Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” is an intriguing story of mystery that mingles with faith and sin. Taking place in Salem, Massachusetts circa the witch trials readers begin the story with Young Goodman Brown reluctantly
leaving his wife Faith for a mysterious overnight errand. Not only leaving his wife, Brown leaves the town and the people he thought he knew behind. Hawthorne’s reoccurring theme of man being attracted to evil is apparent in this story as readers follow the main character on a dark revealing journey through the woods. Hawthorne’s character Young Goodman Brown is, in actuality, three characters in one, and the change is apparent as the story progresses.
An innocent and naïve man in the opening of the story, Goodman Brown trusts all the people he knows without reason or suspicion. The townspeople of Salem are highly respectable in Brown’s eyes. As far as Goodman Brown is concerned, his wife Faith is the most virtuous of them all. Innocent Faith tries to persuade her husband to not go on this errand, although it is unclear to readers as to what type of errand Brown in going on. Calling her “my love and my Faith” (Hawthorne 26) Brown assures her, “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee” (Hawthorne 27). Feeling slightly guilty for leaving his young bride, Goodman Brown embarks on his journey claiming, “…and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven” (Hawthorne 27). Young Goodman Brown considers himself alone in sin, especially compared to his “holy and good” elders. As he walks through the woods thinking, “it was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity to this solitude” (Hawthorne 27). “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” written by Leo B. Levy, notes that in the beginning Brown is a “naïve and immature young man who fails to understand the gravity of the step he has taken.” (Levy 117) This is the first character within Goodman Brown. Innocent and young, the first aspect of the main character is anxious to get on with his journey and get back to what is good.
As Goodman Brown moves into the woods, he also moves into his second personality. It is in this personality readers also see three turning points leading to the development of the character. In the woods, Brown meets up with a mysterious traveler, later revealed as the devil. While walking with the devil, Goodman Brown states that he wants to return to Faith. As the devil coaxes the young man to keep walking a little further Brown claims that if his ancestors never participated in committing sins then neither should he. The devil responds, “I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say…..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.” (Hawthorne 28) Newly awakened to the sins of his forefathers Young Goodman Brown sees his childhood catechism teacher, Goody Cloyse, ahead. In disbelief that such a kind elderly woman might be walking in the dark wood, he refuses to go another step with the “elderly traveler.” However, after listening to the conversation between the devil and Goody Cloyse, Brown realizes that she too is working with the devil. It is after this second meeting that Goodman Brown makes another startling revelation. Both the town minister and Deacon Gookin are familiar with the devil and are traveling through the woods to the meeting. Brown notices a cloud dark in the sky that produces “a confused and doubtful sound of voices.” (Hawthorne 32) When the cloud of doubtful voices becomes clearer, Goodman Brown hears the voice of his young wife Faith uttering lamentations. Grief stricken, Brown claims, “My Faith is gone! There is no good on earth and sin is just a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.” (Hawthorne 33) And as quickly as he was overcome with grief, Goodman Brown is immediately enraged and states his revenge and strength to the busy forest. “Let us hear which will laugh the loudest! Think not to frighten me with your deviltry! Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you!” (Hawthorne 33)
As Brown gets closer to the center of the woods, or the devil’s meeting place, there is more revealed about the sinful nature of his peers. This is the progressive pattern in Hawthorne’s wood sequence. He later gets to the sacred meeting and discovers many acquaintances from Salem are part of a witch’s coven and notices they are taking part in a type of sacrificial ceremony. Author James Folsom, who wrote Man’s Accidents and God’s Purposes: Multiplicity in Hawthorne’s Fiction, says, “At the beginning of the story [Brown] had assumed that mankind was divided into two classes, ‘good’ men and ‘bad’men.” (Folsom 32) Now in this second part of the story, Brown must learn to accept that men are not solely good or solely bad, but rather a mixture of both.
Upon the dawn of the next morning, Goodman Brown re-enters the world a changed man. “Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man.” (Hawthorne 37) Visibly changed, Brown shrinks away from the minister who bestowed blessings upon the young man. Hearing the loud prayers of Deacon Gookin, Brown questions, “What God doth the wizard pray to?” (Hawthorne 37) And as Goody Cloyse stood “in the early sunshine at her own lattice, catechizing a little girl” Goodman Brown snatches the child away from “the grasp of the fiend himself.” (Hawthorne 37) Lastly, Brown spied his wife Faith in the courtyard. Readers remember the good spirited young man in the beginning of the story that wholly depended upon his virtuous wife. However now it is a much different man by the same name that sees the young girl with pink ribbons in her hair. Hawthorne writes, “…and bursting in to such joy at the sight of him that she [Faith] skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face and passed on without a greeting.” (Hawthorne 37) It is here that Goodman Brown has completely morphed into his third character. Harold Mosher, author of “The Sources of Ambiguity in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” offers a reason for this change. He writes, “Brown first denies, then accepts the existence of evil in others and eventually recognizes it also in himself.” (Mosher 15) It is Goodman Brown’s new and fuller knowledge of sin that results in his loss of faith and bitter attitude.
Nathaniel Hawthorne reveals the pitiful end of Goodman Brown’s life in his last paragraph of “Young Goodman Brown.” There is no longer a faithful adventurous young man, but a bitter, cynical old man that stands in his place. Goodman Brown and Faith stay together and have children, although time heals no wounds and Brown remains cold-hearted even in the face of his family. Gone is the innocence that once filled the young man’s heart, for in his later years there was only room for doubt and suspicion. Brown would never again trust openly and without reason, but rather scowl and mutter to himself. Young Goodman Brown went on an errand and returned an old creature, barely recognizable as a man. His worst moment was not his “dying hour of gloom” but rather the instant he left part of his soul with the devil and stepped out if the woods. (Hawthorne 37) As Nathaniel Hawthorne’s main character, Brown emerges as a three-for-the-price-of-one round character that has a valuable lesson for readers- to accept people for the good and the bad. Without acceptance, one can expect a life of unhappiness and guilt as seen in the life of Goodman Brown.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Ed. Gwynn, R.S.. Third Edition. New York: Longman Publishers 2007. 26-37
Folsom, James K. Man’s Accidents and God’s Purposes: Multiplicity in Hawthorne’s Fiction. New Haven: College and University Press 1963.
Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown’” Modern Critical Views: Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Bloom, Harold. New York: Chelsea House 1986. 115-126
Mosher, Harold F. “The Sources of Ambiguity in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: A Structuralist Approach.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Ed. Bloom, Harold. Philadelphia: Chelsea House 2005. 5-18