Choose a symbol used by Hawthorne in "Young Goodman Brown."  Describe the symbol's meaning, in the context of the short story.  Can you relate that symbol to something you see in today's world?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The symbol of the forest in "Young Goodman Brown" is one where exploration within the individual takes place.  It is a symbol where Goodman Brown enters as one man and leaves as another.  The woods themselves are shown to be a realm where unforeseen and the unknown exist:

He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

The initial fears that Brown has of a "devilish Indian" or "the devil himself" are only amplified realities of the description of the forest.  It represents the realm of where the individual is alone, forced to exist only with their own values.  The individual is left to confront almost insurmountable forces.  The further Brown goes into the woods, the more scared he is and the more tentative he is.  The woods claims to have met more of his relatives, reflecting how the woods claims all and is more expansive than the individual can ever know.  The woods is a realm in which Brown is tested and twisted.  What was once believed to be true is open to scrutiny, and totalizing reality is transformed in the face of "the other."  Brown comes to see reality in a much different light because of the woods, a setting where "Evil is the nature of mankind" as a reality displayed to him.  Brown is forever changed as a result of what happens in the woods, forever scarred and never able to quite recover from his experience in it.  The woods makes Brown left "in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart."

I think that an interesting representation of the woods can be the internet.  There are interesting parallels that can emerge.  Like the woods, the internet is widely expansive and its path is far from absolute.  Individuals can literally become lost in the internet just like Brown fears loss in the woods. Given the amount of what is in cyberspace, one can find visions of "the devil" in different forms.  Freedom on the internet can bring an individual directly confronting realities that test one's faith in mankind.  In different settings, the internet can be "all as lonely as could be."  There are many avenues on the information superhighway that embody a sense of loneliness and isolation.  Like Brown himself, the traveller on the internet, "knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead."  So many "hide behind the screen" that the modern individual does not know what threats lurk. The "unseen multitude" who use the internet at any given time enhances its parallel to the forest.  Like Brown's voyage into the woods, one has to be firm and completely resolute in their voyage on the internet. It is so easy to become lost that individuals must be guided by a sense of purpose. While Brown's voyage into the woods is spiritual and his own spiritual understanding is altered as a result, the symbolic function of the internet is much the same. Without a steely resolve, one's beliefs and purpose can become radically transformed.  With the web's potential threats, one can become immersed in a similar "saddest" of prisons.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another significant symbol in "Young Goodman Brown" is the staff that the old traveler carries made in

...the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.

Hawthorne himself hints at the devilish connection of the "fellow-traveller" who accompanies Brown by describing him as "he of the serpent." That he is preternatural is also suggested by his allusion to Goodman's father and grandfather, the constable who whipped a Quaker woman.

When the old man offers Goody Cloyse his staff and throws it upon the ground, it "assumed life, being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to the Egyptian magi" and it and Goody Cloyse disappear.  Then, after Goodman discovers Faith at the black mass in the forest, he cries out in despair, "My Faith is gone!"; the devilish old man offers Goodman his staff, Goodman grasps it, and "seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run." This act of Goodman signifies his embracing of sin and evil:

But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.

From then on it is a man without any hope for goodness in anyone that a stern and distrustful Brown is as he perceives the Puritan minister as "a gray blasphemer." Like Adam who also obeyed the serpent, Brown suffers a fall from innocence after he embraces the serpent-like staff.

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Young Goodman Brown

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