Tradition in Two New England Stories and in Today
Both “A ” by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne are tales of distinct New England traditions. While “A New England Nun” portrays the marrying customs of , “Young Goodman Brown” depicts the spiritual customs of Puritan New England. But such is not to say that every Puritan was going to midnight meetings with the Devil — the tale is an allegorical representation of every man’s dual nature; nor is Freeman suggesting anything more than that Louisa Ellis prefers her life the way she has grown accustomed to having it — nice and pretty and free of dirt. Though Goodman Brown and Louisa Ellis are both affected by the traditions of their New England surroundings, both are able to transcend them: Louisa Ellis through the happy chance hearing of her fiance’s love for another, and Goodman Brown through the spiritual insight gained after a night of temptation. As Freeman and Hawthorne show, customs are always shaping individuals, but sometimes individuals buck the trends of tradition, which can even be seen today.
Louisa Ellis is a woman who has been engaged for fifteen years to someone she has not had to see for fourteen of those years. As a girl she was in love — or assumed she was — but the affection she felt gradually waned as it had no object to be placed upon. Her years of solitude have given her a quiet, self-interested disposition. But because it is the custom of her time to keep one’s word, even if given in girlhood, she is ready to be married to someone she does not love as she once did. It is even uncertain whether he loves her as he once did. But her fiance is as determined as she to keep his word. Fortunately, Fate reveals to Louisa Ellis that her fiance would be more happily married to another girl, which allows Louisa Ellis to break off the engagement and resume her life of solitary simplicity, which Freeman equates to the life of a Catholic nun in a cloister. The reference is atypical, since New England was largely Protestant: but then Louisa’s habits are also viewed as atypical, such as using china every day. Thus, her remaining alone is seen as something alien to the traditions of the time — but not exactly in a negative way.
Goodman Brown is also a man who will become a kind of outsider to his surroundings. Happily married and virtuous, Goodman Brown is tempted to meet the Devil one night. Though he is begged by his wife Faith to stay the night with her, Goodman Brown resists her entreaties. To his surprise, however, not only does his wife Faith show up in the woods to sojourn with the Devil, but nearly everyone from town does too — right down to the minister! Before his wife’s meeting with the Devil can be consummated, Goodman Brown cries out to heaven for protection, and the Devil is dispelled. But Goodman Brown is left to return home with a dark and wary look in his eye, as for the first time he has realized that not everyone who goes by the name Goodman is necessarily good and free from evil and its temptations. The Puritan notions he has been taught are now tainted in his eyes, as every man seems to have a spiritual defect within him, no matter how good or just his outward appearance may seem.
Today’s customs and traditions affect all of us just as they affected Louisa Ellis and Goodman Brown. The only difference is that the customs are different. The traditions of my time do not tell me much about religion, nor do they assert certain standards regarding marriage. In fact, the customs of my time seem to be exactly the opposite: marriage is optional — and even if taken it is not binding according to many. Religion, though important to some, seems to lack the hold it used to have over just as many. For me, the customs of my time are simple: they tell me to go to school, get a job, buy a car, get a place of my own, and enjoy life. But I have always been a bit too serious minded to be happy with such a simplistic, materialistic view. Like Goodman Brown, I have my moments when I wander into the darkness of the woods and come out wondering why all my neighbors are there too. Like Louisa Ellis I sometimes think I would be perfectly content to mind my own business being not asocial but somewhat unsocialYet, to a certain extent, I accept the customs of my age. I go to school. I get the job. I buy the carStill, if something extraordinary were to come along — something unexpected that would divert me from the well-trodden path of modern tradition, I don’t think I would hesitate to take it. In fact, I do keep my eyes open for just such an occasion.
In conclusion, Goodman Brown and Louisa Ellis offer two examples of who, though they do not dramatically buck the trends of their traditions, do offer the idea that one need not follow them so rigidly — for, after all, some customs are not made for everyone. And I myself may just be one for whom the traditions are not — but I suppose we shall see!