What is the attitude towards the Indians in "Young Goodman Brown?"

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is a condescending attitude towards Indians (Native Americans) from Brown's perspective (not necessarily Hawthorne's). Brown expresses this just as he begins his journey of a "present evil purpose": 

"There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree," said Goodman Brown to himself; and he glanced fearfully behind him as he added, "What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!" 

Here, Brown thinks that "devilish Indians" and the devil himself might be preying upon him. He conflates the two (devils and indians) implying that he thinks both are evil. 

When Brown sees his wife's pink ribbon caught on the branch of a tree, he loses his faith and maybe his mind. He takes on the personification of the devil "rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal men to evil" amidst "the creaking of trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians." Again the ideas of evil, savagery and Indians are conflated. It would seem, here, that Indians are conflated with evil in general, not just from Brown's perspective. However, the paragraph ends with the narrator commenting that Goodman Brown "was himself the chief horror of the scene." 

Thus, Brown became the most frightening thing in the forest. As this story includes Hawthorne's criticism of the strictly religious and self-righteous Puritan belief system, it is a criticism of their condescending attitudes toward Indians. Puritans adhered to a strict Christianity and the most strict would look upon Indians as savages. Hawthorne knew this. Goodman Brown was such a strict and faithful Christian who, like those of his time, viewed Indians as savage and potentially evil. Since this is a criticism of those strict Puritanical beliefs, it is also a criticism of Brown himself. 

Although Hawthorne does not come out overtly in defense of Indians in the story, he does criticize characters/people (Brown) who refer to them as devils. So, within the story, the attitude towards Indians is condescending. Above the story and/or judging at Hawthorne's perspective, it is neutral to Indians if not sympathetic. 

Note that in the first few pages of the story, the devil remarks that he knows Brown's ancestors: 

I have been well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war. 

The devil claims to have helped Brown's ancestors do these evil deeds. But in the fanatical Puritanical way of thinking, these deeds were done in defense of their strict understanding of religious practice. Clearly, Hawthorne is criticizing that Puritanical history of intolerance. Therefore, he is criticizing a group that would set fire to an Indian village simply because they have a different perspective on religious doctrine. 

Read the study guide:
Young Goodman Brown

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