Temptation can be a dangerous thing. Whether one has seen it on television, read about it in books, or experienced it in his or her own life, there is no denying its power and its omnipresence. What is it about temptation that makes it so dangerous? Does investing in one’s temptation signify that one has committed a sin and thus gone against human morality? The fascination with temptation and its relations have been explored in literature since ancient times, such as the instance of Eve giving into the temptation of the forbidden fruit in the Bible, and has continued on to more modern works. Two more recent works in which these ideas are further explored are the writings of two American romantics: Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe. Both of these works serve as an exploration of temptation by working to determine its root cause, examine its link to sin and morality, demonstrate possible ways in which it can be acted upon, and present potential consequences to giving into one’s temptation. Although the two works may go about evaluating the above in different manners, the works both strive to present temptation as an inherent and inevitable human evil; one that essentially leads to the downfall of the main characters from each of these two stories, thus crafting the link between giving in to one’s temptation and an individual’s downfall.
In Young Goodman Brown, the main character, Young Goodman Brown’s, temptation stems from an internally and self-produced curiosity to see beyond the apparent “goodness” of religious faith that he has been brought up to follow. The author demonstrates that, by giving into the temptation of curiosity, Young Goodman Brown is essentially leaving behind his faith (which, the reader will discover, includes both religious faith as well as faith in society as well) which can be seen in the representation of leaving behind his wife of the same name, Faith. As Young Goodman Brown enters the woods, he tells the old man that he is late because “Faith kept me back awhile” (387). Although Young Goodman Brown is clearly referring to the conversation with his wife Faith in which she expressed a wish for him not to go, he also appears to be referencing his own, internal struggle and faith making him “uncertain” and giving him “scruples” about continuing on his path towards the woods and therefore his temptation (388). During this “walk” with temptation, Young Goodman Brown continues trying to reason with himself and resist by reminding himself that he has come from a “race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs” as well as asking himself how he could possibly “meet the eye of that good old man, our minister” if he were to continue down this path (388-9). This type of reasoning suggests that all that had held Young Goodman Brown back from temptation before was his apparent religious faith. Yet, it also seems to imply that Young Goodman Brown was more concerned with contradicting the “appearance” of his religious faith than contradicting his actual faith, something exemplified as his biggest concern appears to be what the townspeople, minister, and Faith would think of him. This then begs the question of whether or not Young Goodman Brown was avoiding temptation for his own sake, or merely for the sake and for the “show” of others as it is simply expected that one not give in to his or her temptations. However, Young Goodman Brown is succumbing to two types of temptation in this instance. The first is the temptation to conform to the religious faith for matters of comfort and acceptance by others, which Young Goodman Brown has clearly done. Young Goodman Brown’s second temptation, which is working against the first, is the temptation to break away from this conformity and see what lies beyond it. This then addresses the idea of morality. Namely, is it immoral to make dealings with temptation? As temptation essentially becomes the devil in this story, that seems to be the case. Upon entering the woods, it is clear by the old man’s urgings and insistence, as well as Young Goodman Brown’s attempts to resist following him, that the old man with whom he meets represents Young Goodman Brown’s temptation.
The old man then not only becomes a representation of Young Goodman Brown’s temptation, but also of the devil. This representation is quite clearly labeled in the story as the two characters encounter the normally pious old lady in the woods who cries “the devil!” upon seeing the old man. The old man, or temptation, then responds that the old lady must “know…her old friend,” thus uniting the old man, temptation, and the devil as one. This representation, and idea that giving into temptation is a sin, is further strengthened with the obvious parallels between this story and the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit. Young Goodman Brown clearly represents Eve as the two both work towards and try to resist their temptations; namely, continuing on into the forest with the old man or trying the forbidden fruit. Therefore, the old man and the forbidden fruit are both seen as representations of temptation. Furthermore, as both Eve and Young Goodman Brown follow their path to temptation, they also begin their paths to their eventual downfalls. Therefore, Young Goodman Brown’s decision to come into the woods has become Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit. As Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit is generally considered to be sinful, Young Goodman Brown’s decision to continue in the woods can be seen as such as well.
With these obvious parallels and comparisons, it could be said that yes, within this story giving into temptation (or, in other words, the devil) is seen as a sin. Despite this knowledge, as Young Goodman Brown clearly seems to believe that what he is doing is not right, he continues to follow temptation and even begins to address him as his “fellow-traveler,” as their fates become ever more intertwined (388). This then implies the idea of the inevitability of man to succumb to temptation and the difficulty of resisting once the path has begun. This idea is further strengthened when Young Goodman Brown finds himself “maddened with despair” and rushes through the forest “with the instinct that guides mortal men to evil” (392). At this point in the story, Young Goodman Brown also proclaims that “my Faith is gone!,” and that “there is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world is given” (392). As Young Goodman Brown states that that he has lost his Faith (which stands both for his physical wife as well as his mental, abstract religious faith), he demonstrates that he has been overtaken by this internal “instinct” towards temptation and the devil. The statement that there is no good left on Earth then implies that this is an inevitable fate for everyone. Or, at the very least, that everyone has the capabilities to make it such. However, by stating that sin is “but a name” complicates the discussion above about the link between morality, sin, and temptation. Claiming that sin is “but a name” suggests that the concept of sin is human-created and therefore in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, the story seems to encourage the reader to finish the story with the following questions in mind: if the definition of sin is subjective, why bother to avoid it in the first place? Does one merely avoid it to appease others, as Young Goodman Brown has done to appease others in his faith? Furthermore, if this downfall is inevitable, does it make it a sin and therefore against morality to give into temptation and begin one’s path towards it anyways?
