In Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown," how do specific tenets of Puritan theology and/or belief shape Goodman Brown’s experience in the forest and help lead to his gloomy end?
Puritan theology is relevant to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” in a number of different places and ways, including the following:
"after this one night I'll cling to [Faith’s] skirts and follow her to heaven."
- Near the very beginning of the story, Brown, like many Puritans, has a strong conviction that he is one of God's elect and that his salvation is therefore predetermined. He seems to assume that he can go into the forest without needing to worry about his ultimate spiritual fate:
- Like many Puritans (at least according to their opponents), Brown seems to exhibit spiritual pride, not only in himself but also in his ancestors. He assumes that his forbears were among the elect (those predestined for divine salvation) and that they would therefore never have sinned. Thus he says to the stranger he meets in the forest,
"My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs . . . .”
- Likewise, Brown’s spiritual pride (a vice often attributed to Puritans) seems clear when he says of the Puritans of New England,
“We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no . . . wickedness."
According to opponents of the Puritans, the assumption by the Puritans that they had been predestined by God for salvation could not help but encourage a certain spiritual smugness. Precisely because Brown assumes that he and other Puritans are destined for heaven, he finds it incredibly shocking to discover so many of his fellow Puritans in the woods, worshipping (with) Satan.
- Brown’s Puritanical pride seems manifested once again, but in a different way, when he later declares,
"Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you."
- Later in the story, the devil baptizes those assembled in the forest into what Hawthorne calls
the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own.
Such consciousness of the guilt of others would have been considered a typical trait of Puritans, at least according to their opponents. Because Puritans believed that only a tiny portion of mankind had been selected from the beginning of time to be saved, they naturally thought that most of their fellow humans were destined for damnation. Once again a basic tenet of Puritans could contribute (according to the Puritans’ opponents) to great spiritual arrogance.
- By the end of the story, Brown seems alienated from his wife, his family, his townspeople, and his fellow Christians because he assumes that they are all damned but that he is saved. He assumes that they are hypocrites and that he is the only truly “pure” person left in Salem. His assurance of salvation, however, far from giving him joy, alienates his from his fellow fallen creatures. By judging them as God might harshly judge unrepentant sinners, Brown truly does now seem to be
more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than [he] could now be of [his] own.