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Perhaps because his Puritan uncle, a magistrate who ordered the public whippings of a Quaker woman and his son John, a judge who presided over a witchcraft trial were both sanctimonious hypocrites themselves, and Nathaniel Hawthorne was so disturbed by the heinous sins of his relatives, this self-righteous character emerges throughout the works of Hawthorne. In "Young Goodman Brown" Brown himself is such a character.
He is so certain that he is one of the Puritan "elect" that he dares to go into the dark, sinister forest with the devil himself. The social contextof Goodman's encounters with Goody Cloyse and Deacon Gurkin--real persons who participated in the involved in Devil's worship--is significant. The time period is more significant than the place. For, the time of the Puritans is pivotal to the development of character and theme. This outer reality is pivotal to the development of character in "Young Goodman Brown."
Theme, the central and unifying idea about human experience that grows out of all the other elements of the story, also develops because of the setting. In "Young Goodman Brown," after his experience in the forest, Goodman concludes that all human beings are hopelessly corrupt, totally damned, and must, therefore, be rejected. He remains a sanctimonious hypocrite because he rejects others when he himself "lost his Faith" figuratively, rather than literally as he interpreted the incidents.
If the reader interprets "Young Goodman Brown" as an allegory, the Goodman represents a type of Everyman-- "Goodman" was a title beneath "gentleman"--who must test his faith. His wife Faith represents Goodman's devotion; he tells others that "Faith has kept me back a while," but he plunges into the forest one night. The dark primeval forest represents the environment in which Goodman explores his doubt as he pursues the Black Mass which symbolizes his descent into Hell where like a dream, he awakens and knows that he has lost his Faith.
Character: Goodman Brown himself. His wife Faith plays a minor roll as do all the townspeople who may or may not accompany him on his journey.
Setting: the main setting of the story is a Puritan town at dusk and a forest that Brown wanders in to and meets (perhaps) the devil, members of his own family, townspeople, all who seem to be on their way to some sort of Satanic worship. Of course, none of this is certain since, at the end of the story, Brown is not at all sure whether it happened or whether he fell asleep and dreamed it all.
Theme: The "journey" motif dominates the story. Brown is on a journey of maturation, a trip in which he meets the people of his town and finds out that they are not the "perfect" people that he naievely believed they were. He sees them all as sinners, and is disillusioned because they do not measure up to his standards (of course, we have no idea if any of this happened or not). When he exits the woods he is a changed man; because his townspeople are not the perfect individuals he thought of them, he cannot accept them at all; this includes his wife. As a result, he lives a life of isolation and lonliness. If we can reduce this to a simple statement, it would be that we must learn to accept the ambiguity in everyone. This is difficult when we find it in those closest to us, but it is a reality that we must face.
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