Themes and Structure in "Young Goodman Brown"

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Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of those rare writers who drew great critical acclaim during his own lifetime. To his contemporaries—Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville—as well as to the next generation of writers, Hawthorne was a genius. Poe said in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales that Hawthorne has ''the purest style, the finest taste, the most available scholarship, the most delicate humor, the most touching pathos, the most radiant imagination." Hawthorne's work, consisting of over 50 stories and sketches as well as such classic novels as The Scarlet Letter, continued to draw attention after his death and experienced a particular resurgence of interest after World War I. His writings attract readers not only for their storytelling qualities, but also for the moral and theological ambiguities Hawthorne presents so well.

The Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges and the eminent American scholar Harold Bloom both agree that Hawthorne's shorter works are his best. Foremost among his stories in popular appeal and critical respect is "Young Goodman Brown," which tells the story of a young Puritan drawn into a covenant with the Devil, despite his attempts to resist. In the course of one evening, Brown's illusions of the godliness of his society are shattered as he discovers that his fellow townspeople, including religious leaders and his wife, are attending a Black Mass. At the end of the story, Brown is left to wonder whether his vision was, in fact, a dream. Yet the delineation between the imaginary and the real does not matter, because the mere ability to see such evil in his loved ones destines Brown thereafter to a life of desperate gloominess. The prose is powerful, prompting Melville, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales to delight in this ''strong positive illustration of that blackness in Hawthorne."

''Young Goodman Brown'' has been analyzed through many lenses, including the psychological, historical, sociological, theological, and semantic. Critics still disagree over fundamental questions such as whether Brown is a victim or has only himself to blame for what befalls him. One feature that does stand out in the work is the accurate portrayal of Puritan society. Hawthorne clearly understands the demands of the Puritan faith, and it is no surprise to find that he has a legitimate claim to this heritage—among his ancestors number a constable who "lashed [a] Quaker woman so smartly" and a military officer who engaged in the destruction of an Indian village. Hawthorne also includes in his story the characters of Goody Cloyse, who taught Brown catechism, Martha Carrier, who had been promised to be "the queen of hell," and Goody Cory, all of whom were real people accused of sorcery during the Salem Witch Trials. Deacon Gookin also figures in Puritan history, as does, of course, Salem village. Such details challenge the reader to analyze Hawthorne's intentions: is he trying to influence us through his use of history to believe that Brown was not dreaming? Is he trying to cast doubt on historical figures and thus show that no one is beyond suspicion? Whatever the answers may be, Hawthorne effectively places us in the story, illustrating the social milieu which produced the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Though "Young Goodman Brown" is sharply steeped in Puritan history and culture, like all great works of literature it can be viewed on a more universal level as well. "Young Goodman Brown" takes the form of an allegory, which uses certain elements of a story (characters, plot, etc.), or the entire story itself to symbolize something else. Brown represents Everyman ("Goodman" was a title for those who were beneath the social rank of...

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''gentleman''), while Faith, his wife, represents his religious devotion. In leaving Faith, Brown forsakes his belief in the godliness of humanity. He immediately enters into a wood "lonely as could be," which is enshrouded in "deep dusk ... deepest in the part" through which Brown walks. These woods are the physical location in which he will explore his doubts and conflicting desires. That he feels ambivalent about forging an alliance with the Devil is clear from his first entry into the forest, when he tells his companion that ''Faith kept me back awhile.'' Yet though he pledges to return to Faith—or to his belief in humankind—several times, he continues his journey toward the Black Mass, which symbolizes his descent into Hell. Whereas many times a predominantly allegorical story fails in other areas—characterization, plot, or simply engaging the reader—Hawthorne succeeds at this double task remarkably.

