One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most anthologized tales, “Young Goodman Brown” shares themes and techniques with much of his other work. Hawthorne’s probing of what might be called the psychology of sin (however secular are modern readings), expressed through his characteristic manipulations of symbolism, merge the tale with his other short stories, such as “The Birth-Mark” (1843) and “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance” (1850), as well as his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852. (Hawthorne’s short stories were written mostly before 1850, and his novels were written after that date.) Hawthorne’s ideas, moral vision, and artistry have established him as one of the nation’s greatest writers. The suggestive ambiguities in his fiction have made his work particularly amenable to treatment by the full range of modern critical perspectives.
The symbolic significance of places, times, names, and objects seems obvious in “Young Goodman Brown.” Salem is the dwelling place of family and community, religion and faith (“faith” the belief and “Faith” the woman). The name Goodman suggests “good man” (although it also had been an equivalent of “mister”). The surrounding wilderness is unknown, a place where one can easily wander from the straight and narrow path. In addition, the scenes in Salem occur during daylight, the scenes in the forest at night. In that dark forest, Brown discovers a prince of darkness (an apparent devil who looks like a man) who appears with his serpent cane as if he has been conjured into being by the word “devil.” Has Brown found in that darkness the light or the truth or an acceptable moral standard in that heathen wilderness? Does he remain a naive yet good man?
“Young Goodman Brown” is not, in fact, a simple religious parable about the undeniable evils of life. The statement that “evil is the nature of mankind,” after all, is spoken by the Devil (the prince of lies as well as the prince of darkness) in what may have been only Brown’s dream. “Young Goodman Brown” is a psychological tale about the impact of this partial truth upon a particularly susceptible mind. If this were not the case, Hawthorne need not have written the final page of the story nor have portrayed Brown in such a negative fashion. Should not the discoverer of truth be rewarded with a positive outcome? Hawthorne does not focus on universal evil or human hypocrisy. Rather, he criticizes Brown as an either/or thinker who never acknowledges the evil in himself. His own diabolical curiosity initially leads him to his appointment in the forest. The devil looks like Brown. After Brown exclaims “my Faith is gone!” he himself becomes “the chief horror of the scene.”
Initially, Brown seems aware that his mission is sinful, but eventually he perceives sin only in others. He becomes blind to goodness and avoids human contact. Like so many Hawthorne characters, he becomes a cold observer of life rather than a life-affirming participant. His sin is pride. As the story opens, he is innocent, young, and sheltered. He knows only good. When he sees Faith in the forest, however, he abruptly converts to a belief that only evil exists. Either attitude is simpleminded. He never envisions a complex life that is a mix of good and evil and which in any case must be lived.
What troubles Brown most in the nocturnal forest is “that the good shrank not from the wicked.” Even the pink of Faith’s ribbons is a mixture of white (purity) and red (associated with guilt and sin in the story). Brown’s propensity to think in terms of God or Satan, the flesh or the spirit, and good or evil has been described as typical of early Puritan New England. In this sense, Hawthorne has written a criticism of society like that of The Scarlet Letter.
Modern critics have interpreted “Young Goodman Brown” in many ways. The story as a critique of society stands out to some. To psychologically inclined readers, Brown journeys into the psyche. The village represents the superego, whereas the forest and darkness become equivalents of the Freudian id. The entire story becomes a portrait of one human mind that discovers the usually suppressed and disquieting reality of animal instinct.
Gender-conscious readers might see Brown’s problem as an inability to accommodate to women as complex individuals. He cannot reconcile the “red” fact of menstrual cycles with the “white” of hallowed motherhood. Faith’s own reality is “pink,” a color that for Brown can only mean a tainting of purity. Brown either “shrank from the bosom of Faith” for her supposedly evil nature or indulged his sexual appetites—since they do have a number of children. Readers may view “Young Goodman Brown” as literary self-revelation, because to write the story, Hawthorne had to distance himself, to observe the human lot just as Brown did. All these perspectives testify to the richness of the story.