he could be Brown’s dead father. However his staff that looks like a serpent raises our brows and reminds us of the devil. He is a social figure who knows almost everyone. The basic purpose of this traveler is to expose Brown to the reality of the life around him. He introduces different influential people which skillfully indicate that everyone is a part of the evil in the world. Hawthorne introduces the traveler to criticize the apparently pure Puritans and their hypocrisy.

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