Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“Young Goodman Brown” is the classic American short story of the guilty conscience. The question Brown confronts is whether his heritage of Original Sin incapacitates him for resisting personal sin. In this profoundly ambiguous story, Brown wavers between the desperate cynicism of the corrupt soul and the hopefulness of the believer. At the beginning of the story, he has already made his bargain with the Devil—hardly a token that he is among God’s elect but not necessarily a sign of damnation, either, if he can reject the consummation in the form of the perverted communion service in the woods. Whether by act of will or by divine grace, Brown appears to have resisted the power of evil at the climactic moment and given evidence of at least the possibility of salvation for his wife and himself.
However, if he has, what can be made of his life thereafter? All family and community relationships have been poisoned, and if he can be said to retain his faith, he appears to have lost hope completely. If the ability to resist the Devil at his own table is victory, he has triumphed; if he has made the effort at the expense of his capability for human trust, he has met spiritual defeat. Hawthorne raises the question of whether Brown fell asleep in the forest and dreamed the witches’ Sabbath. The reader, invited to ponder whether one dream could have such an intensive and extensive effect, may well proceed to wonder why Brown found it necessary to invade...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
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Turning to the history of New England as he did for so many of his tales, Hawthorne centers his attention in this tale on the effects of the rigid Puritan theocracy on a young man who has begun to doubt the goodness of those around him. Drawing on the history of his ancestors, the writer creates a story which is a subtle inversion of a traditional New England Puritan theme: the errand into the wilderness. The men and women who fled religious persecution and settled the rocky area north of the Long Island Sound and along the Atlantic coast saw themselves as bringing God's word to the savages of the New World and establishing a society of the elect. Both communally and individually, they entered into a covenant with their Maker: On their side, they would abide by the strict commandments outlined in the Bible, and in return God would grant them eternal salvation.
Goodman Brown's quest into the wilderness is a journey to test this doctrine. Besieged with doubt about the holiness of those around him — and perhaps doubting the depth of his own commitment to goodness as well — he seeks to get behind the public masks of his fellow citizens to see if they are really as devoted to God as they profess. Hawthorne's hero discovers what he most fears: that evil lies in the hearts of all whom he has trusted, even his most beloved wife. The writer's position is not that of his protagonist, however: Throughout the tale Hawthorne provides subtle clues that Goodman...
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"Young Goodman Brown" tells the story of a Puritan man who loses faith in humankind after he thinks he witnesses his wife and respected members of his town participating in a Black Mass. His experience dooms him to a life of gloom and mistrust.
Guilt vs. Innocence
Hawthorne presents Young Goodman Brown's evening of diabolical revelry as the first and last fling with evil the inexperienced young man ever has. Early in the story, Brown says: "after this one night I'll cling to [Faith's] skirts and follow her to heaven." He believes Faith is an "angel" and one of the Puritan elect who is destined for heaven.
Unfortunately, Brown's experience in the forest makes him reject his previous conviction of the prevailing power of good. He instead embraces the Devil's claim—"Evil is the nature of mankind"— by crying out ''Come, devil: for to thee is this world given." This acknowledgment, fueled by the discovery of hypocrisy in the catechist, clergy, the magistrates of Salem, and his own wife, destroys Brown's faith in the Puritan elect. It also sets the tone for the rest of his life. Critics often view this outcome as an attack by Hawthorne on the unredemptive nature of the Puritan belief system, which holds that people are evil by nature because of original sin.
Alienation vs. Community
Though Brown successfully rejects the Devil in his physical form, he allows sin to reside within him when...
(The entire section is 498 words.)