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Doe 1 Jane Doe Professor Martin English 1302 TS2 12 November 2004 Every Prose Has Its Forms A story needs to be more than just a series of events, for even the most exciting sequence possible means little without a purpose. On the other hand, the story needs to be subtle in delivering the author’s message; otherwise, it is only an essay. As an example, consider “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This story is quite obviously an allegory, bursting as it is with symbolism of the darkness within the hearts of ordinary people. It would be very different, however, if Hawthorne had stated in the first sentence, “Humanity is evil and unredeemable.” Instead of a contemplation of the struggle of one man to hold on to the goodness within himself, it would come across as moralizing diatribe. So to present the central theme in a manner more appropriate to literature than oration, the author uses elements of imagery and style, and skillfully assembles the shell of illusion with the utensils of literary technique. Still, such a presentation is not restricted to fables and fantasy, and nor do all symbols need to be so obvious. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” comes from a different genre, and at first glance would not appear to have any message at all. If not for the fact that the main character dies, readers might be persuaded into believing the story to be a retelling of actual events. However, on closer inspection it is evident that this adventure holds within it the author’s message, couched in techniques similar to those of “Young Goodman Brown.” Although differing in style and symbolism, these two stories in fact deliver very similar messages about the powerlessness Doe 2 of mankind, and the authors use similar literary techniques to present their messages in a manner more entertaining to readers than would be possible otherwise. Indeed, it is that aforementioned difference in style that immediately catches the reader’s attention when contrasting these two works. “To Build a Fire” seems easily categorized in the genre of naturalism; “[t]he assumption of Naturalism… is that man is primarily a biological living being in a natural world of objects and forces… this is precisely what the protagonist is in London’s story” (May 22). Quite the opposite, “Young Goodman Brown” is a story dealing wholly in supernatural forces. The presence of the devil as the antagonist sets the story far away from naturalism. “The generic names in Hawthorne’s tale and the biblically allusive nature of the temptations Goodman is subjected to seem sufficient proof of Hawthorne’s allegorical intent” (Paulits 578). Allegories are noticed and defined primarily because of the blatant presence of the symbolism in the story; naturalist tales are so noted for their apparent lack of said symbols. In fact, it is possible to argue against the symbolic interpretation of “To Build a Fire.” For Jack London, and consequently the reader, the man in the story is simply a living body and the cold is simply a physical fact. To insist that the story is a symbolic dramatization adumbrated in a symbolic polarity between fire as life and cold as death is to run the risk of saying that the symbolic protagonist’s symbolic failure to build the symbolic fire results in his symbolic death (May 22). While this dissention seems to be constructed through the logical fallacy of a slippery slope argument, it is still somewhat valid to consider that a naturalist story usually only contains symbolism in the general way that all literature does. However, Naturalism as a category is even symbolic in and of itself, as it is defined as the conflict of the biological being of man against the Doe 3 pitiless forces of natures and so the characters and events in any naturalist writing become symbols for the struggle that defines the genre. It is within the primary interpretations of these symbols, both in the fantasy of “Young Goodman Brown” and the plain nature of “To Build a Fire,” that we find the difference in thematic intention of the two authors. Where Hawthorne seeks to demonstrate that man’s weakness comes from the internal struggle with evil, London presents the differing viewpoint that the frailty of humankind if primarily toward external forces, and that no amount of inner strength can persevere over this opponent. Moreover, Hawthorne’s antagonist gives up the fight when Brown abandons his ambivalent indecision and finally sets himself firmly on a path, whereas London’s foe “is entropic, reducing the man to the purely physical by depriving him initially of a will, then of desires, and at last of life itself” (Mitchell 80). As much as these messages differ, they still do share a common element. Both stories emphasize the need for belief in oneself. This emphasis is plainly evident in “Young Goodman Brown” as Hawthorne even goes so far as to ironically name the protagonist’s wife Faith. All of Brown’s references to her and his attempts to draw strength from her place in his life show the author’s stress on the importance of faith in the struggle against the darkness inside. “Clearly the climax of Brown’s religious ordeal is a vision of sin in his wife Faith. Reflection suggests that mistrust of Faith is also the origin of that ordeal” (Robinson 221). And when he finally abandons his faith, “[t]he paradox results that an act of virtue – repelling temptation – throws him into as inhuman a state as his yielding would have done” (Paulits 582). The symbols of belief are two-fold in “To Build a Fire.” There is first the calm self- assurance that the man displays throughout the beginning of the story. Even when he gets extremely cold, he still faces no doubts. But the story turns when his confidence fails him. Only Doe 4 after his fire is put out by his own foolishness does he first begin to believe that “[p]erhaps the old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right. If he would only have had a trail-mate he would be in no danger now” (London 169). Readers can also see the idea of faith echoed in the dog; truly, the dog never doubts or questions the ability of the man to provide fire. Even in the end, after the man died, the dog did not give up hope; instead, it