One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most anthologized tales, “Young Goodman Brown” shares themes and techniques with much of his other work. Hawthorne’s probing of what might be called the psychology of sin (however secular are modern readings), expressed through his characteristic manipulations of symbolism, merge the tale with his other short stories, such as “The Birth-Mark” (1843) and “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance” (1850), as well as his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852. (Hawthorne’s short stories were written mostly before 1850, and his novels were written after that date.) Hawthorne’s ideas, moral vision, and artistry have established him as one of the nation’s greatest writers. The suggestive ambiguities in his fiction have made his work particularly amenable to treatment by the full range of modern critical perspectives.
The symbolic significance of places, times, names, and objects seems obvious in “Young Goodman Brown.” Salem is the dwelling place of family and community, religion and faith (“faith” the belief and “Faith” the woman). The name Goodman suggests “good man” (although it also had been an equivalent of “mister”). The surrounding wilderness is unknown, a place where one can easily wander from the straight and narrow path. In addition, the scenes in Salem occur during daylight, the scenes in the forest at night. In that dark forest, Brown discovers a prince of darkness (an apparent devil who looks like a man) who appears with his serpent cane as if he has been conjured into being by the word “devil.” Has Brown found in that darkness the light or the truth or an acceptable moral standard in that heathen wilderness? Does he remain a naive yet good man?
“Young Goodman Brown” is not, in fact, a simple religious parable about the undeniable evils of life. The statement that “evil is the nature of mankind,” after all, is spoken by the Devil (the prince of lies as well as the prince of darkness) in what may have been only Brown’s dream. “Young Goodman Brown” is a psychological tale about the impact of this partial truth upon a particularly susceptible mind. If this were not the case, Hawthorne need not have written the final page of the story nor have portrayed Brown in such a negative fashion. Should not the discoverer of truth be rewarded with a positive outcome? Hawthorne does not focus on universal evil or human hypocrisy. Rather, he criticizes Brown as an either/or thinker who never acknowledges the evil in himself. His own diabolical curiosity initially leads him to his appointment in the forest. The devil looks like Brown. After Brown exclaims “my Faith is gone!” he himself becomes “the chief horror of the scene.”
Initially, Brown seems aware that his mission is sinful, but eventually he perceives sin only in others. He becomes blind to goodness and avoids human contact. Like so many Hawthorne characters, he becomes a cold observer of life rather than a life-affirming participant. His sin is pride. As the story opens, he is innocent, young, and sheltered. He knows only good. When he sees Faith in the forest, however, he abruptly converts to a belief that only evil exists. Either attitude is simpleminded. He never envisions a complex life that is a mix of good and evil and which in any case must be lived.
What troubles Brown most in the nocturnal forest is “that the good shrank not from the wicked.” Even the pink of Faith’s ribbons is a mixture of white (purity) and red (associated with guilt and sin in the story). Brown’s propensity to think in terms of God or Satan, the flesh or the spirit, and good or evil has been described as typical of early Puritan New England. In this sense, Hawthorne has written a criticism of society like that of The Scarlet Letter.
Modern critics have interpreted “Young Goodman Brown” in many ways. The story as a critique of society stands out to some. To psychologically inclined readers, Brown journeys into the psyche. The village represents the superego, whereas the forest and darkness become equivalents of the Freudian id. The entire story becomes a portrait of one human mind that discovers the usually suppressed and disquieting reality of animal instinct.
Gender-conscious readers might see Brown’s problem as an inability to accommodate to women as complex individuals. He cannot reconcile the “red” fact of menstrual cycles with the “white” of hallowed motherhood. Faith’s own reality is “pink,” a color that for Brown can only mean a tainting of purity. Brown either “shrank from the bosom of Faith” for her supposedly evil nature or indulged his sexual appetites—since they do have a number of children. Readers may view “Young Goodman Brown” as literary self-revelation, because to write the story, Hawthorne had to distance himself, to observe the human lot just as Brown did. All these perspectives testify to the richness of the story.