Not all critics and readers approve of use of the allegorical. Poe, for instance, avows in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales that "In defense of allegory... there is scarcely any respectable word to be said." Other critics see a purely allegorical reading of the story as far too narrow, and so have used it as a foundation upon which to construct other interpretations. Some psychological allegorists see the story as an example of Sigmund Freud's theory of the struggle between the ego, superego, and id. The id, which acts on one's instinctive desires, is represented by Brown's desire to submit to the evil of the Black Mass. His conflicts arise from his superego, or conscience, which wants no part of the night's events. The superego, created by the strict Puritan society, is represented by the town and its people. Brown's indecision characterizes the attempts of the superego to keep the ego, or Brown himself, from going along with the desires of the id. In a Freudian psychological reading such as this, Brown's journey through the forest is seen as a sexual adventure that ends with the revealing of sexual knowledge when the Devil shares the "mystery of sin" with his congregation.

Still other critics read the story as Hawthorne's attack on the unredemptive nature of Calvinism, a system of beliefs which emphasizes the power of the Devil, the innate depravity of humans, and predestination—being chosen before birth to enter heaven after death. Such a reading can be supported by Brown's words, early in the story, that ''after this one night I'll cling to [Faith's] skirts and follow her to heaven." Brown believes Faith is an "angel"— one of those selected for heaven. Though Brown rejects final acceptance of the Devil's proclamation that ''Evil is the nature of mankind,'' after the Black Mass he only sees the capability of evil in those who surround him, and thus he endures his life under the hand of the Devil anyway. Critics who offer such readings, however, may be equating Hawthorne, the author, with Hawthorne, the descendant of Puritans who assumed the guilt of his witch-hunting ancestors. Author Henry James wrote that "Young Goodman Brown," "means nothing as regards Hawthorne's own state of mind, his conviction of human depravity and his consequent melancholy; for the simple reason that if it meant anything, it would mean too much."

Though it may be tempting to look upon the story as a simple "tale," it is without a doubt a difficult one from which to draw conclusions. The ambiguous nature of the story is apparent throughout. For example, in the seeming appearance of Brown's dead father beckoning him to attend the Black Mass "while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?" One of the more alarming uncertainties, however, lies in the character of Faith. From the very beginning, Faith's "faith" is called into question—she wears pink hair ribbons, perhaps a sign of frivolity. More important, though, is the suggestion that Faith herself has also agreed to a covenant with the Devil. She asks Brown not to leave that evening, for she is filled with "such thoughts that she's afeared of herself sometimes." Yet her voice is sad, as if she has resigned herself to accepting the evil to come. In the end, Brown never knows if Faith also rejects the Devil.

Brown, himself, is an inconstant character. He begins as a naive young man believing in his own free will to turn back on his sinful promise. His increasing struggles to resist evil show his development as a man. For example, at one point Brown challenges his companion, the Devil, for "any reason that I should quit my dear Faith." But when he has reaffirmed his decision to "stand firm against the Devil!" he discovers that Faith is on her way to the Black Mass. Suddenly, finding "There is no good on earth," Brown turns into a personification of the Devil. Brandishing the Devil's own staff, he rushes through the forest, blaspheming; and against the fearful backdrop of wild beasts and Indians (the antithesis of civilized Puritan society), he becomes ''himself the chief horror of the scene.''

Hawthorne adds ambiguity to the story with his suggestion "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?'' It is tempting to answer yes since Hawthorne suggests throughout the story that dreams can foreshadow events. Brown realizes that Faith spoke "as if a dream warned her what work is to be done tonight." Her speech at his leave-taking— "A lone woman is troubled with dreams"—implies, instead, that they may have been having a shared dream as both prepare to embark on the same journey. Certainly, Brown's understanding of his experiences can be filtered through the lens of a dream/nightmare—in the dark, gloomy forest, in voices so indistinct' 'he doubted he heard aught but the murmur of the old forest," and in the Devil's congregation that "alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow."

