“Young Goodman Brown” Nathaniel Hawthorne
The following entry presents criticism of Hawthorne's short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). See also Young Goodman Brown Short Story Criticism and The Minister's Black Veil Criticism.
One of the most frequently studied short stories in American literature, Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” has been a favorite of readers and critics alike. Hawthorne's masterful depiction of a young Puritan's discovery that evil lurks in all men, a theme he would later develop more fully in his novels, has led critics to deem him a pioneer of psychological fiction. Additionally, his masterful use of symbolism and allegory, especially in the figure of Brown's beribboned bride Faith, has recieved intense critical scrutiny. Of this ambiguous story, the American novelist Herman Melville, a friend and admirer of Hawthorne, wrote, “Who in the name of thunder would anticipate any marvel in a piece entitled ‘Young Goodman Brown’? You would of course suppose that it was a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to ‘Goody Two-Shoes.’ Whereas it is deep as Dante.”
Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1821 and returned to his mother's home in Salem, Massachusetts, with the intention of becoming an author. The next decade of his life, which marked his apprenticeship as a writer, was characterized by hard work, lack of recognition—both critical and monetary—and loneliness. As he wrote, he admitted to feeling like “the obscurest man of letters in America,” but he focused on developing his literary ability and in 1828 published his first novel, Fanshawe. Realizing that the novel was a mistake, he destroyed as many copies as he could locate; during this period he also prepared and then burned the first of several collections of short fiction that failed to find a publisher. “Young Goodman Brown” was written during this low point in Hawthorne's career, in 1828 or 1829. It first appeared in New-England Magazine in April, 1835, and was later included in Mosses from an Old Manse, a collection of short stories Hawthorne published in 1846 and revised in 1854. Like so much of his other short fiction, “Young Goodman Brown” attests to Hawthorne's symbolic habit of mind and to his interest in the past, myth, and human psychology. Yet by the time he included “Young Goodman Brown” in Mosses, Hawthorne already viewed his early tales as somewhat antiquated and obscure. He wrote in a letter to James T. Fields in 1854, “Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meanings in some of these blasted allegories.” Though he would eventually write more short fiction, Hawthorne's interest turned to novel writing, where he eventually resolved the tension between the past and the present still evident in the stories in Mosses.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in seventeenth century Puritan Salem, Massachusetts, “Young Goodman Brown” is recounted by an omniscient narrator who intentionally casts doubt over all the events he relates. As the story opens, Goodman Brown, a young, newly married Puritan, says goodbye to Faith, his wife of only three months, and is about to embark upon a mysterious overnight journey. Faith begs him not to go, but Brown says that he has a task that must be finished before sunrise. He walks down the main street of Salem and into the forest; as he proceeds deeper, he meets an old man who is actually the Devil in disguise. The old man looks a little like Brown and carries a walking stick shaped like a black snake. He invites Brown to walk on with him and to take the stick to make his journey easier. Although neither frightened nor surprised at meeting the Devil, Brown is reluctant to join him and mentions that his ancestors would never have gone on such a walk. To Brown's astonishment, the Devil explains that he is well acquainted with Brown's ancestors and that he helped Brown's father and grandfather punish religious dissenters and massacre Indians. Along the way, they also meet Goody Cloyse, Brown's childhood religious instructor, who clearly knows the Devil. In spite of her pious nature and respected position in Salem, Goody Cloyse turns out to be a witch. Brown realizes from their conversation that a meeting (a Black Mass) will take place that night in the forest. Further on, he sees that the minister and deacon from Salem village are also on their way to the Black Mass. As he finds himself full of doubts about good and evil and his Puritain beliefs, only the thought of his wife, Faith, sustains him. When Brown begins to pray, he hears Faith's voice, and soon discovers that she is about to be initiated into the Devil's party. At a crude altar in the forest, the Devil's congregation, a mixture of Salem's upstanding citizens as well as its corrupt, immoral denizens, sing their songs of worship. Brown cries out to Faith to resist the Devil, but then instantly finds himself alone again in the forest. He returns to town the next morning, turning away from everyone he meets, including Faith, believing that he now knows their true hypocritical nature. He never finds out whether he dreamed his experience in the forest or if it really took place, but from that time on, Brown is a lonely, distrustful man who rejects his wife and his religion. When the time comes for him to die, many years later, the narrator explains that “his dying hour was gloom.”
