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Young Goodman Brown is a short story; that is, it is a relatively brief narrative of prose fiction (ranging in length from 500 to 20,000 words) characterized by considerably more unity and compression in all its partstheme, plot, structure, character, setting, moodthan the novel. In the story we are considering, the situation is this: One evening near sunset sometime in the late seventeenth century, Goodman Brown, a young man who has been married only three months, prepares to leave his home in Salem, Massachusetts, and his pretty young bride, Faith, to go into the forest and spend the night on some mission that he will not disclose other than to say that it must be performed between sunset and sunrise. Although Faith has strong forebodings about his journey and pleads with him to postpone it, Brown is adamant and sets off. His business is evil by his own admission; he does not state what it is specifically, but it becomes apparent to the reader that it involves attending a witches' Sabbath in the forest, a remarkable action in view of the picture of Brown, drawn early in the story, as a professing Christian who admonishes his wife to pray and who intends to lead an exemplary life after this one night.
The rising action begins when Brown, having left the village, enters the dark, gloomy, and probably haunted forest. He has not gone far before he meets the Devil in the form of a middle-aged, respectable-looking man whom Brown has made a bargain to meet and accompany on his journey. Perhaps the full realization of who his companion is and what the night may hold in store for him now dawns on Brown, for he makes an effort to return to Salem. It is at best a feeble attempt, however, for, though the Devil does not try to detain him, Brown continues walking with him deeper into the forest.
As they go, the Devil shocks Goodman Brown by telling him that his [Brown's) ancestors were religious bigots, cruel exploiters, and practitioners of the black art --- in short, fullfledged servants of the Devil. Further, the young man is told that the very pillars of New England society, church, and state are witches (creatures actually in league with the Devil), lechers, blasphemers, and collaborators with the Devil. Indeed, he sees his childhood Sunday School teacher, now a witch, and overhears the voices of his minister and a deacon of his church as they ride past conversing about the diabolical communion service to which both they and he are going.
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Clinging to the notion that he may still save himself from this breakup of his world, Goodman Brown attempts to pray, but stops when a cloud suddenly darkens the sky. A babel of voices seems to issue from the cloud, many recognizable to Brown as belonging to godly persons, among them his wife. After the cloud has passed, a pink ribbon such as Faith wears in her cap flutters to the ground. Upon seeing it, Goodman Brown is plunged into despair and hastens toward the witches' assembly. Once there, he is confronted with a congregation made up of the wicked and those whom Brown had always assumed to be righteous. As he is led to the altar to be received into this fellowship of the lost, he is joined by Faith. The climax of the story comes just before they receive the sacrament of baptism: Brown cries to his wife to look heavenward and save herself. In the next moment he finds himself alone.
The denouement (resolution, unraveling) of the plot comes quickly. Returning the next morning to Salem, Goodman Brown is a changed man. He now doubts that anyone is goodhis wife, his neighbors, the officials of church and state --- and he remains in this state of cynicism until he dies.
The supernaturalism and horror of "Young Goodman Brown" mark the story as one variant of the Gothic tale, a type of ghost story originating formally in late eighteenth century England and characterized by spirit-haunted habitations, diabolical villains, secret doors and passageways, terrifying and mysterious sounds and happenings, and the like. Obviously, "Young Goodman Brown" bears some resemblance to these artificial creations, the aesthetic value of most of which is negligible. What is much more significant is that here is a variation of the Faust legend, the story of the man who makes a bargain with the Devil (frequently the sale of his soul) in exchange for some desirable thing. In this instance Goodman Brown did not go nearly so far in the original indenture, but it was not necessary from the Devil's point of view. One glimpse of evil unmasked was enough to wither the soul of Brown forever.