“The cry of grief, rage, and terror, was yet piercing the night, when the unhappy husband held his breath for a response. There was a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept away, leaving the clear and silent sky above Goodman Brown. But something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.”
One fateful evening, Goodman Brown leaves his wife Faith and home of Salem village and embarks into the dark forest to meet a mysterious traveler. Goodman is as his name suggests, a vessel for the Christian everyman with rigid Puritan values and morality. But when tempted by his curiosity, he enters the woods to bear witness to the true breadth of evil, and he will never be the same.
Now, let’s plunge into the depths of allegory where the concept of morality plays a central role, and decipher what it means to be severely disillusioned by horrible truths in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown.
An overview of Young Goodman Brown
What would you do if you discovered that everything you knew was a lie? And everyone you knew, those who shaped you into what you are today, were living a double life and not who they claimed to be? Would it change you? This is what makes the story of Young Goodman Brown so compelling. There’s a coming-of-age element to it where the newly married Goodman realizes the world isn’t what it seems. In the end, the narrative poses greater questions, leaving the reader to reflect on their own relationship with both community and the structures we hold dear.
Published in 1835, Young Goodman Brown is a short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of American literature’s most celebrated writers. And just like his other works, Young Goodman Brown explores the Puritan sense of sin and the deeper implications of a Calvinist/Puritan society with the belief that humankind subsists in a constant state of wickedness.
Young Goodman Brown has admirers in many literary giants that include both his contemporaries and modern authors. Edgar Allen Poe, a critic of the time, said of Hawthorne’s short stories that they were “the products of a truly imaginative intellect.” And Henry James noticed how Young Goodman Brown “is a magnificent little romance.” In our Herman Melville episode, we examined the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville. And when referring to Young Goodman Brown, Melville wrote how it was every bit “as deep as Dante.” More recently, Stephen King noted that Young Goodman Brown is in the top 10 short stories ever written by an American, and it inspired his award-winning short story The Man in the Black Suit.
Symbolism and Themes
Set in the 17th Century colonial New England, the short story is an allegory, much in the same as The Divine Comedy, where Hawthorne uses the simplicity of names to represent abstract ideas such as Goodman and his wife Faith. So, when we reach the conclusion of the story, we as the reader find ourselves questioning the very nature of these characters and the labels that supposedly define them. Can Goodman be a good man after witnessing the wickedness that apparently surrounds him? Or, is morality only a mask for the more complicated human condition?
Hawthorne himself critiqued the rigid Puritan society and how the concepts of sin and morality permeated hierarchy, identity, and even the forces of nature.
The Nature of Morality
The story begins with Goodman Brown departing at sundown from his new wife of 3 months. Faith, like Goodman, is young and bright-eyed, and what’s of particular note, she has flowing pink ribbons in her cap, symbolizing her innocence. Faith feels weary by the notion of being left alone with her troubling thoughts. She asks her husband to stay with her until sunrise, but he is resolute in his journey that must take place at night.
After he departs, Goodman considers Faith and the evil purpose for which he concealed from her. He promises himself that he will be a better husband upon his return, not yet realizing the full scale of what will soon befall him.
Goodman Wrestles his Curiosity
Just as Dante’s journey began in the wilderness, Goodman Brown enters the gloomy New England forest; eventually, spotting a mysterious traveler along the side of the road. Goodman keeps walking and the traveler follows him keeping in step. The traveler looks to be in his 50s and has a similar expression and clothing as Goodman. The narrator even suggests that they could even be confused for father and son. The traveler, however, wields a walking stick which bears the likeness of a ‘great black snake.’ To Goodman, the staff seems to almost move but he reasons it must be an “ocular trick.”
The traveler offers Goodman his staff but he refuses. The young man informs the traveler of how his family has been good Christians since the martyrs, so essentially for countless generations, and he is ashamed to associate with the traveler, who we can surmise is the Devil. But, then, the Devil tells Goodman that he knew both his father and grandfather. He says:
“Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake.”
