Most criticism and reflection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown centers on a good versus evil theme. Critics also debate interpretations of the main character’s consciousness; is Brown awake or dreaming. What is certain is that he lives and dies in pain because his belief in his righteousness isolates him from his community. It is also certain that Hawthorne’s interpretation of Brown’s “mid-life crisis” has ambiguity and leaves a reader with many different feelings about what and why certain things have happened. Hawthorne’s use of symbolism in his allegorical tale Young Goodman Brown causes the main character’s revelations about the sin within his community, his family and himself.
Young Goodman Brown’s journey into the forest is best defined as a kind of “general, indeterminate allegory, representing man’s irrational drive to leave faith, home, and security temporarily behind, for whatever reason, and take a chance with one(more) errand onto the wilder shores of experience” (Martin). Brown has a curiosity that “kills” his naive outlook on life and changes him until his death. He has a mission to go into the forest and meet the devil. A mission that he begins out of curiosity and a “deep need to see if the teachings of his childhood, his religion, and his culture, have armed him sufficiently to look the devil in the face and return unscathed” (Hodara 1). The symbol of the forest, late at night, can be interpreted as the untamed regions of Brown’s heart where the devil roams freely as he roams in the forest. The forest is the devil’s domain. Brown finds, in the dark of the night, many of his daytime friends share this domain with the devil. What he considers moral and “good” in his life he finds in the forest. This torments his perception of practically everything.
A good man in Hawthorne’s day was a person of proper lineage. This very lineage Hawthorne capitalizes on as he begins the goodman’s conference with the devil. The Goodman claims that he is from a family of upright and moral men that have never and would never go into the forest on a trip such as the one he is participating. “Hawthorne depends upon this defense to criticize the patriarchal lineage upon which a person places his worth” (Segura). The devil disproves Brown’s theory by stating that all of Brown’s ancestors accompanied him and tortured women in Salem or burned to the ground Indian villages. Afterwards the devil and his ancestors would go for a friendly walk. With this, Hawthorne has mocked the institution of Young Goodman Brown’s lineage and his society’s view of honor by stating his family’s past. The question remains whom or what is the devil. If the devil points to the painful truth of the past and the reality of people in the present, is this the allegorical face of evil (Segura)? Perhaps Hawthorne playing upon the reader’s disposition to see the devil as evil and stand next to the “good man” and his fate?
Distraught, disappointed and confused, Brown leaves the company of the devil. He calls for faith and hope from the heavens. Faith is another important symbol that Hawthorne uses in the tale. Faith is Goodman Brown’s wife. “Faith, and Goodman Brown’s relation to it – or to ‘her’- is the key to the story’s meaning” (Jones). Critic Madison Jones also makes the statement that the you believe in order to understand. Without belief or faith it is difficult to understand the nature of sin. Jones says that it is as though faith is a kind of spectacle empowering the natural eye to understand what was invisible to him before; the bad in the community that Brown did not see before because he had faith. When he went into the forest he left his speculates in the village and was therefore able to “see” the things his naiveté and faith blinded him from before the trip. The trip is a departure from Faith- the wife and faith — the belief. When Brown meets the devil he apologizes for being late. He states, “Faith kept me back a while.” His faith tries to keep him from the evil he will see, but literally it is wife Faith. When Brown calls to heaven for his faith he sees Faith’s pink ribbons from her hair. He also hears screaming and possibly her voice. He screams in despair that he has lost his Faith. This is also the point where he gives up, begins to realize what life is like, and losses his faith in humanity.
Brown never recovers from the scenes of that dark night. He continues life with his loss of faith in himself, his wife (who was also seen in the forest), and his community. It is was the fall in perception from a unifies sense of reality to the awareness of separation and the realization of the necessity of healing that separation. Instead of making the effort of sympathy and love to unite himself with others, however, Brown turns from them forever; having lost the absolute, he can not live with ambiguity (MaGill). His second hand faith, given to him from his Puritan teachings, has not prepared him for the sin in the world (Hodara). He becomes a stern, judging, distrustful, dark man who never recovers his faith.
Bain, Carl E., Jermone Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter. The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York: Norton, 1995.
Blackmur, R.P. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Short Story Criticism. Vol 3. Detriot: Gale, 1989.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Great Short Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Ed. Fredrick C. Crews. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1992.
“Hawthorne, Nathaniel,” Microsoft (R) Encarta. Microsoft Corporation. Funk & Wagnall’s Corporation, 1994.
Hodara, Alan. “Some Thoughts On Young Goodman Brown.”