As many critics have pointed out, in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne is interested in exploring the psychological and social effects of guilty knowledge, whether or not that knowledge is founded on fact. At the outset of the story, Brown is self-confident and secure in the knowledge that the world around him is as he believes it to be. He particularly cherishes the knowledge that his wife, Faith, is innocent and good—an angel on earth. Believing that his place in heaven is assured by his wife's goodness, Brown disregards the consequences of making and keeping an appointment with the Devil. Hawthorne presents Brown's ordeal in the forest as his first brush with evil, but it is significant, leading him to reject his previous conviction in the prevailing power of good. His discovery that the people he admires and believes to be good Christians are actually hypocrites sets the tone for the rest of his life. Though he himself resists the Devil, he allows his newfound awareness of sin to fester and rejects what he believes to be a community of sinners. Hawthorne portrays Brown as the greatest sinner of all because he has turned away from the rest of humanity and has so easily given up his faith. Sin is an inescapable part of human nature, Hawthorne shows, and Brown's forest experience is symbolic of the spiritual journey from innocence to experience that is a part of emotional maturity. Because Brown cannot accept what he has learned, both his emotional and physical development is arrested and he stagnates spiritually until he dies. Additionally, there are parallels between “Young Goodman Brown” and the witchcraft hysteria that occurred in Salem in 1692, in which one of Hawthorne's ancestors played a significant role. The ambiguous narrator and the similarities in setting invite comparison between the historical events and Hawthorne's portrayal of evil lurking in every corner. “Young Goodman Brown” questions Puritan culture and the issues of conformity that led to the witchcraft hysteria by demonstrating how questionable, or spectral, evidence can so completely effect the course of an individual's life.
“Young Goodman Brown” ranks foremost among Hawthorne's short stories in both popular appeal and critical respect. Readers are drawn by Hawthorne's superb storytelling technique and by the theological, moral, psychological, social, and historical dimensions he develops in the tale. The story has also had its critics: in the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the allegorical elements in the story detract from its natural form, and Henry James posited that the presentation of the forest experience as a dream constituted Hawthorne's taking the easy way out of a narrative dilemma. More recently, critics such as Frank Davidson and Leo B. Levy have explored Hawthorne's handling of Brown's emotional crisis in the story. Going even further in this direction, Edward Jayne and Michael Tritt have written extensive Freudian readings of the tale, focusing on Brown's arrested psychological development and projection of guilt. The historical context of the story continues to attract critical interest, as well, with scholars delving into the Puritan belief system and seventeenth-century American cultural values for clues to interpreting “Young Goodman Brown.” Twentieth-century critics have also become increasingly interested in the narrative technique Hawthorne uses in “Young Goodman Brown” with such commentators as Harold Mosher, among others, discussing the storytelling aspect of the tale. The ambiguous sybmolism and the allegorical nature of “Young Goodman Brown” ensure continued interest and vigorous critical attention
Fanshawe: A Tale (novel) 1828
Twice-Told Tales (sketches and short stories) 1837
Twice-Told Tales (second series) (sketches and short stories) 1842
Mosses from an Old Manse (sketches and short stories) 1846
The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (novel) 1850
The House of the Seven Gables (novel) 1851
The Snow Image and Other Tales (short stories) 1851
The Blithedale Romance (novel) 1852
Life of Franklin Pierce (biography) 1852
A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (short stories) 1852
Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys; Being a Second Wonder-Book (short stories) 1853
The Marble Faun; or, The Romance of Monte Beni (novel) 1860; published in England as Transformation; or, The Romance of Monte Beni, 1860
Our Old Home (essays) 1863
Passages from the American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne (journal) 1868
Passages from the English Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne (journal) 1870
Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne (journal) 1872
Septimius Felton; or, The Elixer of Life (unfinished novel) 1872
The Dolliver Romance and Other Pieces (unfinished novel) 1876
Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A Romance (unfinished novel) 1883
SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's Intent,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 31, Part 2, 1963, pp. 68-71.
