In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," how does the setting affect the characters and theme?  

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” setting is relevant to character and theme in a number of ways, including the following:

  • The reference to “sunset” in the opening sentence of the story is an example of foreshadowing.  Brown is about to enter a period of his life that will be both literally and figuratively darker than his past.
  • The opening sentence also refers to “Salem village” – the community from which Brown will later feel cut off as a result of his experiences in the forest.
  • Brown’s journey into the forest is a journey into both literal and symbolic darkness – darkness that is both moral and psychological.
  • Brown worries that there “may be a devilish Indian behind every tree” in the forest – not stopping to consider the possibility that evil impulses may reside within his own soul.
  • At one point, the mysterious stranger whom Brown meets in the forest says of Brown’s father and grandfather,

They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight.

The “path” mentioned here is not only the literal path through the forest but the metaphorical path of life itself.

  • Later, in the midst of the dark forest, Brown perceives flames rising from a rock that seems to be serving as a kind of altar or pulpit.  The narrator then notes:

As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.

Brown perceives this setting as a kind of symbolic parody of the church and church services he is accustomed to attending in the village. He begins to believe that all the other residents of his town are evil. In one sense, he is right: standard Christian doctrine teaches that all people are innately corrupted by sin.  Brown, however, now sees figurative darkness everywhere, and presumes to judge it, especially after he returns to the literal and figurative light of the village. In a metaphorical sense, however, he thus never really returns from his journey into the darkness. The rest of his life is darkened by his dark perceptions of everyone else around him, including his wife, Faith. Little wonder, then, that the story ends literally in a graveyard, symbolic of the death of Brown’s figurative and spiritual death:

they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.


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Young Goodman Brown

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