“Young Goodman Brown” is a perfect example of Hawthorne’s favorite theme: that human nature is full of hidden wickedness. The young hero’s journey in the story is symbolic of one’s journey through life, in which each individual gradually loses his or her naïveté and innocence as a result of exposure to greed, lust, envy, perversion, and the other sins of humanity.
The crowning blow to Brown’s naïve conception of the world comes when he discovers that his own meek and innocent wife, Faith, is one of the celebrants at the Walpurgis Night orgy. As is often the case, Hawthorne treats his theme with a tongue-in-cheek humor which arises mainly from the contrast between people’s real characters and the false faces they present to the world. The humor is vital to this story; the reader is enticed along the forest pathway by an illusion of frivolity and comes to realize the full horror intended only after finishing the last page.
Stories such as this entitle Hawthorne to be considered one of the principal founders of the modern short story, a form of literature in which American authors have excelled. The essence of a modern short story, as defined by Edgar Allan Poe in a newspaper review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, is that every detail contributes to a single effect. Prior to Hawthorne’s time, short stories tended to be episodic and loosely structured, often resembling essays. The single effect of a modern short story can be produced by the overall mood, as is often the case in the works of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, or by a surprising or shocking ending, as is usually the case in the stories of the French writer Guy de Maupassant and the American writer O. Henry. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the effect of terror and dismay is produced by the surprise ending. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the effect of horror and disillusionment spiced with sardonic humor is produced by the overall mood.
Hawthorne writes about witches and devils as would someone who does not really believe in such grotesque creatures but appreciates them as colorful and dramatic symbols of humanity’s hidden guilt and fear. Some of his stories are not unlike modern horror films, which evoke laughter from the audience along with shivers and shrieks. This indicates a sophisticated modern attitude which was characteristic of many of Hawthorne’s European and American contemporaries, who were trying to reconcile traditional beliefs with modern scientific knowledge.
Young Goodman Brown is bidding his wife, Faith, farewell at their front door. It is evening in the village, and he is going on a guilty errand, a fact that he clearly recognizes and deplores but an errand he has chosen to undertake nevertheless. Taking a route into the forest, he meets, as by appointment, an older man who bears a fatherly resemblance to both Brown and the Devil.
Brown initially considers his decision to go on his unholy errand an exceptional one, but he soon discovers that other presumably exemplary villagers are on the same path, including, to his amazement, Goody Cloyse, a pious old woman who once taught him his catechism but who readily confesses to the practice of witchcraft. With Brown still confident that he can turn back, his older companion departs, leaving behind his curiously snakelike staff and fully expecting that Brown will soon follow.
Brown hides from another group of approaching figures, which includes the minister and deacon of his church and even—to his horror—his wife, Faith. At this point, he yields to despair and sets forth to join in what is obviously a witches’ Sabbath or Black Mass. Laughing and blaspheming, Brown rushes toward the throng in the forest. Literally everyone noted for sanctity seems to be gathered together in communion with known sinners before a rock altar amid blazing pine trees. He is led to the latter with another initiate; when her veil is removed, he recognizes Faith. A dark satanic figure welcomes them to “the communion of your race.”
Here, conscious that they are standing at the edge of some irredeemable wickedness, they hesitate, and Brown calls out to his wife to resist. A second later, the scene has dissolved, and he finds himself in the forest alone, shivering and confused. The following morning, he returns to the village to find all apparently normal, but he cannot help but shun contact with Goody Cloyse and the other good people—even his own wife.
In his final paragraph, Nathaniel Hawthorne summarizes the later, permanently blighted life of Goodman Brown. He scowls and mutters during prayers, suspects all the pious, recoils from his wife in bed at night, and finally dies without hope.
Newlywed Goodman Brown sets forth at sunset for the nearby forest, where he apparently has an appointment. Leaving Salem village, he promises his wife, Faith, that he will return after this single night. Confused by Brown’s odd behavior and mysterious errand, Faith fails to convince him to remain at home, or at least to delay his journey until the following morning. Criticizing her for doubting his purposes, Brown nevertheless seems conscience-stricken about his own motivations. He vows to be true to Faith and to their religious faith—after this one night. His wife can only hope that this experience, whatever it is, will not change their lives for the worse.
Soon after he walks into the darkening forest, Brown expresses fear that in the gloomy wilderness he could easily be ambushed by the devil himself. He then sees a man (actually, the text suggests that he looks “like” a man) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Brown’s own venerated grandfather. This man uses a crooked walking stick that resembles a serpent—from a distance and in the dim light it even seems to wiggle. Asked by the man why he is late for his appointment, Brown responds that Faith had delayed him. As the two walk and talk, Brown periodically voices his apprehension and says he must return to Salem and Faith.
Asserting his family’s virtue, Brown disbelieves his companion’s account of being well acquainted with the people of New England, including Brown’s father and grandfather. Brown then observes the man meeting with his pious catechism teacher, Goody Cloyse, who exclaims the devil’s name when the man startles her with a touch of the serpent-staff. She reveals her diabolical deeds as the two chat.
Brown congratulates himself with the thought that, however evil Goody Cloyse proves to be, he will return to Salem with a clear conscience to talk of religious truths with the minister and Deacon Gookin. Brown then overhears the minister and the deacon discuss an unholy congregation and new converts. Apparent evidence mounts that, indeed, the devil is intimate with even moral and religious New Englanders. Brown is especially troubled by the indiscriminate mingling of the godly and the ungodly. However, he remains defiant and maintains that he still has Faith, whereupon the pink ribbons of his wife flutter down from the sky.
As if struck by a blow, at this instant Brown is overwhelmed by disillusionment: Even his Faith has gone the way of Satan. Despairing and hysterical, he now believes that there is no goodness and the world is wholly evil.
Brown is led to a clearing in the forest where pine trees blaze like gigantic candles above an altar made of stone. The satanic congregation’s holy hymns have unholy lyrics. Brown and Faith stand as converts, soon to be initiated into this bizarre congregation and the belief that evil is the sole and essential nature of humankind. They will soon even gaze upon each other’s disgusting sinfulness. The devil dips his hand into water that looks like blood, reaching forth to initiate the young couple with the mark of this perverse baptism. In a final impulse of virtue Brown tells Faith to resist Satan. Then there is nothing—no blazing trees, no baptismal blood, no ominously chanting congregation. Brown finds himself alone in the dark, damp, and cool forest. Disoriented, he slowly wanders back to Salem at sunrise.
Was this episode in the woods real, or was it merely a dream? In either case, the experience destroys Brown’s ability to accept and enjoy life. Back in Salem, he is ever after a moody and depressed man, distrustful and incapable of joy. All he sees is the evil that has been revealed to him; all he perceives, therefore, is human hypocrisy. He cannot endure listening to preaching and prayers and hymn singing; he snatches a child away from Goody Cloyse as she instructs the girl about religious truths. Villagers cannot understand Brown and his strange and inexplicable transformation. After a long and lonely life, he dies despairing and joyless.