[In the following essay, Davidson argues that Hawthorne's purpose in “Young Goodman Brown” was to demonstrate the power of an “evil thought” to corrupt psychologically and ultimately to lead an individual to “an evil deed.”]
One considers the number and variety of attempts made to clarify the meaning of “Young Goodman Brown”1 and wonders whether there is perhaps some simpler explanation of the story than has been made. May it have been the author's purpose to have the reader realize keenly the...
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SOURCE: “Antinomianism in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 73-75.
[In the following essay, Mathews suggests that Brown's passivity—the result of his antinomianist belief that he is saved regardless of his personal actions—leads him into error and doom.]
Almost everyone commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” has noted that its general theme is the loss of personal faith. On the specific application of certain symbols, however, there has been a good deal of disagreement. Some time ago Thomas E. Connolly re-asserted the paramount allegorical significance of the character Faith and...
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SOURCE: “Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity and Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 104, No. 4, October, 1968, pp. 349-70.
[In the following essay, Cohen contends that Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity, a work about the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, inspired Hawthorne to write “Young Goodman Brown.”]
Despite much praise and many fine words expended on Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown,” interpretations of this well-wrought tale have varied as widely as the critics and their personal biases. The abundant ambiguities present in the story yield opportunity to all: those who would see Hawthorne...
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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Hawthorne's Theory of Mimesis,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 4, March, 1969, pp. 393-412.
[In the following essay, Stoehr examines “Young Goodman Brown” in light of Hawthorne's ideas on the relationship between spiritual and natural truth, and the dangers implicit in confusing the two.]
The tellers of tales—in America, writers like Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and later Mark Twain—construct their fictions around some single and striking figure of speech, at once abstract and concrete, an idea embodied in an action, object, circumstance, or the like, so that it becomes, as it were, a trope of life. The...
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SOURCE: “Hawthorne's Polar Explorations: ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux,’” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 1, June, 1969, pp. 45-56.
[In the following essay, Carpenter considers “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” as companion pieces, with the first tale treating corruption brought on by isolation, and the second by society.]
The misadventures of Young Goodman Brown and Major Molineux's youthful cousin Robin have in recent years been as extensively interpreted as any of Hawthorne's shorter works. Since both tales are ambiguous and puzzling in the characteristic fashion of the best Hawthorne...
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SOURCE: “The Forest of Goodman Brown's Night: A Reading of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3, September, 1970, pp. 473-81.
[In the following essay, Cook discusses ‘Young Goodman Brown’ in terms of Hawthorne's probing of the moral imagination, pointing out that Brown's motives are ambiguous, but that the results of his actions are “clear and frightening.”]
“Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart …”
Hamlet v. 2, 220
In a literary epoch when the dominant field of action was the...
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SOURCE: “Hawthorne Interprets ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 62, Winter, 1971, pp. 2-4.
[In the following essay, Whelan argues that, unlike The Scarlet Letter, in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne leaves no possibility of redemption for the protagonist at the conclusion of the tale, for Brown's “self-inflicted nightmare” haunts him until his death.]
Though we have good explications of “Young Goodman Brown,”1 the best and most succinct is Hawthorne's, appearing as a description of Hester Prynne's moral state in the penultimate paragraph of Chapter V of The Scarlet Letter: “Her...
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SOURCE: “Freudianism, American Romanticism, and ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in CEA Critic, Vol. 33, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 3-6.
[In the following essay, Campbell criticizes the trend among Hawthorne critics to interpret “Young Goodman Brown” in Freudian terms, pointing out that this approach tends to oversimplify and narrow the interpretation of the story.]
Certainly Freudian criticism has made substantial contributions to the understanding of some aspects of American romanticism—in studies of the sexual symbolism in much of Whitman's best poetry, the tortured ambiguities of Melville's Pierre and some of his short stories, and the relation between...
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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’—Warning to Idealists,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 14, Spring, 1972, pp. 156-58.
