What is the moral allegory and moral lesson in "Young Goodman Brown"?
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Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” is his most frequently anthologized story and probably the most often misunderstood. You should probably have a brief refresher on the Salem witchcraft trials, in which neighbor suspected neighbor and children recklessly accused innocent old women. The hand of the devil was always nearby, and. In revealing to Brown the secret wickedness of all the people he knew and trusted, the story seems to illustrate the Puritan doctrine of innate depravity.
Humankind was born tarred with the brush of original sin and could not lose the smudge by any simple ritual of baptism. Brown’s unhappy death at the end of the story seems conventional: Puritans held that how one died indicated his chances in the hereafter. A radiantly serene and happy death was an omen that the victim was Heaven-bound, while a dour death boded ill.
The devil’s looking like a blood relative may reflect another Puritan assumption. Taken literally, perhaps the resemblance between the devil and Brown’s grandfather suggests that evil runs in Brown’s family, or in the Puritan line as the devil asserts (18–19). Or that wickedness lurks within each human heart (as well as good) and that each can recognize it in himself, as if he had looked into a mirror.
The story is read as another of those stories in which the Romantic Hawthorne sets out to criticize extreme Puritanism and to chide the folly of looking for evil where there isn’t any. Some people will take the devil’s words for gospel, agree that “Evil is the nature of mankind,” and assume that Brown learns the truth about all those hypocritical sinners in the village, including that two-faced Faith.
More likely Brown’s Faith is simple faith in the benevolence of God and the essential goodness of humankind. Brown’s loss of this natural faith leads him into the principal error of the Salem witch-hangers: suspecting the innocent of being in league with the devil.
Brown has apparently promised the devil he will go meet him, but go no farther. By meeting the devil he has “kept covenant” (15). The initial situation—that Brown has a promise to keep out in the woods—is vague, perhaps deliberately like the beginning of a dream.
Hawthorne favors the interpretation that Brown dreamed everything (“Be that as it may . . .”). Leave it to the devil to concoct a truly immense deception.
Still, some ambiguity remains. If what Brown saw at the witches’ Sabbath really did take place, then his gloom and misery at the end of the story seem understandable.
As for allegory, not only Faith can be seen as a figure of allegory, but Young Goodman Brown himself—the Puritan Everyman, subject to the temptation to find evil everywhere.
The theme can not be “Evil is the nature of mankind” or “Even the most respected citizens are secretly guilty.” That is what the devil would have us believe. A more defensible theme might be “Keep your faith in God and humankind” or “He who finds evil where no evil exists makes himself an outcast from humanity.”