Yet for Brown whether or not his experiences belong to a dream does not matter, because "a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become." Although Brown did ''look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one," he has lost his faith as completely as if he had indeed given himself to the Devil. In church, he cannot listen to the psalms "because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear"; while listening to a sermon he fears "the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers"; he even "shrank from the bosom of Faith"—yet he never knows if evil actually exists in these places. Though Brown succeeds in his rejection of the Devil in physical form—that of the dark figure leading the Black Mass—he allows sin to reside within him when he rejects his belief in humanity. Therefore, Brown comes to represent Hawthorne's belief in the isolation of the human spirit; Hawthorne acknowledged that every human being is alone "in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart."

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Rena Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

The Woe That Is Madness: Goodman Brown and the Face of the Fire

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Hawthorne, if any one, was equipped to write the definitive novel on the Salem witchcraft delusion; but he never confronted it head on. ''Alice Doane's Appeal" conjures up the victims from the graveyard, Grandfather's Chair and "Main Street" give the barest bones of a synopsis, ''Sir William Phips'' merely hints at it, and The House of the Seven Gables fictionalizes its heritage of guilt. But nowhere does Hawthorne give the dramatic account in depth of the trial and tragedy of Rebecca Nurse, George Burroughs, John Proctor, Giles Corey, George Jacobs and the other courageous victims, nor the damnable game of the ''afflicted'' girls, the admission of spectral evidence by autocratic judges, nor the sinister attempt by paranoid theocrats to maintain their power through terror. It remained for lesser writers to deal with such matters, for Hawthorne was not so much chronicling our history as he was molding the legend of our past. Thus the wholly fictitious "Young Goodman Brown" is our most effective literary work in recreating the atmosphere in which the witchcraft hysteria occurred.

"Young Goodman Brown" is Hawthorne's most successful story. Here he is free from the authorial editorializing that makes some other tales excessively didactic. Nowhere does the author intrude; such moral generalizations as the story contains are spoken by the devil, who is, of course, unreliable. The reader is spared such obvious guidelines as, "and this shall be a moral unto you," that mar other tales. Hawthorne's allegories, profound though they usually are, often seem too contrived and their plots are sometimes inadequate for their meaning. But in "Young Goodman Brown," there are no poisoned Gothic gardens, no bosom serpents, Faustian laboratories, or other unnatural devices; the supernatural terror is not of Germany but comes from authentic American history; its folk-lore quality is not from flights of fancy but from an actual episode that has become a part of our heritage. As Hawthorne says elsewhere of the Salem burial ground, for every Bunker Hill monument in our history, there should be a Gallows Hill. As he says of democracy that it' 'comes from the nature of things," so does the situation in ''Young Goodman Brown"; it is not superimposed from without but corresponds to the psychology of Puritan belief and of the Salem witchcraft delusion.

Yet the very absense of editorializing has caused considerable ambiguity. In their introductory notes to the story, Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long explain its meaning as Brown's "corruption through his loss of simple faith in the goodness of mankind...." This is comment has stood in the widely used The American Tradition in Literature since 1956; but in the context both of Hawthorne's fiction and of 17th-century Puritanism, it is misleading. For Brown, as a Puritan, would have been indoctrinated with the Calvinistic concept of total depravity, according to which mankind is utterly corrupt and deserves no better than damnation. In the orthodox Calvinism of Michael Wiggles worth's doggerel "The Day of Doom," men of good works are damned to hell, and so are they

Who dy'd in infancy, And never had or good or bad effected pers'nally, But from the womb unto the tomb were straightway carried....

They are damned not for sins of commission but simply for their humanity in being born with "Nature / depraved and forlorn."

Accordingly, Perry Miller maintained that "It is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan; no matter what misfortune befell him, no matter how often or how tragically his fellowmen failed him, he would have been prepared for the worst, and would have expected no better.''

