What does Goodman Brown mean when he says, "Faith kept me back a while" in Hawthorne's story, Young Goodman Brown?
In order to have attained full membership, the Puritan church insisted not only that its congregation lead godly lives and display a comprehension of tenets of their Christian faith, but they also must demonstrate that they had experienced true evidence of the workings of God’s grace in their souls. This is why Young Goodman Brown sets out one night. When he tells the devil, "Faith kept me back a while" it is a statement pregnant with meaning because by the time he arrives at the meeting place, ironically, Faith is already there. But, the "Faith" that kept him back is his illusionary faith. Thus, the disillusionment in his Calvinistic beliefs begins shortly after Goodman meets the devil as the devil turns Brown'sboast of being from a race of honest men and good Chritians upon Goodman,
Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever one among the Puritans.
After Brown perceives that Goody Cloyse consorts with the devilhe is disturbed. Thomas E. Connolly, author of "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism" states that the reader should be aware of Hawthorne's criticism of Calvinism here as the narrator notes that Goodman's remark, "That old woman taught me my catechism" is followed by "and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment."
And, as the narrative progresses, Brown begins to recognize that his original conception about his Faith is wrong. For, Deacon Gookin and the "good old minister"who are also associated with the devil, effect Brown's recognition that his Calvinistic faith is diabolic, not divine. With allegorical symbolism, Hawthorne writes of the effect that this awakening has on Brown,
Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart....While he still gazed up to the deep arch of the firmament, though no wind was stirring, a cloud hurried across the zenith and hid the brightening stars."
Further, when he sees the pink ribbons of Faith wafting in the air, these ribbons symbolize Brown's initial illusion that his faith will lead him to heaven. As Goodman cries, "My faith is gone!" his faith no longer means what it once did. He hears the devil underscore the implications of the Calvinisitic predestination and the depravity of man as he states, "Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness...."
So, on his journey with the devil, Young Goodman Brown has not lost his faith; he has simply learned its terrible significance despite Faith's holding him back for a while. Connolly contends,
This story is Hawthorne's criticism of the teachings of Puritanic-Calvinism....the doctrine of the elect and damned is not a faith which carries man heavenward on its skirts, as Brown once believed, but, instead, condemns him to hell--bad and good alike indiscriminately--and for all intents and puposes so few escape as to make one man's chance of salvation almost disappear.
It is this epiphany to the meaning of his Puritanic-Calvinistic faith which, then, causes Brown to perceive his minister as a hypocrite when he teaches about the "saint-like lives and triumphant death and future bliss." For, he has learned from his forest experience that there is little other than "misery unutterable.""Faith held me back," therefore, means that Brown's belief that faith will lead him to heaven has been illusionary.
In Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, Goodman Brown is the member of a Puritan community who is out one evening on "an errand." As he prepares to leave, his wife, Faith, puts her head near her new husband's ear and entreats him to stay home. He tells her he must go, but insists that if she stays home and says her prayers, all will be well.
Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.
As he leaves he looks back, and there is foreshadowing in his comment:
She talks of dreams. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But no, no!
This implies that Brown, for all of his encouragement regarding how his wife can keep herself safe, he is planning to partake in something he should not be doing; we find this in "warned her what work is to be done." This also foreshadows what happens in the middle of the woods, when it appears that there is a Black Mass. However, when it is over, Brown is not sure if it was a dream or not.
As Brown walks along (in the forest, where Puritans believed the devil resided and therefore avoided the place), the narrator describes that Brown "passed a crook in the road." This would indicate a bend. The road to heaven is said to be "straight and narrow," while the road to hell is winding and wide. In that moment, Brown meets a man in "grave and decent attire, seated at the foot of an old tree" who takes his place comfortably, it seems, at Brown's side as they walk on. (This man is allegedly the devil.) The man complains that Brown is late; Brown responds, "Faith kept me back awhile," and we can assume that he means it literally—"I was late because my wife wanted to talk with me."
We might also assume that the premonition Brown thought he read on his wife's face made her fearful to let him go and so she tried to delay him.
However, we might also perceive this as a figurative statement, a double entendre. While "Faith" is his wife's name, the word starts the sentence and so it must be capitalized. Looking at this statement figuratively, it may not refer to his wife at all, but may refer, rather, to a struggle Brown had with his soul's faith—in deciding whether to come into the woods for this meeting and journey, or to stay at home as he wisely counsels his wife to do.
While Brown believes he can consort with this man in the forest and come out unscathed, Hawthorne seems to be saying that it is not possible. As the scripture warns...
No one can serve two masters. (Matthew 6:24 - NIV)
Ironically, Brown believes he is the only faithful person in town when he returns, but his time spent in the company of evil has changed him. If only he had listened to "faith" when it/she spoke to him.