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Halloween gives us a good excuse to scare up some literary wickedness to treat our classes. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” work well as paired readings, allowing students to examine literary evil as it unfolds under evening stars and morning sun.
One element your students can explore through writing or discussion is setting. Both stories are set in small villages, but from there, the differences are quite literally night and day. Hawthorne’s dark, tangled forest provides a perfect setting for Goodman Brown’s “evil purpose” of attending a witch-meeting. The dark facilitates illusion, and Hawthorne never allows the reader the comfort of certainty. The snakelike staff carried by Goodman Brown’s fellow traveler seems to “twist and wriggle,” but Hawthorne casts doubt, writing that the movement must be “an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Similarly, a natural depression in a rock holds a substance that might be “water, reddened by the lurid light . . . blood . . . or, perchance, a liquid flame.” Jackson’s story, on the other hand, takes place at 10:00 a.m. in the town square. What could possibly happen in broad daylight with all 300-some villagers present, chatting and hoping to “get home for noon dinner”? Even the rocks with which the villagers eventually stone Tessie Hutchinson are first presented in the guise of innocent play, as three of the village boys build “a great pile of stones” and protect them “against the raids of other boys.”
Going a bit deeper, students might be asked to discuss or write about how and whether the characters perceive the evil that exists in each story. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the title character feels guilty about his overnight journey away from his wife Faith and about straying from his religious faith. However, he never recognizes his most profound mistake: losing his faith in humanity. Hawthorne suggests that the witch-meeting may have been a “wild dream,” but of course it makes no difference. Dream or no, Goodman Brown is doomed to misery because he can no longer see the good in anyone. In “The Lottery,” the characters are completely blind to their own wrongdoing as they draw lots and stone Tessie Hutchinson without a qualm, even urging her to “’[b]e a good sport.’” It’s tradition; they do it every year. How could it be wrong?
These bitter stories can be made sweeter with treats that provide a playful reflection of elements in each story. Candy corn recalls the saying “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” from Jackson’s story, and gummy worms stand in for the staff that resembles a “living serpent” in Hawthorne’s story. You might also re-enact the drawing in “The Lottery” by making a “lottery box” (any small box will do) and putting in exactly as many folded slips of paper as you have students, with a black spot on one of the papers.
I did this recently with my first-year composition students, using only “The Lottery” because it was readily available in The Brief Bedford Reader. As I passed around the box of folded papers for students to draw, an undercurrent of tension flowed through the laughter in the room as students made joking comments such as “It’s been nice knowing y’all” and “Prepare to die.” When the winner revealed herself, I told her that because of her, the class would have corn. I then handed her a bag filled with individually wrapped packets of candy corn and asked her to pass them out to her classmates. As the students enjoyed candy, we watched a short adaptation of “The Lottery.”
Films are a good addition to this assignment, whether you link them online or show them in class. I found two short films on YouTube, each less than 10 minutes long. “The Lottery,” is reasonably faithful to Jackson’s story. “Young Goodman Brown” departs from Hawthorne’s story with a modern setting (and nudity that you will want to preview), but is faithful to the original tale in the protagonist’s reaction to woodland depravity that may never have happened.
Halloween is the perfect time for tales of terror, and the implications of these two stories are particularly terrifying. Hawthorne’s story suggests that even a “good man” can become blind to the goodness in humanity, while Jackson’s implies that people who participate in atrocities against others are not monsters but ordinary people--people just like us. Those thoughts are scarier than a graveyard at midnight, more horrifying than a host of brain-eating zombies, and ideal for discussion in a literature class as October draws toward its close.
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