In Goodman Brown, Hawthorne did conceive of a disillusioned Puritan, but Brown's tragedy is not the loss of his simple faith; rather it is that his faith is too simple to begin with. He is, of course, aware of evil from the start, for he is concerned lest a dream have warned his wife "what work is to be done tonight" as he sets forth on "his present evil purpose." But at this stage in his development, evil is still a notion; he may believe in it intellectually as dogma, but he has not yet experienced it. So his leaving his wife for an evening of diabolical revelry at the witches' sabbath is merely an untested young man's first (and he expects final) fling. One might compare him to the youth who thinks he will just once try drugs, prostitution, or some sort of perversity—just once, to see what it's like, and never again—and who gets hooked into addiction or shocked into fanatical reaction. Goodman Brown is like the person who from perverse curiosity experiments once with LSD and has a bad trip.

His trip into the forest is indeed a bad one, so traumatic that he concludes by disbelieving in any goodness. Though he cries out to Faith to ''look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one," and is whisked away from the black mass, he still believes Satan's claim that "Evil is the nature of mankind" and blights the rest of his life by acknowledging, "Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." His discovery of the hypocrisy of the catechist, clergy, ministers and magistrates of Salem has destroyed his faith in the Calvinist elect, who if they persevered anywhere should have done so in the new Zion of Massachusetts. With the participation of his wife Faith in the devil worship, there are not brands spared from the burning; the depravity is indeed total.

It is too simple to consider the story an unqualified attack on Calvinism. Though Hawthorne deplored the Puritans' grim bigotry, he respected their strength and commitment and wrote in the "The Old Manse'' that he preferred the warmth that their writings once had to the anemic frigidity of 19th-century liberal theology. It is true that one element of "Young Goodman Brown" is a criticism of Puritan self-righteousness; the devil points out to Brown that he has "a very general acquaintance here in New England'' and proceeds to cite numerous instances of bigotry, persecution, and hypocrisy.

On the question of evil, the issue is more complex. Hawthorne rejected Emerson's bland dismissal of evil as mere illusion that will vanish when one rises transcendently into the world of spirit: "So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies, vanish ...." But how far did Hawthorne go in the opposite direction? Melville asked of Hawthorne "whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom" and concluded (later citing "Young Goodman Brown" as an example)' 'that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to the Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free'' and that "this black conceit pervades him [Hawthorne] through and through."

Though the lack of editorial explanation makes the story ambiguous, Goodman Brown's morbid misanthropy is not Hawthorne's. Henry James commented, "The magnificent little romance of "Young Goodman Brown" ... evidently means nothing as regards Hawthorne's own state of mind, his conviction of human depravity and his consequent melancholy; for the simple reason that if it meant anything, it would mean too much." James further observed that the gloomy subjects of Hawthorne's tales "were not the expression of a hopeless, or even of a predominantly melancholy, feeling about the human soul."

To find Hawthorne's own position, we must turn to other works, for he is one author whose writings can profitably be cross-referenced. What Goodman Brown experiences is an inversion of Jonathan Edwards' statement that it is one thing to have an opinion that God is holy and ought to be worshiped and quite another thing to have a sense of that holiness in one's heart. Thus in The Marble Faun, explaining the pure Hilda's reaction to discovering the crime of Miriam and Donatello, Hawthorne comments on ''those tears (among the most chill and forlorn that gush from human sorrow) which the innocent heart pours forth at its first actual discovery that sin is in the world.... They may have heard much of the evil of the world, and seem to know it, but only as an impalpable theory. In due time, some mortal, whom they reverence too highly, is commissioned by Providence to teach them this direful lesson; he perpetrates a sin; and Adam falls anew, and Paradise, heretofore in un-faded bloom is lost again, and closed forever, with the fiery swords gleaming at its gates." As a Puritan, Brown would have a knowledge of evil but a notional knowledge only until his ordeal in the forest. Then he falls into what William James calls "really insane melancholia ... desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception of intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one ...." Apropos of Hilda, Hawthorne explains further "that dismal certainty of the existence of evil in the world, which, though we may fancy ourselves fully assured of the sad mystery long before, never becomes a portion of our practical belief until it takes substance and reality from the sin of some guide, whom we have deeply trusted and revered, or some friend whom we have deeply loved. When that knowledge comes, it is as if a cloud had suddenly gathered over the morning light; so dark a cloud, that there seems to be no longer any sunshine behind it or above it... as if the catastrophe involved the whole moral world."

