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"Young Goodman Brown", by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a story that is
thick with allegory.
"Young Goodman Brown" is a moral story, which is told through the
perversion of a religious leader. In "Young Goodman Brown", Goodman
Brown is a Puritan minister who lets his excessive pride in himself
interfere with his relations with the community after he meets with
the devil, and causes him to live the life of an exile in his own
"Young Goodman Brown" begins when Faith, Brown's wife, asks him not to
go on an "errand". Goodman Brown says to his "love and (my) Faith"
that "this one night I must tarry away from thee." When he says his
"love" and his "Faith", he is talking to his wife, but he is also
talking to his "faith" to God. He is venturing into the woods to meet
with the Devil, and by doing so, he leaves his unquestionable faith in
God with his wife. He resolves that he will "cling to her skirts and
follow her to Heaven." This is an example of the excessive pride
because he feels that he can sin and meet with the Devil because of
this promise that he made to himself. There is a tremendous irony to
this promise because when Goodman Brown comes back at dawn; he can no
longer look at his wife with the same faith he had before.
When Goodman Brown finally meets with the Devil, he declares that the
reason he was late was because "Faith kept me back awhile." This
statement has a double meaning because his wife physically prevented
him from being on time for his meeting with the devil, but his faith
to God psychologically delayed his meeting with the devil.
The Devil had with him a staff that "bore the likeness of a great
black snake". The staff which looked like a snake is a reference to
the snake in the story of Adam and Eve. The snake led Adam and Eve to
their destruction by leading them to the Tree of Knowledge. The Adam
and Eve story is similar to Goodman Brown in that they are both
seeking unfathomable amounts of knowledge. Once Adam and Eve ate from
the Tree of Knowledge they were expelled from their paradise. The
Devil's staff eventually leads Goodman Brown to the Devil's ceremony
which destroys Goodman Brown's faith in his fellow man, therefore
expelling him from his utopia.
Goodman Brown almost immediately declares that he kept his meeting
with the Devil and no longer wishes to continue on his errand with the
Devil. He says that he comes from a "race of honest men and good
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will he. The Devil is quick to point out however that he was with his
father and grandfather when they were flogging a woman or burning an
Indian village, respectively. These acts are ironic in that they were
bad deeds done in the name of good, and it shows that he does not come
from "good Christians."
When Goodman Brown's first excuse not to carry on with the errand
proves to be unconvincing, he says he can't go because of his wife,
"Faith". And because of her, he can not carry out the errand any
further. At this point the Devil agrees with him and tells him to turn
back to prevent that "Faith should come to any harm" like the old
woman in front of them on the path. Ironically, Goodman Brown's faith
is harmed because the woman on the path is the woman who "taught him
his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual
adviser." The Devil and the woman talk and afterward, Brown continues
to walk on with the Devil in the disbelief of what he had just
witnessed. Ironically, he blames the woman for consorting with the
Devil but his own pride stops him from realizing that his faults are
the same as the woman's.
Brown again decides that he will no longer to continue on his errand
and rationalizes that just because his teacher was not going to
heaven, why should he "quit my dear Faith, and go after her". At this,
the Devil tosses Goodman Brown his staff (which will lead him out of
his Eden) and leaves him.
Goodman Brown begins to think to himself about his situation and his
pride in himself begins to build. He "applauds himself greatly, and
thinking with how clear a conscience he should meet his minister...And
what calm sleep would be his...in the arms of Faith!" This is ironic
because at the end of the story, he can not even look Faith in the
eye, let alone sleep in her arms. As Goodman Brown is feeling good
about his strength in resisting the Devil, he hears the voices of the
minister and Deacon Gookin. He overhears their conversation and hears
them discuss a "goodly young woman to be taken in to communion" that
evening at that night's meeting and fears that it may be his Faith.
When Goodman Brown hears this he becomes weak and falls to the ground.
He "begins to doubt whether there really was a Heaven above him" and
this is a key point when Goodman Brown's faith begins to wain. Goodman
Brown in panic declares that "With Heaven above, and Faith below, I
will yet stand firm against the devil!" Again, Brown makes a promise
to keep his faith unto God. Then "a black mass of cloud" goes in
between Brown and the sky as if to block his prayer from heaven. Brown
then hears what he believed to be voices that he has before in the
community. Once Goodman Brown begins to doubt whether this is really
what he had heard or not, the sound comes to him again and this time
it is followed by "one voice, of a young woman". Goodman believes this
is Faith and he yells out her name only to be mimicked by the echoes
of the forest, as if his calls to Faith were falling on deaf ears. A
pink ribbon flies through the air and Goodman grabs it. At this
moment, he has lost all faith in the world and declares that there is
"no good on earth." Young Goodman Brown in this scene is easily
manipulated simply by the power of suggestion. The suggestion that the
woman in question is his Faith, and because of this, he easily loses
Goodman Brown then loses all of his inhibitions and begins to laugh
insanely. He takes hold of the staff which causes him to seem to "fly
along the forest-path". This image alludes to that of Adam and Eve
being led out of the Garden of Eden as is Goodman Brown being led out
of his utopia by the Devil's snakelike staff. Hawthorne at this point
remarks about "the instinct that guides mortal man to evil". This is a
direct statement from the author that he believes that man's natural
inclination is to lean to evil than good. Goodman Brown had at this
point lost his faith in God, therefore there was nothing restraining
his instincts from moving towards evil because he had been lead out
from his utopian image of society.