[In the following essay, Erisman suggests that in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne wanted to point out the psychological and social dangers of “excessive innocence.”]
Readings of Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) focus almost exclusively upon its dual evocation of Calvinism and demonism. The Puritanic gloom and the Satanic gleam that permeate the story are so obviously significant, in fact, that one scholar has virtually denied the possibility of any other readings.1 There is, however, persuasive...
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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Puritan Justification,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 200-03.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses “Young Goodman Brown” in light of the Puritan doctrine of justification—the idea that God will “justify” sinners who recognize themselves as such and seek divine help. Johnson argues that Brown's actions are an example of false justification because he never admits to his own sinful nature.]
Criticism of “Young Goodman Brown” has traditionally been divided into speculations about the nature of the hero's journey. Was it a dream? Or was it reality? Newton Arvin is usually cited...
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SOURCE: “Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 110, October, 1974, pp. 259-99.
[In the following essay, Colacurcio examines “Young Goodman Brown” in the context of Puritan theology, faith, and “spectral evidence” of witchcraft and the devil. Colacurcio suggests that Hawthorne uses his story to demonstrate “that witchcraft ‘ended’ the Puritan world”.]
Any seriously “complete” interpretation of Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” must somehow take account of David Levin's rather exact description of Brown's experience in the actual...
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SOURCE: “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 74, No. 3, July, 1975, pp. 375-87.
[In the following essay, Levy discusses the role of faith in “Young Goodman Brown” and contends that Hawthorne's intent is to depict the sin of falling into despair once faith is gone.]
Few of Hawthorne's tales have elicited a wider range of interpretations than “Young Goodman Brown.” The critics have been victimized by the notorious ambiguity of a tale composed of a mixture of allegory and the psychological analysis of consciousness. Many of them find the key to its meaning in a neurotic predisposition to evil;...
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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's Condemnation of Conformity,” in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal, 1978, pp. 137-45.
[In the following essay, Matheson interprets “Young Goodman Brown” as Hawthorne's condemnation of a society that emphasizes conformity over spiritualism. Matheson argues that Brown's overriding concern for conformity, rather than a moral rejection of evil and sin, keeps him from joining with the Devil.]
At first glance, it might appear farfetched to see Hawthorne's Goodman Brown as the spiritual ancestor of someone like Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that the same preoccupation with social...
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SOURCE: “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 44, Fall, 1979, pp. 311–32.
[In the following essay, Shuffelton examines “Young Goodman Brown” in the context of New England spiritual revival movements of the 1820s and 1830s, finding some parallels between revival meetings and Brown's experience in the forest.]
Because the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction so often incorporates historical materials, a great deal of scholarly attention has been devoted both to these materials and to his use of them. Although this activity is crucial to our understanding of Hawthorne's work, our concern with his artful...
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SOURCE: “Pray Tarry with Me Young Goodman Brown,” Literature and Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1979, pp. 100-13.
[In the following essay, Jayne presents a psychoanalytic reading of “Young Goodman Brown,” asserting that Brown exhibits classic symptoms of paranoia and homosexual tendencies.]
Hawthorne's almost transparent use of paranoia as an organizing principle has been generally overlooked even in psychoanalytic studies of his fiction. There have been many critical approaches to Hawthorne, but most if not all of them have provided an essentially “normal” response to his paranoid manipulation of experience. It almost seems as if his uncompromising delusional...
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SOURCE: “The Sources of Ambiguity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: A Structuralist Approach,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1980, pp. 16-25.
[In the following essay, Mosher uses a structuralist critical approach to focus on contradictions in meaning and on the reader's relationship with the narrator in “Young Goodman Brown”.]
As Jonathan Culler has observed, the structuralist method, based on the linguistic model, should “account for our judgments about meaning and ambiguity, well-formedness and deviance.” The structuralist critic studies the conventions of any system that enables its signs to produce meaning or...
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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil in Manuscript,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-62.
[In the following essay, Williamson suggests that Hawthorne exhibits a gleeful, mocking narrative persona in “Young Goodman Brown” in order to expose pretensions about life and literature.]
