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Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on April 28, 2022

“Young Goodman Brown,” initially appearing in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) as both a bleak romance and a moral allegory, has maintained its hold on contemporary readers as a tale of initiation, alienation, and evil. Undoubtedly one of Nathaniel Hawthorne ’s most disturbing stories, it opens as a young man of the town, Goodman Brown, bids farewell to his wife, Faith, and sets off on a path toward the dark forest. Brown’s journey to the forest and his exposure to life-shattering encounters and revelations remain the subject of speculation. Although his meeting with the devil is clear, the results remain ambiguous and perplexing. When viewed as a bildungsroman, it is one of the bleakest in American fiction, long or short. Rather than an initiation into manhood, Brown’s is an initiation into evil.

Much of the power of the story derives from the opening scene of missed chances: Faith, introduced in the second sentence and given the first words of dialogue, leans out the window, her pink ribbons fl uttering, and entreats her husband to stay. Brown, however, although he continues to think of returning, is determined to depart on this dark road. Almost instantly, he—and the reader—become enveloped in the darkness and gloom of the forest. The narrator equates the dreariness with both solitude and evil, and the aura of doom pervades the story. Along the way Brown meets a man who looks curiously like Brown’s father and grandfather; that this traveler is the devil is clear from his snakelike stick and evident power to assume different shapes. The traveler reveals his role in helping Brown’s Puritan ancestors commit crimes against Quakers and Indians. Brown protests that his family has traditionally revered the principles of Christianity, but the traveler provides numerous examples of his converts across all of New England, in both small town and state positions, in the fields of politics, religion, and the law. That Brown himself is from Salem suggests Hawthorne’s fascination with the Puritan guilt of his—and our—own forefathers manifested in other short stories such as “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” a tale about the Puritan obsession with witchcraft.

young goodman brown essay examples

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Getty Images

Next Brown hides in the forest, demonstrating his hypocrisy, as he sees Goody Cloyse, a pious townswoman, walking along the dark trail. She and the traveler openly discuss her witchcraft, and when Brown leaves his hiding place, he marvels at his memory of Goody Cloyse teaching him his catechism when he was a boy. Again Brown thinks of returning home to Faith, but instead he still hides in the forest, recognizing many of the townspeople passing through and hearing that tonight’s forest meeting will be attended by people from Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as Massachusetts. Just as Brown thinks he can resist the devil and emerge from his hiding place, he hears a scream that sounds like Faith’s, and a pink ribbon fl utters to his feet.

From this point on, Brown himself becomes a grotesque figure, throwing himself with wholehearted if somewhat hysterical and despairing eagerness into the center of the darkness illuminated by the blazing fires of the meeting, clearly an image of hell. He recognizes all the most respected folk of the state unabashedly mingling with common thieves, prostitutes, and even criminals. The dreadful harmony of all these voices joined together in devil worship reaches a crescendo as the converts are brought forth: Among them, dimly recognized, are Brown’s father, mother, and wife. The devil assures the assembly that everyone has secretly committed crimes, from those of illicit sex to those of murdering husbands, fathers, and illegitimate babies. Indeed, says the devil, the whole earth is “one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot.” Evil, not good, he asserts, is the nature of humankind.

As do Adam and Eve, Brown and Faith stand on the edge of wickedness: Brown screams to Faith to resist the devil, and with these words the nightmare ends, Brown awakening against a rock. The narrator asks, Was his experience really a dream? Whether or not we believe in the reality of Brown’s experience; the narrator affirms that it clearly foreshadows Brown’s altered life: Henceforward he is a dour and disillusioned man who sees no good and trusts in no one. In just such a way did the Salem witch trials effectively bring about the collapse of Puritanism, yet the story resonates long afterward: We as readers understand that we are the mythical descendants of Young Goodman Brown. Why does Brown ignore Faith’s warnings? Do we interpret the tale as one of infidelity? Of Christian hypocrisy? Of colonial history? If Brown, as an American Adam, looked upon Eden and found it wanting, do we inherit his frightful knowledge? Or can we interpret it as a cautionary tale, one whose lessons can benefit us as we live our modern lives? More than a century and a half later, Hawthorne’s story continues to beguile us with its gloomy aura and subtly ambiguous theme.

Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Stories
Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Novels

BIBLIOGRAPHY Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” In Tales and Sketches, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce. New York: Library of America, 1982. Newman, Lea B. V. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Hawthorne. New York: Macmillan, 1979.

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Young Goodman Brown

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Interesting Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Young Goodman Brown’ (1835) is one of the most famous stories by the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Inspired in part by the Salem witch craze of 1692, the story is a powerful exploration of the dark side of human nature. How Hawthorne loads his story with such power is worthy of some closer analysis, but before we get there, you can read ‘Young Goodman Brown’ here .

Let’s begin with a summary of the story’s plot. We have  analysed the story’s symbolism in a separate post .

Plot summary

In the village of Salem one evening, a young man named Goodman Brown bids farewell to his wife, Faith. Faith wants him to stay with her, but Goodman Brown says he needs to travel tonight. When he leaves her, he vows to himself that he will be good after his business is done tonight.

