Close Reading American Literature

The Inner Conflict of the Religious Mind


Dear Reader,

Forgive me in advance for the utter vomit of words and panicked thoughts that you shall be forced to endure. Tread lightly for I am running on a mere four hours of sleep.

Now that you have been warned, I wanted to start this off by talking about what I am interested in and the general direction that I hope to take for my essay as I do not yet have a clear distinct plan and the at the end I will paste what I have of the introduction for the essay.

Reading Emily Dickinson’s poem got me really excited about very dark and depressing things (because why not right? Not like this year hasn’t been depressing enough). She has this air of mystery and darkness permeating from her and I don’t think it’s just the fact that all of her photos are in black and white. After learning about her life,I think that she may have genuinely suffered from a form of depression yet her poems reflect this desperate clinging to faith despite her intense fascination with death. It’s similar to Anne Bradstreet and how she uses her faith as a way to salvation from the pain and suffering that was her life. This pain and suffering created a conflict within her that is evident by the polar opposites of the flesh (the physical torture) and the spirit (her faith) in her poem by the same name. This conflict is also paralleled in many of Dickinson’s poems as she attempts to reconcile faith with the inevitability of death.

In “Emily Dickinson on Death” Ruth Flanders McNaughton describes the conflict within Dickinson: “Death and faith waged a constant battle in Emily Dickinson’s mind. Sometimes her faith overcame the tyrant death, but many times it wavered. Once she wrote of “Faith, the Experiment of our Lord!” At another time she witnessed death defeated: There’s triumph in the room When that old imperator, Death, By faith is overcome.” (McNaughton, Jstor). I believe that this inner conflict could also connect to Young Goodman Brown. His journey into the woods could be seen as a religious one, in which he finds his faith tested. Faith (his wife) begs him to stay with her but he resolves that he must go and go alone, as we all must live and experience our lives on our own, no one can do so for us. While I think the hangup around “Young Goodman Brown” tends to be over whether the entire ordeal was a dream or not, I think it’s far more interesting to analyze how the journey could be a symbol of faith being tested by reality or life in general. He has to leave Faith behind and the shelter that it provided him for he resolved that after this “one night” he would “cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven” (Hawthorne, 1). He has to leave that shelter however, and experience faith in its darkness as he sees the embodiment of true sin within the forest, led there by a mysterious guide who claimed to have led his previous ancestors on the same journey. I saw this as the eventual stage at which we become aware of true sin and evil within the world and the way in which he reacts after returning to the town is perhaps him trying desperately to reconcile what he saw with the faith he had held on to so unwaveringly the day before.

Furthermore, in the beginning of the story, Faith pleads for Young Goodman Brown to stay and “whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear” (Hawthorne, 1). This act of whispering into one’s ear is mirrored in John Milton’s Paradise Lost when Satan enters the Garden of Eden in the shape of a toad and whispers dark thoughts into the innocent ears of Eve thereby impregnating her with evil and sin. These thoughts then lead her astray until she eventually finds herself tempted by Satan  once again in the form of a serpent. This final temptation leads her to eating from the tree of knowledge, which God had forbidden her and Adam to do. While this act of defiance is largely used to paint women in a negative light and attribute evil and wickedness to the female sex (quite literally the very body of a female is equated with sin), Milton explores this idea further and reveals Eve as a person trapped in a system that was designed against her. Her very conception and the role she is given is assigned to her by male figures that give her no choice and therefore she seeks out a way to make her own choices and she does, although that choice was the wrong one in the eye of God and leads to her and her husband’s fall. Nonetheless, she as a person has her faith tested as she must for her to truly understand the meaning of the religion and her faith in it.


My introduction:

The Rise and Fall of Faith (This is such a basic title and I know that but I honestly don’t really know my argument yet so this will change)
The very nature of the modern Judaeo-Christian religions requires the believer to rely  solely on faith as they cannot experience their god through material senses. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, Goodman Brown relies on that faith heavily as he embarks on a journey that he must travel alone. What is revealed to him on this journey changes him and his outlook on life dramatically. There are critics that disagree about whether the journey actually happened or if it was just a dream. The answer to this, whatever it may be, is only secondary to the overall importance of the story. Goodman Brown nonetheless returns to his town a changed man. The journey that Goodman Brown experiences is a religious one that tests his faith, similar to that of Christ in the desert after his birth into the human world. Regardless of whether his experience was real, it was undeniably a religious one in which Goodman Brown’s faith wavers and he is shown a view of the world as he had never seen it before and it leaves him irrevocably changed.
I know I threw a lot at you, and if you are still reading at this point I applaud you fellow intellectual. My question to you now is how should I go about this essay in terms of which arguments should I use? Ideally, I  would love to discuss all four authors: Dickinson, Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Milton as they are all brilliant and plus I like the idea of an even amount of men and women because of the symmetry, but this is a short essay and I don’t feel it would be possible for me to adequately discuss all of them. So, please let me know which arguments seemed the strongest. Thank you in advance.
Photo Credit:
Jstor Article: MCNAUGHTON, RUTH FLANDERS. “Emily Dickinson on Death.” Prairie Schooner 23, no. 2 (1949): 203-14. (I used Chicago just for you professor!)

3 thoughts on “The Inner Conflict of the Religious Mind

  1. Wow-ee! You’re topic is so dark but in a rich, scrumptious way like eating a pomegranate–I love it! Emily Dickinson is great although she’s very confusing to me and I tend to like writing about lighter, fuzzier things. The different elements she manages to use to accomplish her total mission in each poem is laudable and you’re mention of Bradstreet’s “Flesh and the Spirit” is genius–good catch! I think all the sources you’re bringing in really fulfill the decadence of gothic literature which is quite impressive since we basically stood away from that time period in this class. “Young Goodman Brown” and “Paradise Lost are amazing choices but I would say be careful about what you decide to take on because everything you’re talking about could be your dissertation one day maybe. 🙂 I would say Bradstreet is a keeper because her writing is shorter and therefore you could pick it apart in a more thorough way than Paradise Lost, which is doozy, plus the authors have more in common. I would like to read this whenever you’re done with it! Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To echo what AmericanLit2 said, I think you have bitten off a little more than you can chew in 8-10 pages for this paper. I would pick just ONE author to write about in addition to Dickinson and limit yourself to TWO writers total for the paper. Dickinson is so tricky that she warrants a lot of close reading and analysis on her own. You might want to exchange drafts with Gwon since he is writing about Dickinson as well! In general, avoid speaking in broad, sweeping generalizations that lead to vague conclusions that aren’t ultimately earned.


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