The title characters of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Nathanial Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’ share common traits — those of arrogance, righteousness and a belief that they could raise themselves to the level of the gods. Both sought to define the wicked, though only Oedipus truly succeeded because he determined to discover the truth even if it meant his own destruction while Goodman Brown, through fear or stupid, smug piety never confirmed or denied whether his one defining event — that wild witch meeting in the woods — was reality or merely a dream.
Though their motives differ, both acted based on what they thought they knew. Goodman Brown, sure in his judgements of the moral character of others and acting on morbid curiosity or perhaps a desire to affirm his beliefs about the nature of mankind, tested himself against the devil — and lost. Oedipus, sure in his ability to solve any riddle and see truth clearly, hoping first to save his parents from his own evildoing and later to save his country from death, tried to circumvent divine will as predicted by Apollo’s oracle — and failed. Both were righteous and rash in their quest to quash evil. Each thought he, alone, could hunt out and defeat wrongdoing on his own terms.
Each perceived himself to be the epitome of goodness: Oedipus because of his superior reasoning ability and his compassion towards family and country; Brown simply because of his affiliations to those pious and good such as his wife, the minister and the Deacon. Oedipus believed he could change the laws of nature as foretold by the oracle and thus escape evildoing. Goodman Brown believed he can dabble in evildoings with little long term effect. After all he has the love of a ‘blessed angel on earth,’ his aptly named wife, Faith, to return home to. Additionally, he is descended from ‘a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs,’ and has kept company with ‘pious and exemplary’ folk such as Goody Cloyse ‘who had taught him catechism in his youth and was still his moral and spiritual advisor, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin.’ In reality, Brown is a fence-sitter. He perceives himself as a perfect judge of others: Are
they pious or ungodly? Do they meet at the communion table or riot in the taverns? Perhaps it is the absolutist need of his to label others to one extreme or another that put his own soul in such a precarious position when he discovered (or dreamt) that these same folk he thought were saintly Christians were all in attendance at a witch-meeting. While the reader is not told the specific purpose of Brown’s evil errand, we know that ‘Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose’ vowing that ‘after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.’
Oedipus, despite his arrogance, could certainly still be considered a hero. He, at least was successful in rooting out the evil that would have wreaked the fall of Thebes, and while he did not save himself or his parents from their destiny, he at least took responsibility for his actions and admitted that he had lived blind to the rumors of his birth, blind to the faithfulness of his brother-in-law Creote, and blind to the will of the gods. Oedipus’ dogged search for the truth remained even though it meant his own destruction and banishment from his kingdom.
Goodman Brown, on the other hand, ended his search too soon. At the onset, he is sure he knows the true moral character of his townfolk, his wife and his ancestors; and in fact is quick to draw the line between sinners and saints; but after one devilish night which he is not sure is real, he becomes ‘a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not desperate man,’ who doubts all that he knew and all around him.
In the end each was left miserable and alone. Oedipus lost his wife to suicide, his family to shame and was banished from Thebes at his own request. Oedipus was guilty, but his real sin was not in killing his father or marrying his mother, it was his presumption that he could change fate. And in the end, he realized his wrongs and took responsibility for them. Brown, while he stayed with his wife until death and never left his small community is separated from them by his own distrust of their moral make-up. This distrust was born not from proof but from his own doubts about the nature of mankind and his own quickness to judge others. Better he had judged himself with as much scrutiny as Oedipus had.