The Devil then goes on to boast of his general acquaintance of the congregants of New England, listing deacons, selectmen, members of the Great and General Court, and even, quite strikingly, the governor.
The Disillusioned Moral Order
Yet, Goodman remains defiant, saying that he is just a regular man with no affiliation with either council or governors and that they have their ways and he has his own simple ways. And that if he went with the traveler he could never feel worthy among his minister. The traveler responds with laughter. Then, an old woman appears just ahead. It’s Goody Cloyse, a pious and spiritual advisor to Goodman. The young man is confused by her presence at such a late hour and doesn’t want to be seen together with the mysterious traveler.
Goodman hides in the woods and watches as the Devil keeps to the path and greets Goody Cloyse. She quickly acknowledges him as the Devil and she’s revealed to be a witch on her way to the black mass where a young man is to be inducted. The Devil offers her his staff and then she disappears with it, transported to the ceremony.
This revelation shakes Goodman to his core. He knew this woman, trusted her, but she was in reality something entirely different. Entirely evil. They continue on and the Devil takes a maple branch from a tree and fashions a new staff from it. Goodman suddenly refuses to go any further so the Devil tells him to rest and leaves him his staff.
Along the roadside, Goodman rallies at the thought that he resisted the Devil and fancies himself worthy the next time he sees the minister and Deakon Gookin. He then hears the stamping of hooves followed by two riders. Goodman hides in the shadows of the woods as the riders close in. When they come into view, Goodman can’t believe his eyes. The riders are the minister and Deacon Gookin! The deacon tells his companion how that night’s ceremony was to include a community ranging from Falmouth to Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Those of the highest moral order is in transit to the black mass! This is enough to throw Goodman into a fit of existential crisis, but then he remembers, he still has his Faith. But then when he suddenly hears Faith’s voice coming from the way of the ceremony, Goodman no longer can contain himself. As he screams her name a pink ribbon sails down from the sky.
As he loses all faith, Goodman takes the Devil’s staff. He’s swiftly pulled through the forest and to the clearing of the black mass. The crowns of trees set aflame lighting the terrible event. The light flashes over the faces of other residents of Salem village. But he doesn’t see Faith. Is there still hope?
Goodman is led to the front as one of the converts. He thinks he sees his father waving him forward just as a secondary motherly force attempts to hold him back. Another convert is there but they are robed and their face is obscured.
“There,” resumed the sable form, “are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet, here are they all, in my worshipping assembly!”
When Goodman looks to the other convert, it’s Faith. This is the final and most precious person he held dear. Every single person that he revered, idolized, compared himself to, each one of them has not only corrupted themselves, but they identified as the very evil that they rebuked during waking hours.
Goodman Brown cries to Faith to look up to Heaven and resist the Devil. But then he finds himself back by the rock where he first took the maple staff. Whether Faith listened, Goodman didn’t know. After this night, Goodman no longer is able to trust anyone in his community. And his wife Faith, he never fully loves. When he returns home, he rejects Faith’s greeting.
We’re left with Goodman never fully trusting Faith and thereby also rejecting his Puritan values. He’s left to wonder and question those around him and their motives. The world full of deception, wickedness, and Goodman until his death remained isolated and unhappy.
As an allegory, Young Goodman Brown illustrates the path to self-doubt and eventual loss of faith. As Jane Eberwein writes, after three months of marriage Goodman Brown falls into self-doubt and goes to the forest which is symbolic of ‘self-exploration.’ It’s in the end when he doubts his wife, faith in salvation, and faith in humanity.
Even in today’s context, Young Goodman Brown rings true. If you ever stumble upon a truth that shakes the very foundation of your beliefs, what do you do? Say a loved one in your life isn’t who they claim to be. Or, that person or family in your town who is held in high esteem is in fact the exact opposite behind closed doors? Do you still cling to faith, or like Goodman, do you reject it. Either way, the greater truth is that concepts like morality and sin exist as structures to mediate society, but behind the veil, there are entirely different forces at work.
“Be it so, if you will. But, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.”