Clearly Hawthorne had a perspective that Brown lacks. His own position is perhaps best seen when he describes young Phoebe Pyncheon's distress upon discovering the evil in her respectable kinsman, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon:

A doubt of this nature has a most disturbing influence, and ... comes with fearful and startling effect on minds of the trim, orderly, and limit-loving class ... Dispositions more boldly speculative may derive a stern enjoyment from the discovery, since there must be evil in the world, that a high man is as likely to grasp his share of it as a low one. A wider scope of view, and a deeper insight, may see rank, dignity, and station, all proved illusory, so far as regards their claim to human reverence, and yet not feel as if the universe were thereby tumbled headlong into chaos.

This final view was Hawthorne's own. It is matched by Melville's statement in Moby Dick: "Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye."

But Goodman Brown resembles Ishmael in "The Try-Works" chapter, Melville's equivalent of a witches' sabbath, during which as helmsman Ishmael is terrified by the thought that like Brown in the dark forest, he "was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern." Recovering his senses after almost capsizing the ship, he makes a statement that can serve with uncanny accuracy as a comment on "Young Goodman Brown."

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!... Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler relief... Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp nor Rome's accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon...

This is what happens to Brown on his return to Salem. Ishmael therefore concludes, matching the judgment of both Melville and Hawthorne, "Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee.... There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness." This is the woe that afflicts Brown. He has departed from Ishmael's "insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy," into "all the horrors of the half known life''; and as Ishmael says, "Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!''

Brown's physical return to Salem poses a number of problems. If his experience is taken literally, then everyone else who had participated in the black mass would know that he too had been there. Yet no one else appears unchanged. Is it because the others did not renounce Satan, as Brown did? Faith would know that he knows she was there, and he would know that she knows he knows. At the beginning she has a knowledge or at least a premonition of ' 'what work is to be done tonight'' and urges him to stay as much for her sake as for his own on "this night... of all nights in the year." Yet Faith greets him as if nothing amiss had occurred. She has not been overwhelmed with gloom; and if the rest of her days are blighted, it is because Brown's never-lifted depression turns their marriage into suttee on the psychological level.

On the other hand, if the experience is a dream, it is not clear where the dream begins, unless it does so before the story starts. The tale opens factually with Brown setting out on his journey; and while it very effectively shifts into the supernatural, there is no transition from actuality to dream. Yet the dreamlike quality of the night-journey is essential for the mystery of iniquity. Like Dante at the opening of The Inferno, Brown "came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.... I cannot rightly tell how I entered it, so full of sleep was I about the moment that I left the true way." The forest is that of the soul, and there Brown learns like Melville, that "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."

If one assumes that Brown literally drifts into a dream, other technical problems arise. Did he simply walk into the forest and fall asleep like Rip Van Winkle? Did he spend the night uncomfortably under a tree? If so, would he not realize upon waking that he had been asleep? On the level of motivation, why should he go into the forest to spend a night sleeping out, if he was not on his way to a rendezvous? The only way in which the dream version can be seen logically is for the entire story to be a dream, and such a reading still does not provide for a transition out of the dream at the end.

Yet the dream alternative is necessary for modern readers who do not believe in witches. Despite the loose ends, the final ambiguity allows for a psychological or spiritual rather than a literal experience. There was no actual witchcraft at Salem, but twenty people died there as witches, and Hawthorne's story provides the atmosphere in which such hysterical delusion could take place. As Alan Simpson states, "The Puritan was always obsessed by his sense of sin. Taught to expect it everywhere, and to magnify it where he found it, he easily fell into the habit of inventing it." Though the story makes no mention of witchcraft trials, it is not difficult to imagine Goodman Brown as an accuser and prosecutor of his neighbors. In his profound suspicion of evil on the part of everyone save himself, we see here, as Salem showed in actual history, a parable of the beginnings of American paranoia in society and politics.