He meets an old men dressed in ‘grave and decent attire’, as he is travelling on the road. This man has a staff in his hand which resembles a snake. Sensing his young companion is weary, the man offers Goodman Brown the staff but Goodman Brown declines. Indeed, he has honoured his promise to meet with the man tonight, but he has misgivings about it, and wants to turn back and go home. He is a good Christian, and his ancestors were good Christians, and he doesn’t want to get involved.

The man with the staff responds by saying that he knew Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather as well as numerous other high-profile Christians in the state, including the governor himself.

Goodman Brown asks how he will be able to look his minister in the face if he goes on with the business they have planned. This amuses the older man, although when Goodman Brown expresses his fears concerning his wife, Faith, the man is more sympathetic, and reassures him that Faith will come to no harm.

As they walk deeper into the woods, Goodman Brown recognises Goody Cloyse, the old woman who taught him religious instruction when he was a child. As she is well-respected back in his village, he doesn’t want her to recognise him and see him with the strange man with the staff, so he tells the older man that he will come off the path until they have passed the woman.

From the trees, Goodman Brown is astonished when the older man, upon reaching Goody Cloyse, taps her on the shoulder with his snake-staff, and she recognises him as ‘the Devil’. It turns out she is actually a witch (she even cackles) and is accompanying the man to their sabbath!

The two of them talk of young Goodman Brown, whom they will be initiating into their ‘communion’ tonight. Goodman Brown watches as the woman takes the man’s staff and promptly vanishes. He then rejoins the man on the path, shocked by what he has witnessed.

They continue on for a while, but then Goodman Brown has second thoughts again, and sits down, determined not to go any further. But the older man tells him he will think better of it. Two riders approach, who are clearly also involved in the ‘deviltry’ of the night, and as Goodman Brown and his companion walk on, they hear a woman lamenting, and then a scream.

A pink ribbon floats through the air to him, such as his wife Faith wore. ‘My Faith is gone!’ Goodman Brown cries.

Realising all hope is lost, he becomes almost possessed by demonic despair and powers on through the forest, laughing wildly. He stumbles into a clearing in the woods, where a black mass or witches’ sabbath appears to be taking place, featuring many people he recognises, including Deacon Gookin.

He then sees a veiled figure, who turns out to be his wife, Faith, who is a member of the sinful community gathered there. Blood is presented in a bowl, preparatory to the ‘baptism’ initiating the new converts. However, Goodman Brown resists, before staggering against a rock.

The next morning, he returns to Salem village, and everyone from the witches’ sabbath is acting as usual: Goody Cloyse is catechising a child, and Deacon Gookin is praying, while Faith welcomes her husband with joy. We are led to doubt whether what he witnessed the night before actually happened.

Was it all a dream? Either way, he becomes a sterner man thereafter, very ‘distrustful’, seeing sin everywhere. He becomes distant from his own wife. The story ends years in the future, with the narrator telling us that when Goodman Brown died, his neighbours ‘carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.’

Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick , thought ‘Young Goodman Brown’ was ‘deep as Dante’ in its exploration of the darker side of human nature.

The story is remarkable in its depiction of evil not least because it raises interesting questions about what it means to ‘become’ or ‘know’ evil. Young Goodman Brown actually resists the initiation in the woodland clearing, involving the blood-baptism, but the story suggests that this doesn’t matter: he has still come to recognise evil and has thus been initiated into its ways.

If it’s true that the only two kinds of person who are wholly obsessed with evil are the very bad and the very good (in the sense of being puritanical about making sure everyone else is as ‘good’ as they are), then ‘Young Goodman Brown’ is as much a cautionary tale about being lured over to the ‘dark side’, because even if you don’t end up embracing it, it will already have embraced you. The Puritan is as possessed by ‘evil’ as the devil-worshipper they condemn; they’re just possessed in different ways.

In other words, Goodman Brown is clearly drawn to the world of sin and witchcraft, as his meeting with the older man with the snake-staff (the ‘serpent’ summoning the satanic snake from the Garden of Eden, of course, which tempted Eve) indicates. Once he has made the decision to go down to the woods tonight he was always going to be in for a big surprise.

The twist, of course, is that in leaving Faith (his wife) behind, he finds Faith again, in the woodland black sabbath, where she is at first veiled and then revealed to him. (Calling her ‘Faith’, by the way, is an inspired touch by Hawthorne; it was a popular woman’s name among Puritans, but it resonates with obviously symbolic significance in this story about faith and sin.)

‘Young Goodman Brown’, then, is a highly symbolic and suggestive story about the nature of evil and also the nature of puritanism: once the veil has been lifted, Young Goodman Brown sees evil everywhere, even where it may well not actually exist.

This last part is important: although Hawthorne leaves some room for ambiguity, and the narrator himself seems uncertain, if Goodman Brown did merely dream the events of the witches’ sabbath, that raises further questions. He already suspects those in authority around him, those who teach religion to the village children or who dutifully pray, of secretly harbouring evil desires and performing dark deeds. His dream was merely an enacting of these (paranoid) suspicions.

But his conviction that the dream was real, and that his wife, his minister, Goody Cloyse, and the others are all secretly marked by evil, suggests that extreme puritanism destroys one’s moral compass and leads to a life devoid of pleasure or meaning.

2 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’”

The symbolism in this story is as subtle as a ton of rocks. This is not one of my favorite Hawthorne stories.

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Young Goodman Brown Essay Examples

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