At this point, Goodman Brown goes mad and challenges evil. He feels
that he will be the downfall of evil and that he is strong enough to
overcome it all. This is another demonstration of Brown's excessive
pride and arrogance. He believes that he is better than everyone else
in that he alone can destroy evil.
Brown then comes upon the ceremony which is setup like a perverted
Puritan temple. The altar was a rock in the middle of the congregation
and there were four trees surrounding the congregation with their tops
ablaze, like candles. A red light rose and fell over the congregation
which cast a veil of evil over the congregation over the devil
Brown starts to take notice of the faces that he sees in the service
and he recognizes them all, but he then realizes that he does not see
Faith and "hope came into his heart". This is the first time that the
word "hope" ever comes into the story and it is because this is the
true turning point for Goodman Brown. If Faith was not there, as he
had hoped, he would not have to live alone in his community of
heathens, which he does not realize that he is already apart of.
Another way that the hope could be looked at is that it is all one of
"the Christian triptych". (Capps 25) The third part of the triptych
which is never mentioned throughout the story is charity. If Brown had
had "charity" it would have been the "antidote that would have allowed
him to survive without despair the informed state in which he returned
to Salem." (Camps 25)
The ceremony then begins with a a cry to "Bring forth the converts!"
Surprisingly Goodman Brown steps forward. "He had no power to retreat
one step, nor to resist, even in thought...". Goodman Brown at this
point seems to be in a trance and he loses control of his body as he
is unconsciously entering this service of converts to the devil. The
leader of the service than addresses the crowd of converts in a
disturbing manner. He informs them that all the members of the
congregation are the righteous, honest, and incorruptible of the
community. The sermon leader then informs the crowd of their leader's
evil deeds such as attempted murder of the spouse and wife, adultery,
and obvious blasphemy. After his sermon, the leader informs them to
look upon each other and Goodman Brown finds himself face to face with
Faith. The leader begins up again declaring that "Evil is the nature
of mankind" and he welcomes the converts to "communion of your race".
(The "communion of your race" statement reflects to the irony of
Brown's earlier statement that he comes from "a race of honest men and
good Christians.") The leader than dips his hand in the rock to draw a
liquid from it and "to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads".
Brown than snaps out from his trance and yells "Faith! Faith! Look up
to Heaven and resist the wicked one!" At this, the ceremony ends and
Brown finds himself alone. He does not know whether Faith, his wife,
had kept her faith, but he finds himself alone which leads him to
believe that he is also alone in his faith.
Throughout the story, Brown lacks emotion as a normal person would
have had. The closest Brown comes to showing an emotion is when "a
hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with
the coldest dew." The dew on his cheek represents a tear that Brown is
unable to produce because of his lack of emotion. Hawthorne shows that
Brown has "no compassion for the weaknesses he sees in others, no
remorse for his own sin, and no sorrow for his loss of faith."
(Easterly 339) His lack of remorse and compassion "condemns him to an
anguished life that is spiritually and emotionally dissociated."
(Easterly 341) This scene is an example of how Goodman Brown chose to
follow his head rather than his heart. Had Brown followed his heart,
he may have still lived a good life. If he followed with his heart, he
would have been able to sympathize with the community's weaknesses,
but instead, he listened to his head and excommunicated himself from
the community because he only thought of them as heathens.
"Young Goodman Brown" ends with Brown returning to Salem at early dawn
and looking around like a "bewildered man." He cannot believe that he
is in the same place that he just the night before; because to him,
Salem was no longer home. He felt like an outsider in a world of Devil
worshippers and because his "basic means of order, his religious
system, is absent, the society he was familiar with becomes
nightmarish." (Shear 545) He comes back to the town "projecting his
guilt onto those around him." (Tritt 114) Brown expresses his
discomfort with his new surroundings and his excessive pride when he
takes a child away from a blessing given by Goody Cloyse, his former
Catechism teacher, as if he were taking the child "from the grasp of
the fiend himself." His anger towards the community is exemplified
when he sees Faith who is overwhelmed with excitement to see him and
he looks "sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a
greeting." Brown cannot even stand to look at his wife with whom he
was at the convert service with. He feels that even though he was at
the Devil's service, he is still better than everyone else because of
his excessive pride. Brown feels he can push his own faults on to
others and look down at them rather than look at himself and resolve
his own faults with himself.
Goodman Brown was devastated by the discovery that the potential for
evil resides in everybody. The rest of his life is destroyed because
of his inability to face this truth and live with it. The story, which
may have been a dream, and not a real life event, planted the seed of
doubt in Brown's mind, which consequently cut him off from his fellow
man and leaves him alone and depressed. His life ends alone and
miserable because he was never able to look at himself and realize
that what he believed were everyone else's faults were his as well.
His excessive pride in himself led to his isolation from the
community. Brown was buried with "no hopeful verse upon his tombstone;
for his dying hour was gloom."
Capps, Jack L. "Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown", Explicator,
1982 Spring, 40:3, 25.
Easterly, Joan Elizabeth. "Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne's Young
Studies in Short Fiction, Newberry, S.C., 1991 Summer, 28:3, 339-43.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Young Goodman Brown", The Story and Its Writer,
4th ed. Ed.
Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995,
Shear, Walter. "Cultural Fate and Social Freedom in Three American
Studies in Short Fiction, Newberry, S.C., 1992 Fall, 29:4, 543-549.
Tritt, Michael. "Young Goodman Brown and the Psychology of
Projection", Studies in
Short Fiction, Newberry, S.C., 1986 Winter, 23:1, 113-117.