Source: Robert E Morsberger, "The Woe That Is Madness: Goodman Brown and the Face of the Fire," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal, edited by C E Frazer Clark, Jr, 1973, pp. 177-82. Morsberger is an educator, editor, and nonfiction writer.

"Young Goodman Brown": An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism

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It is surprising, in a way, to discover how few of the many critics who have discussed "Young Goodman Brown'' agree on any aspect of the work except that it is an excellent short story. D. M. McKeithan says that its theme is "sin and its blighting effects." Richard H. Fogle observes, "Hawthorne the artist refuses to limit himself to a single and doctrinaire conclusion, proceeding instead by indirection,'' implying, presumably, that it is inartistic to say something which can be clearly understood by the readers. Gordon and Tate assert, "Hawthorne is dealing with his favorite theme: the unhappiness which the human heart suffers as a result of its innate depravity." Austin Warren says, ''His point is the devastating effect of moral scepticism." Almost all critics agree, however, that Young Goodman Brown lost his faith. Their conclusions are based, perhaps, upon the statement, "My Faith is gone!" made by Brown when he recognizes his wife's voice and ribbon. I should like to examine the story once more to show that Young Goodman Brown did not lose his faith at all. In fact, not only did he retain his faith, but during his horrible experience he actually discovered the full and frightening significance of his faith.

Mrs. Leavis comes closest to the truth in her discussion of this story in the Sewanee Review in which she says: "Hawthorne has imaginatively recreated for the reader that Calvinist sense of sin, that theory which did in actuality shape the early social and spiritual history of New England." But Mrs. Leavis seems to miss the critical implications of the story, for she goes on to say: "But in Hawthorne, by a wonderful feat of transmutation, it has no religious significance, it is a psychological state that is explored. Young Goodman Brown's Faith is not faith in Christ but faith in human beings, and losing it he is doomed to isolation forever." Those who persist in reading this story as a study of the effects of sin on Brown come roughly to this conclusion: "Goodman Brown became evil as a result of sin and thought he saw evil where none existed." Hawthorne's message is far more depressing and horrifying than this. The story is obviously an individual tragedy, and those who treat it as such are right, of course; but, far beyond the personal plane, it has universal implications.

Young Goodman Brown, as a staunch Calvinist, is seen at the beginning of this allegory to be quite confident that he is going to heaven. The errand on which he is going is presented mysteriously and is usually interpreted to be a deliberate quest of sin. This may or may not be true; what is important is that he is going out to meet the devil by prearrangement. We are told by the narrator that his purpose in going is evil. When the devil meets him, he refers to the "beginning of a journey." Brown admits that he "kept covenant" by meeting the devil and hints at the evil purpose of the meeting.

Though his family has been Christian for generations, the point is made early in the story that Young Goodman Brown has been married to his Faith for only three months. Either the allegory breaks down at this point or the marriage to Faith must be looked upon as the moment of conversion to grace in which he became fairly sure of his election to heaven. That Goodman Brown is convinced he is of the elect is made clear at the beginning: "... and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." In other words, at the start of his adventure, Young Goodman Brown is certain that his faith will help man get to heaven. It is in this concept that his disillusionment will come. The irony of this illusion is brought out when he explains to the devil the reason for his tardiness: "Faith kept me back awhile." That is what he thinks! By the time he gets to the meeting place he finds that his Faith is already there. Goodman Brown's disillusionment in his belief begins quickly after meeting the devil. He has asserted proudly that his ancestors ''have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs," and the devil turns his own words on him smartly:

Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war. They were my good friends, both, and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight I would fain be friends with you for their sake.

Goodman Brown manages to shrug off this identification of his parental and grandparental Puritanism with the devil, but the reader should not overlook the sharp tone of criticism in Hawthorne's presentation of this speech.