(26 Oct. 1996).
Jones, Madison. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Short Story Criticism. Vol 3. Detriot: Gale, 1989.
MaGill, Frank, ed. Critical Survery of Short Fiction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salam Press, 1981.
Martin, Terence. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Short Story Criticism. Vol 3. Detriot: Gale, 1989.
Mikosh, Bert A., “A View of Young Goodman Brown.” ygbmikosh.html> (11-9-96).
Segura, Gilberto. “The Allegorical Goodman Brown.”
Filed Under: Literature
One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most anthologized tales, “Young Goodman Brown” shares themes and techniques with much of his other work. Hawthorne’s probing of what might be called the psychology of sin (however secular are modern readings), expressed through his characteristic manipulations of symbolism, merge the tale with his other short stories, such as “The Birth-Mark” (1843) and “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance” (1850), as well as his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852. (Hawthorne’s short stories were written mostly before 1850, and his novels were written after that date.) Hawthorne’s ideas, moral vision, and artistry have established him as one of the nation’s greatest writers. The suggestive ambiguities in his fiction have made his work particularly amenable to treatment by the full range of modern critical perspectives.
The symbolic significance of places, times, names, and objects seems obvious in “Young Goodman Brown.” Salem is the dwelling place of family and community, religion and faith (“faith” the belief and “Faith” the woman). The name Goodman suggests “good man” (although it also had been an equivalent of “mister”). The surrounding wilderness is unknown, a place where one can easily wander from the straight and narrow path. In addition, the scenes in Salem occur during daylight, the scenes in the forest at night. In that dark forest, Brown discovers a prince of darkness (an apparent devil who looks like a man) who appears with his serpent cane as if he has been conjured into being by the word “devil.” Has Brown found in that darkness the light or the truth or an acceptable moral standard in that heathen wilderness? Does he remain a naive yet good man?
“Young Goodman Brown” is not, in fact, a simple religious parable about the undeniable evils of life. The statement that “evil is the nature of mankind,” after all, is spoken by the Devil (the prince of lies as well as the prince of darkness) in what may have been only Brown’s dream. “Young Goodman Brown” is a psychological tale about the impact of this partial truth upon a particularly susceptible mind. If this were not the case, Hawthorne need not have written the final page of the story nor have portrayed Brown in such a negative fashion. Should not the discoverer of truth be rewarded with a positive outcome? Hawthorne does not focus on universal evil or human hypocrisy. Rather, he criticizes Brown as an either/or thinker who never acknowledges the evil in himself. His own diabolical curiosity initially leads him to his appointment in the forest. The devil looks like Brown. After Brown exclaims “my Faith is gone!” he himself becomes “the chief horror of the scene.”
Initially, Brown seems aware that his mission is sinful, but eventually he perceives sin only in others. He becomes blind to goodness and avoids human contact. Like so many Hawthorne characters, he becomes a cold observer of life rather than a life-affirming participant. His sin is pride. As the story opens, he is innocent, young, and sheltered. He knows only good. When he sees Faith in the forest, however, he abruptly converts to a belief that only evil exists. Either attitude is simpleminded. He never envisions a complex life that is a mix of good and evil and which in any case must be lived.
What troubles Brown most in the nocturnal forest is “that the good shrank not from the wicked.” Even the pink of Faith’s ribbons is a mixture of white (purity) and red (associated with guilt and sin in the story). Brown’s propensity to think in terms of God or Satan, the flesh or the spirit, and good or evil has been described as typical of early Puritan New England. In this sense, Hawthorne has written a criticism of society like that of The Scarlet Letter.
Modern critics have interpreted “Young Goodman Brown” in many ways. The story as a critique of society stands out to some. To psychologically inclined readers, Brown journeys into the psyche. The village represents the superego, whereas the forest and darkness become equivalents of the Freudian id. The entire story becomes a portrait of one human mind that discovers the usually suppressed and disquieting reality of animal instinct.
Gender-conscious readers might see Brown’s problem as an inability to accommodate to women as complex individuals. He cannot reconcile the “red” fact of menstrual cycles with the “white” of hallowed motherhood. Faith’s own reality is “pink,” a color that for Brown can only mean a tainting of purity. Brown either “shrank from the bosom of Faith” for her supposedly evil nature or indulged his sexual appetites—since they do have a number of children. Readers may view “Young Goodman Brown” as literary self-revelation, because to write the story, Hawthorne had to distance himself, to observe the human lot just as Brown did. All these perspectives testify to the richness of the story.