“Young Goodman Brown”, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a story that is thick with allegory. “Young Goodman Brown” is a moral story that 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 interferes 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 community.
“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 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 that “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 in 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 are 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 Christians” and that his father had never gone on this errand and nor 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 cannot 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 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 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 into 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 his faith. 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 set up 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 worshippers. 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 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 then 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 the irony of Brown’s earlier statement that he comes from “a race of honest men and good Christians.”)
The leader then dips his hand in the rock to draw a liquid from it and “to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads”. Brown then 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 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. 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 onto 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, Washington D.C., 1982 Spring, 40:3, 25.
Easterly, Joan Elizabeth. “Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown”, Studies in Short Fiction, Newberry, S.C., 1991 Summer, 28:3, 339-43.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodmam Brown”, The Story and Its Writer, 4th ed. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995, 595-604.
Shear, Walter. “Cultural Fate and Social Freedom in Three American Short Stories”, 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.