A similar discussion and exploration of these types of ideas also takes place in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, as the narrator also seems to begin on the inevitable path towards temptation which leads him to his ultimate downfall. Strangely enough, according to the narrator this descent was “nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects,” which instantly implies that his descent and giving into temptation was simply to be expected as the narrator had no control over his actions or their consequences. The narrator’s lack of control, or sensation of lack of control, can be seen with his first “crime,” in which he claims to be possessed by an otherworldly “fury of demon” which seems to leave him incapable of not acting on his urge to harm Pluto. However, this demon was not created purely from the narrator’s interior as Young Goodman Brown’s was, but was created with the exterior help of alcohol. Although alcohol obviously has a large effect on the narrator’s actions, the narrator still seems to advocate that he was being directed by an interior pull which he called the “primitive impulses of the human heart” (696). Just as in Young Goodman Brown, this again suggests that the capacity for giving into temptation and committing evil is inside each individual.
Although the narrator seems to have acted upon an irrepressible impulse, he still appears to be struggling between wanting to feel remorse and actually feeling remorse. Although he appears upset after committing the first crime, he in a way seems to enjoy it and seems to be capable of committing a similar crime by hanging the second cat, once again claiming to be acting upon an “unfathomable longing of the soul” and “because [he] knew [he] was committing a sin” (697). Similar to Young Goodman Brown, this then begins to question the relationship between sin and temptation as well as imply each individual’s capability and desire to commit wrong. By hanging the second cat, it is clear that the narrator was giving in to his internal temptations. Does this make the hanging of the cat the sin (as the narrator above states) or does it suggest that temptation on its own is the sin? Furthermore, does the narrator truly believe that he has actually committed a sin, particularly as he has done no more than follow through with what he considers to be a normal, unavoidable human impulse? As the story is told from a first person perspective, it can be hard to determine the validity of the narrator’s remorse, and therefore the answer to these questions. However, it becomes clear that even if he is not experiencing remorse, he is, at the very least subconsciously, experiencing some sort of mental block that does not allow him to stay untouched and unbothered by these crimes. This can be seen when a white splotch in the shape of a gallows appears on the new cat (which, presumably the narrator was merely imagining) and as he begins to take his anger and moodiness out on his wife, claiming that “the feeble remnant of good within me succumbed” and that “evil thoughts became my sole intimates” (699). Despite these feelings, they are not enough to stop him from killing the second cat or his wife showing that, in the end, the narrator’s temptation and inherent “evil” overruled any sort of remorse or sense of morality that he might have had.
In comparing these two works, at the most basic of analyses, one can see that the two follow a similar plot line: the main character begins giving in to their temptations, yet appears to have something holding him back from doing this which, in the end, is not strong enough to hold the character back from his ultimate downfall. However, it is more complicated than just the plot. While both authors seem to be arguing that human temptation stems from some sort of internal desire (although, in the case of The Black Cat’s narrator, this desire seems to be further exacerbated by the external effect of alcohol), what these desires are seem to vary. In Young Goodman Brown, the main character’s desire seems to be more a matter of curiosity than anything else, whereas the narrator of The Black Cat does not commit these crimes for curiosity, but rather for the sake of “committing a sin,” which he seems incapable of not acting upon (697). However, the fact that both characters act on these “desires” suggests that all humans are lured by temptation and that it is simply an irrepressible and inherent trait that will be fueled by an inner impulse. Although both characters are fueled by this inner impulse, they act upon them in different ways. In the case of Young Goodman Brown, it appears he has thought quite extensively about his desire to follow through with temptation, as he takes the time to try to argue himself out of it and at several instances briefly succeeds as he stops in the forest and refuses to continue, before once again giving into temptation. On the other hand, the narrator of The Black Cat seems to be suffering from split-second temptations, ones that appear seemingly out of nowhere that he simply can’t refuse. However, the two characters are once again similar as while lending themselves towards their temptations, they both experience some sort of mental deterrent that discourages them from continuing. For Young Goodman Brown, it was a matter of losing his religious faith (which was a symbol of comfort to him) and a fear of what others would think. For The Black Cat narrator, it was also a fear that withheld him from killing the second cat, as he describes his “absolute dread of the beast” and the “terror and horror with which the animal inspired [him]” (699). However, the deterrents of neither character were strong enough to overcome the lure of temptation in the end.
Overall, within Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe, it is clear that temptation played a dangerous role. According to the two works, it is the fact that an individual’s temptation stems unavoidably from the interior of human nature that makes it so dangerous. Ultimately, although the two characters reacted to and tried to avoid their temptations differently, in the end their temptations overruled this and led them to their downfall. Obviously, not all actual occasions of individuals giving into their temptations end so dramatically and tragically, yet the two stories offer a valid warning that applies as much today as it did in the time of the Bible: don’t let your temptations get the best of you.
Hawthorn, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Ed. Julia Reidhead. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 386-395.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Julia
Reidhead. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 695-701. Print.