What is the moral or the lesson that we can take from "Young Goodman Brown"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne makes it pretty clear what his story "Young Goodman Brown" is intended to illustrate. Everybody has a dark and evil side to his or her nature. Robert Louis Stevenson was doing the same thing in a more restrained way in his famous story "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." In "Young Goodman Brown," the hero is planning to attend a devil-worshipping ceremony out in the forest. He says goodbye to his innocent little wife Faith and admonishes her to remain safe inside their home until he returns.

“Then God bless you!” said Faith, with the pink ribbons; “And may you find all well when you come back.”

“Amen!” cried Goodman Brown. “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.”

Goodman Brown is accompanied on his journey by the devil, and when Brown gets to the scene of the ceremony he recognizes many of the most righteous members of his community in attendance. What is especially unnerving is that he sees his own wife Faith in the midst of the devil-worshippers. 

Hawthorne softens his story by suggesting that it might, after all, have only been a dream.

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! It was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream. 

One of Guy de Maupassant's lesser-known stories is titled "Was It A Dream?" Maupassant was a younger man than Hawthorne. The French writer's story resembles "Young Goodman Brown" so closely that it seems likely he used Hawthorne's as a model. In "Was It A Dream?" the narrator spends the night in a cemetery mourning the death of his mistress who was just buried there that day. In the middle of the night he sees the graves opening and the occupants emerging in order to revise the words on their own tombstones. For example, one of them reads:

"Here lies Jacques Olivant, who died at the age of fifty-one. He loved his family, was kind and honorable, and died in the grace of the Lord."

The ghost of Jacques Olivant takes a stone and scratches out his epitaph. Then he writes in luminous letters with the tip of his forefinger:

"Here reposes Jacques Olivant, who died at the age of fifty-one. He hastened his father's death by his unkindness, as he wished to inherit his fortune, he tortured his wife, tormented his children, deceived his neighbors, robbed everyone he could, and died wretched."

The narrator sees that all the ghosts from all the other open graves are doing the same thing. They are replacing the false epitaphs with the truth. 

"And I saw that all had been tormentors of their neighbors--malicious, dishonest, hypocrites, liars, rogues, calumniators, envious; that they had stolen, deceived, performed every disgraceful, every abdominal action...and they were all writing at the same time, on the threshold of their eternal abode, the truth, the terrible and the holy truth which everybody is ignorant of, or pretends to be ignorant of, while the others are alive."

Finally the narrator recognizes the ghost of his own beloved mistress who has just been buried here. He sees that she has replaced her epitaph which read: 'She loved, was loved, and died.' 

"I now saw: 'Having gone out one day, in order to deceive her lover, she caught cold in the rain and died.'"

Maupassant titles his story "Was It A Dream?" So it is not necessary for him to end it with that question. Like Hawthorne, Maupassant obviously means his story to be taken literally. Both Young Goodman Brown and Maupassant's anonymous narrator have to question whether they only had bad dreams because they find it impossible to believe that what they saw represented the real truth about human nature. We all have wicked sides, and we are all hiding them from the world. Everyone else is hiding his or her wicked side from us! 

Robert Louis Stevenson was dealing with the same basic idea in his famous story "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Hawthorne also deals with it in "The Minister's Black Veil." That black veil reminds everyone in Reverend Hooper's parish that they are hiding their secret sinful selves from the world.

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Young Goodman Brown

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