“Young Goodman Brown” is a perfect example of Hawthorne’s favorite theme: that human nature is full of hidden wickedness. The young hero’s journey in the story is symbolic of one’s journey through life, in which each individual gradually loses his or her naïveté and innocence as a result of exposure to greed, lust, envy, perversion, and the other sins of humanity.
The crowning blow to Brown’s naïve conception of the world comes when he discovers that his own meek and innocent wife, Faith, is one of the celebrants at the Walpurgis Night orgy. As is often the case, Hawthorne treats his theme with a tongue-in-cheek humor which arises mainly from the contrast between people’s real characters and the false faces they present to the world. The humor is vital to this story; the reader is enticed along the forest pathway by an illusion of frivolity and comes to realize the full horror intended only after finishing the last page.
Stories such as this entitle Hawthorne to be considered one of the principal founders of the modern short story, a form of literature in which American authors have excelled. The essence of a modern short story, as defined by Edgar Allan Poe in a newspaper review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, is that every detail contributes to a single effect. Prior to Hawthorne’s time, short stories tended to be episodic and loosely structured, often resembling essays. The single effect of a modern short story can be produced by the overall mood, as is often the case in the works of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, or by a surprising or shocking ending, as is usually the case in the stories of the French writer Guy de Maupassant and the American writer O. Henry. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the effect of terror and dismay is produced by the surprise ending. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the effect of horror and disillusionment spiced with sardonic humor is produced by the overall mood.
Hawthorne writes about witches and devils as would someone who does not really believe in such grotesque creatures but appreciates them as colorful and dramatic symbols of humanity’s hidden guilt and fear. Some of his stories are not unlike modern horror films, which evoke laughter from the audience along with shivers and shrieks. This indicates a sophisticated modern attitude which was characteristic of many of Hawthorne’s European and American contemporaries, who were trying to reconcile traditional beliefs with modern scientific knowledge.