In literary works, the “initiation” theme is often associated with a kind of rite of passage in which a character undergoes a process of discovery and thus achieves a new kind of insight or maturity. Sometimes the initiation process involves overcoming tests or challenges so that the person being initiated becomes a full participating member of a community.
Seen in these terms, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” is a tale about initiation in a variety of senses. Thus, at the beginning of the tale, Young Goodman Brown is literally Young Goodman Brown – a newly married youth who has his entire life ahead of him. The experience he undergoes in the forest leaves him a dark and bitter old man. In a sense, then, he experiences a very ironic initiation. Rather than becoming a full member of a thriving community thanks to his experiences, he instead becomes isolated and alienated from his community. Rather than experiencing a new and expanded kind of knowledge, he instead achieves “knowledge” of dubious merit – knowledge that leaves him cut off from the rest of his family and from any potential friends. Instead of being judged by the community and then admitted into it (as would happen in a “normal” initiation), Brown ends the story as a person who sets himself up as the judge of his community and who refuses whatever admittance he might have been offered. By refusing to participate fully in the initiation ceremony he thinks he perceives in the forest, he ironically becomes initiated, in reality, into precisely the kind of community he seemed to have rejected. After all, in the forest the satanic figure promises to initiate those apparently present into “the mystery of sin,” so that they will be
more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own.
This, of course, is precisely the kind of initiation Brown seems to have undergone by the very end of the story. Whether the events in the forest really happened or whether they were merely a dream, they have changed Brown forever, so that by the end of his life he has become a
stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.
Paradoxically, then, Brown appears to go into the forest to achieve some kind of initiation experience; then he seems to refuse the initiation experience that he believes is actually offered to him there; but, ultimately, he seems initiated into a new and ugly way of thinking nonetheless. Rather than having matured by the end of the story, he seems to have stagnated or actually regressed; rather than having developed a fuller bond with his community, he seems to grown isolated from it; rather than becoming a wiser man, he seems instead to be far less wise than he imagines.