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Nathaniel Hawthorne's story of "Young Goodman Brown" introduces us to a pious Christian man who leaves his newly-wed wife to travel in the forest for an undisclosed reason. At the center of the story is Brown's perceptions of the world, compared with the realities—specifically with regard to his religious beliefs.
This story includes themes common in Hawthorne's work:
...exploring the evil actions of humans and the idea of original sin.
As he enters the woods (where Puritans believed the Devil lived), Brown meets an old man who is really the Devil, but Brown doesn't know this. As they walk, Brown senses evil nearby and looks to his ancestors, his religious leaders and his wife, to strengthen his own resolve to resist it. However, in each case, he learns none of them are what they seem and that each has been in "congress" with the Devil. At the end, when the Black Mass starts, Brown sees his wife and tells her to turn away from evil. In a flash, he finds himself alone. Returning to town, not knowing if what happened was real or a dream—or Faith's answer in either case—Brown turns his back on his community for their sins; isolated from everyone, even his wife, he dies a miserable, lonely, unloved old man.
The bottom line is that there is sin in everyone: no one, not even Brown himself, is pure. However, Hawthorne's story is believed by many to be:
...one of the most effective literary works to address the hysteria surrounding the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
In the Puritanical society in Salem Town, Massachusetts, on the word of several young girls, twenty-five adults were convicted of witchcraft: nineteen people were hanged; one man in his eighties refused to answer the accusations against him, Giles Corey, and was pressed to death. (It is said that when he was told again to confess, he replied, "More weight.") Five others died in prison. It seems that the Puritans' lack of tolerance for any kind of sin (even sleeping in church) allowed only for penalty, not forgiveness. (It is said that it was stopped when the governor's wife was accused.)
It is easy, then, to see Hawthorne's parallel of those events to what is portrayed in the story of "Young Goodman Brown". Brown is symbolic of Puritan society ("the" religion and law then) which could not abide any kind of sin. This inflexibility not only cost people their lives, but was ultimately the death knell of the Puritan faith. Brown also suffers the fate of the Puritan religion. Over time, he became alienated from the society at large for his inability to accept and forgive the sinful nature of humanity. He felt comfortable about his faith and that of his ancestors and fellow townspeople, yet when confronted by the truth, his mind cannot accept the reality of man's sinful nature. A biblical tenant states that all people sin, but Brown represents those who believed that righteous living meant a sinless life: an impossibility.
Had Brown stayed at home, his wife would not have gone out, so what is Brown's responsibility?—to support those around him, not to condemn them.
In terms of a thesis, it depends on your response to the reading. For me, it would be:
Regardless of one’s beliefs, should they be challenged, a person must not lose faith in what is important to him; he should not blame others who do not live up to his expectations—or judge them, but keep to his own truth.
After all, no one is perfect, and that is, unrealistically, what Brown wanted.
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