When Hawthorne commented on the vocation of authorship, he was often drawn to analogies between writing and damnation. “… authors,” he wrote with tongue-in-cheek in 1821, “are always poor devils, and therefore Satan may take them.”1 The pun is on “devil,” which can mean a literary hack; and the meaning is...
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SOURCE: “Narrative Structure and Theme in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 221-28.
[In the following essay, Hostetler discusses variant critical interpretations of Brown's experience as seen by both Brown and the narrator in “Young Goodman Brown.” Hostetler posits that Hawthorne's intersection of these two points of view illustrates “the fatal consequences of psychological misjudgment.”]
One of Nathaniel Hawthorne's major themes concerns conscious awareness of the reality which the mind imposes on external objects. Hawthorne's characters are repeatedly confronted by the need to establish the...
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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil in Manuscript’:—A Rebuttal,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 381-84.
[In the following essay, Hollinger presents a rebuttal to James L. Williamson's 1981 essay (see above) on “Young Goodman Brown,” arguing that the narrator is not “of the devil's party,” but someone who exposes the hypocrisy of Puritan New England society.]
James L. Williamson's “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil In Manuscript’” identifies Hawthorne's tale as a “hell-fired” satire in which the speaker in the course of his telling the story “shows himself to be of the devil's...
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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and the Psychology of Projection,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21. No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 113-17.
[In the following essay, Tritt explores “Young Goodman Brown” in terms of the psychological phenomenon of projection, suggesting that Brown projects his own feelings of guilt and sin onto those he sees during his night in the forest.]
A recent bibliography of Hawthorne criticism suggests that the four hundred or so articles written about “Young Goodman Brown,” “cover an intimidating array of responses that pursue every possible interpretive nuance, from esoteric theological dogma to technically precise but...
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SOURCE: “Deconstructing ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, March, 1988, pp. 23-33.
[In the following essay, Morris examines misnaming and misreading in “Young Goodman Brown” in a deconstructive critical approach to the tale.]
Two trends in recent criticism of “Young Goodman Brown” form the background to this essay. First, historicist critics, analyzing the story's Calvinist dilemmas, often remark upon the seeming inevitability of its action. Thus Michael Colacurcio concludes that “everything seems to follow from, or indeed to be contained in the initial situation of the story” (391). Jane Eberwein believes...
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SOURCE: “Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 339-43.
[In the following essay, Easterly discusses Hawthorne's use of lachrymal, or tear, imagery in “Young Goodman Brown,” emphasizing Brown's inability to cry either out of sorrow for others or in repentance for his own sins.]
“Faith! Faith!” cried the husband. “Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!”
Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not. Hardly had he spoken, when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind,...
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SOURCE: “Goodman Brown and the Puritan Catechism,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1994, pp. 66-88.
[In the following essay, Franklin examines the influence of Cotton Mather's catechism entitled Milk for Babes, which focuses on humankind's innate moral depravity, on Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown.”]
If the importance of an artistic creation may be gauged by the amount of critical attention it receives, then Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” is surely one of the most significant stories ever written. From Melville's comments in 1850 to the present, this dark tale has engaged many of Hawthorne's best readers and is...
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SOURCE: “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 33-55.
[In the following essay, Keil focuses on the blurring of masculine and feminine spheres in “Young Goodman Brown” and suggests that the reader needs to take into account historical as well as psychological implications of gender in the tale.]
Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” traditionally has been read as an examination of crises of faith, morality, and/or psychosexuality. Early readings focused on questions of theology and conduct,1 but since the opening years...
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SOURCE: “Romanticism's Fallen Edens: The Malignant Contribution of Hawthorne's Literary Landscapes,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3, 1999, pp. 353-63.
[In the following essay, Johanyak explores Hawthorne's use of the forest in “Young Goodman Brown” and several of his other works, contending that Brown's sojourn in the forest serves to remind him that “we are everywhere surrounded by evil.”]
America's stern puritannical history provided nineteenth century writers with ideal plots and settings for the age-old conflict between good and evil. Edenic gardens and pastoral woodlands grace countless works of the Romantic era, wherein Adam-...
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