Young Goodman Brown's walk into the forest is a type of a general unstated story, which represents a man's irrational forces, which makes him to live his faith, his own security and home temporarily under whatever circumstances so that he can take part in one trip into the woods of temptations. Young Goodman Brown has also of curiosity to find what lies in the depth of the forest. He acts as the hero in this story as he even leaves his pretty young wife. This curiosity makes him makes him unable to have an immature view of life. He changes the way he views his view on life, attitude and the way that he lives until his death. Young Goodman Brown has an intention or a mission to go to the forest and meet the devil. This is a mission which he begins because of the curiosity and the yearn to see if the teachings which he received when he was a child, his culture and his religion has provided him with adequate will power to be able to have a face to face look with the devil and return being the same person without being changed. (Easton pg 264-266).
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The forest in this story can be interpreted as the regions, which are untamed in the heart of Young Brown's heart. This is where the devil roams freely just as he does in the forest. The forest acts as the territory of the devil. As Young Goodman Brown makes his venture out into the forest so that he can have the battle with Satan he realizes that, in the dark of the night many of other well known members of the community who are well respected and also those who are his closest friends have discovered the same kind of temptation and lost to the devil. An example of such a person who had the same mission was Goody Cloyse who he describes as the old woman who taught him catechism. All the things, which he considers to be good and moral in his own life, he finds sinning in the forest. When he sees the various members of his society, which he came from doing evil actions makes his mind to be tormented. This also destroys his perception of everything in life. According to Hawthorn days, a "good man" was a person of proper ancestry. This makes him use the same ways of the times as he depicts Young Goodman Brown during the conference with the devil. Young Goodman Brown beliefs that he comes from a family of honest and upright men who could not underrate such a journey as he has taken. (Katalin pg 83-85).
However he is informed by the devil that they had also taken such a journey I many nights. Therefore, the devil disapproves Young Brown beliefs that his family would not take part in such an evil act. The devil states very well that the member of his families were his good friends. They had taken the same journey with devil and returned hoe m during midnight. Hawthorne employs the use of symbolism throughout his story. He uses faith, which represents faith in a person and religious faith. He also uses the devil as a symbolic instrument, which is the representation of the evil side of Brown. Brown never recovers from the experiences that he had in the dark night in the forest. He continues to live a life which he had lost faith in himself, wife and the community. This is his ability to start perceiving things in the reality. All what he experienced make him be a miserable man in the rest of his life. Instead of trying to unite more with other people, he turns and pushes himself from other people forever. He lost the sense of ability that he had and therefore cannot live without certainty.
Therefore, due to the inability by Brown to deal with his realization of sins he turns into a distrustful, judging and a dark man who never recovers his faith (Katalin pg 83-85). Hawthorne uses symbols that represent rite of passage for the characters. This story reveals a kind of evil that is found in all human beings. This is based on the experience of Young Goodman Brown. The two symbols that are used to make the reader become aware of the transformation of good to evil are the use of names and the use of city versus the woods. These symbols are necessary to the development of innocence of notion of evil in people. Hawthorne uses symbolism in this story, which causes the main character's revelations about the sin within the community he lives, his relatives and to himself. Most of the reflection and criticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" have their focus mostly on the theme of good versus evil. There are also criticisms, which are directed towards the interpretation of the consciousness of the main character on the issue whether Young Goodman Brown is awake or is dreaming. What is openly revealed from the story is that he lives and dies in pain. This is because his belief in righteousness makes him to isolate himself from the rest of the members of the community. The way Hawthorne interprets Brown's mod life crisis creates a feeling of uncertainty to the reader. The interpretation also leaves the reader of the story with varying feelings on the reasons as to why many things happened the way they do in the story (Easton pg 264-266).
- Easton Alison. The making of the Hawthorne subject, University of Missouri Press, 1996, pg 264-266
- Kallay Katalin. Going home through seven paths to nowhere: reading short stories by Hawthorne, Poe, Melville and James, Akademiai Kiado, 2003, pg 83-85