How does the use of dark and light colors symbolically represent good and evil in "Young Goodman Brown" by Hawthorne, with examples cited?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Young Goodman Brown tells his wife Faith,who comes into the street, letting the wind "play with the pink (innocent) ribbons on her cap:

My love and my Faith...of all night in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee.  My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise."

Thus, does Goodman Brown set forth upon his dark journey into the forest primeval, the place where the Puritans believed that the black mass of Satan was performed:

He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest,...It was all as lonely as could be....

As he continues on, Brown is in the "deep dusk in the forest" (an occasion of sin) as he encounters an elder person who has a staff, which "bore the likeness of a great black snake..." (the Devil).  As he walks with this man, Brown exclaims that they are going "too far! too far!"  He explains that his father never went this far into the woods; he will be the first of his family to venture so deeply into the forest.  After a while, however, in a "gloomy hollow of the road," Goodman sits down on the stump of a tree and refuses to go farther, knowing that temptation for evil lies ahead of him.  So, the old man cautions him and throws his staff to him.  At last, Goodman looks up and sees

the brightening stars.  The blue sky was still visible, except directly overhead, where this black mass of cloud was sweeping swiftly northward.  Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices.

This is the climax of the story.  Goodman looks to the sky for heavenly air.  But, there is a scream, a cry of grief, rage, and terror. Something flutters in the air and Goodman catches the pink ribbons.  He is "maddened with despair" at the loss:  "My Faith is gone!" and rushes among the black pines until he comes to a clearing where a fire lights up the area. A congregation appears in the red light of the fire, (the brimstone of perdition) then disappears in shadow as Goodman searches for Faith.  Voices join in worship and Goodman "felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart." 

The proselytes stand beneath "the canopy of fire"  and the "smile of welcome gleamed darkly on every visage."  The black mass continues and Goodman and Faith face each other.  He tells her to "look up to heaven and resist the wicked one." But, suddenly, Goodman finds himself in another spot.  The next day he espies Faith, who runs to him, but he passes on without a greeting.  Now, Goodman has truly lost his faith: 

it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown.  A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a deperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream....and his dying hour was gloom.

Goodman has lost his faith, realizing that virtue is a dream:  "Evil is the nature of mankind."  Young Goodman Brown embraces the Calvinistic belief in the depravity of man, and goes to his grave a "hoaary corpse."


booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," the dark seems to refer to that which is evil, especially in traveling in the woods after dark. The Puritans believed that the Devil resided in the woods, and therefore, they usually avoided them, especially after dark. When Brown leaves his wife, he tells her to go to bed at dusk so no harm can touch her: the sense here is that the darkness is a dangerous time, and that good folks should not be out after it becomes dark.

As Brown enters the woods, he becomes nervous, and several times repeats to his companion that he wants to go home to his wife. As they travel the darkened pathways, Brown sees the holiest members of his congregations, seemingly in congress with the Devil, traveling to a Black Mass. Goodman Brown decides to attend also, believing his wife will be there having heard her screams and seen her ribbon.

The only two references that seem to lean toward the light (and symbolically of goodness) are when Brown looks up to the sky to see the stars and offer a prayer to God, at which time a black cloud covers the light-bearing heavenly bodies, essentially cutting Brown off from God. The second time the sky is referenced, Goodman Brown is at the Black Mass and pleads with his wife to look heavenward to save herself, suggesting that the light of heaven can save those tempted by evil.

In the end, Brown cannot tell if what he saw was real or a dream, but he loses his faith in mankind, even his wife, and is a changed man from that day forward.

Besides light and dark images, Brown's companion carries a stick resembling a black snake. (Remember the Devil portrayed as the snake in the Garden of Eden). If we are to look to colors, the black snake would suggest the Goodman Brown's companion is the Devil, and that he is leading Brown where he formerly led Brown's father and grandfather, leading them to commit horrific acts in the past for which the Puritan community would have hypocritically expelled them had they known.

The other color that is referred to often is that of pink, which appears on Faith's bonnet. When it seems that she has been taken and screams, Goodman Brown sees a pink ribbon floating down. As Brown left his home earlier, his wife wore the beautiful ribbons, symbolic of love and innocence. When the ribbon floats to him, without Faith, it may symbolically mean that she has been separated or has chosen to leave her love of God and innocence behind, to be tempted and won to serving the Devil.

It is here we see the symbolic colors of black (evil) and pink (goodness and innocence).

Read the study guide:
Young Goodman Brown

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