moved its belief on to new humans, and continued to survive. So in considering these two symbols can readers see an interesting contrast presented by the author, that the one who doubts fails, but the one who never stops believing continues on. Symbolic faith is not the only representation present in both stories. Perhaps oddly, there is also a strong usage in both texts of water symbolism. It is no surprise that water, ice, and snow are found in the frozen setting of London’s story; indeed, the territory makes these elements almost commonplace. And yet still, the water is more than just scenery there, as the moments of greatest tension come when the characters come in contact with it. Water brings not only frozen feet and fur, but also it demolishes the fire and serves as a perpetual nuisance as it constantly crystallizes in the man’s facial hair. Water is also used by Hawthorne to symbolize an antagonistic force. One criticism by Joan Easterly focuses entirely on the water symbols, and even more specifically the tear-related symbols, throughout “Young Goodman Brown.” Easterly writes, “Hawthorne deliberately and ingenuously uses the image of dewdrops, suggestive of an uncomfortable, chilling dampness from the earth (rather than, for example, raindrops, which are associated with cleansing, warmth, and heaven), to reprove Goodman Brown.” Another similarity shared by these two stories, and indeed by all good works of literature, lies in the application of writing techniques such as alliteration and assonance, and in the selection of words for very specific and meaningful connotations. “Young Goodman Brown” Doe 5 often displays such practices in the monologues delivered by the devil, stressing the sins of citizens with alliterative structures like “how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words” (Hawthorne 1354) and in words chosen specifically for the dark meanings they carry, such as in “brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures” (Hawthorne 1352). Both of the word choices of “brandishing” and “frenzied” could have easily been replaced with synonyms, but by choosing these words in this combination the author impresses the reader with a feeling that Brown has become dangerously unhinged. London also uses these techniques abundantly, and it is particularly evident in his closing paragraph. “Just as alliteration echoes a series of ‘l’s, ‘c’s, ‘b’s, and ‘t’s through to the final clause’s ‘f-p’s, so syntax compounds that phonic stutter by trusting almost exclusively to the copulative – seven times in five relatively short sentences” (Mitchell 77). As for word choices, London seems to take stance of avoiding any synonymies for the simple words “cold” and “flame” and instead reuses and repeats them, presumably to accent the very basic and primal nature of these elements. “’Cold’ appears in the first half of this short story more than 25 times” (Mitchell 77) and “[t]he very invocation of flame five times in seven sentences ensures not the prospect of fiery success, but rather ephemeral hope” (Mitchell 81). By not choosing synonyms for these two concepts, and indeed in using the most basic terms that lack any strong connotations, London begins to personify “cold” and “flame” in the text, turning those words from simple nouns into names for elements of the story; whenever he refers to the “cold” of the “flame,” it seems as if he is referring to a personification of those items. On the surface, it would be difficult to imagine two stories so different as “Young Goodman Brown” and “To Build a Fire.” Imagine them as movies in your favorite video store, and you would expect to find the latter in the “Drama” section, and the former filed in “Fantasy.” And yet, despite these surface differences, it is evident that they have a great deal in common. Doe 6 Both carry within them a message of the frailty of humanity, and both present their respective messages with such talent and artistry, and sometimes subtlety, that they do credit to the talents of their creators. In comparing these two works, an obvious conclusion can be drawn – That an author is not limited in how the message is carried to just one form; there are many tools available. A great author places the message in all aspects of the story. In fact, it is through the utilization of these writing techniques that one author can distance himself from the pack of the merely mediocre. Both Hawthorne and London demonstrate to their readers that in order to build a truly outstanding story, it is important not only to have purpose and meaning, but also the talent to make it intriguing and imaginative. Just as an incredible painting comes down to the artistry of each individual brushstroke, so also the power of a story’s message come down to its reflection in every detail. Doe 7 Works Cited Easterly, Joan Elizabeth. “Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” Studies in Short Fiction 28.3 (summer 1991): 339-43. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <http://search.epnet.com/>. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Ed. John Schlib and John Clifford. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 1346-56. London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” 20 Great American Short Stories. Cheboksary, Russia: IPK Chuvashiya, 2003. 158-77. May, Charles E. “’To Build a Fire’: Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics.” Studies in Short Fiction 15.1 (winter 1978): 19-24. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <http://search.epnet.com/>. Mitchell, Lee Clark. “’Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London’s ‘To Build a Fire’.” Journal of Modern Literature 13.1 (March 1986): 77-97. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <http://search.epnet.com/>. Paulits, Walter J. “Ambivalence in ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” American Literature 41.4 (January 1970): 577-84. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <http://search.epnet.com/>. Robinson, E. Arthur. “The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation.” American Literature 35.2 (May 1963): 218-25. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <http://search.epnet.com/>.
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