When the devil presents his next argument, Brown is a little more shaken. The devil has shown him that Goody Cloyse is of his company and Brown responds: "What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?'' He still believes at this point that his faith will lead him to heaven. The devil's reply, "You will think better of this by and by," is enigmatic when taken by itself, but a little earlier the narrator had made a comment which throws a great deal of light on this remark by the devil. When he recognized Goody Cloyse, Brown said, "That old woman taught me my catechism," and the narrator added, "and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment." The reader at this point should be fairly well aware of Hawthorne's criticism of Calvinism. The only way there can be a "world of meaning" in Brown's statement is that her catechism teaches the way to the devil and not the way to heaven.

From this point on Brown is rapidly convinced that his original conception about his faith is wrong. Deacon Gookin and the "good old minister," in league with Satan, finally lead the way to his recognition that this faith is diabolic rather than divine. Hawthorne points up this fact by a bit of allegorical symbolism. Immediately after he recognizes the voices of the deacon and the minister, we are told by the narrator that "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. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a heaven above him. Yet there was a blue arch, and the stars brightened in it." Here the doubt has begun to gnaw, but the stars are symbols of the faint hope which he is still able to cherish, and he is able to say: "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil." But immediately a symbolic cloud hides the symbolic stars: ''While he still gazed upward into the deep arch of the firmament and had lifted his hands to pray, a cloud, though no wind was stirring, hurried across the zenith and hid the brightening stars." And it is out of this black cloud of doubt that the voice of his faith reaches him and the pink ribbon of his Faith falls. It might be worthwhile to discuss Faith's pink ribbons here, for Hawthorne certainly took great pains to call them to our attention. The ribbons seem to be symbolic of his initial illusion about the true significance of his faith, his belief that his faith will lead him to heaven. The pink ribbons on a Puritan lady's cap, signs of youth, joy, and happiness, are actually entirely out of keeping with the severity of the rest of her dress which, if not somber black, is at least gray. When the ribbon falls from his cloud of doubt, Goodman Brown cries in agony, "My Faith is gone!'' and it is gone in the sense that it no w means not what it once meant. He is quick to apply the logical, ultimate conclusion of Goody Cloyse's catechizing: "Come, devil; for to thee is this world given."

Lest the reader miss the ultimate implication of the doctrine of predestination, Hawthorne has the devil preach a sermon at his communion service: "Welcome, my children ... to the communion of your race. Ye have found thus young your nature and your destiny." Calvinism teaches that man is innately depraved and that he can do nothing to merit salvation. He is saved only by the whim of God who selects some, through no deserts of their own, for heaven which the great mass of mankind is destined for hell. The devil concludes his sermon: "Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race." It is not at all insignificant that the word race is used several times in this passage, for it was used earlier by Goodman Brown when he said, "We have been a race of honest men and good Christians...." After this sermon by the devil, Young Goodman Brown makes one last effort to retain the illusion that faith will lead him to heaven; he calls out: "Faith! Faith! ... look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one." But we are fairly sure that he is unsuccessful, for we are immediately told: ''Whether Faith obeyed he knew not."

Young Goodman Brown did not lose his faith (we are even told that his Faith survived him); he learned its full and terrible significance. This story is Hawthorne's criticism of the teachings of Puritanic-Calvinism. His implication is that 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 purposes so few escape as to make one man's chance of salvation almost disappear. It is this awakening to the full meaning of his faith which causes Young Goodman Brown to look upon his minister as a blasphemer when he teaches "the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable," for he has learned that according to the truths of his faith there is probably nothing but "misery unutterable" in store for him and all his congregation; it is this awakening which causes him to turn away from prayer; it is this awakening which makes appropriate the fact that "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone."

Though much is made of the influence of Puritanism on the writings of Hawthorne, he must also be seen to be a critic of the teachings of Puritanism. Between the position of Vernon L. Parrington, who saw Hawthorne as retaining "much of the older Calvinistic view of life and human destiny," and that of Regis Michaud, who saw him as "an anti-puritan and prophet heralding the Freudian gospel," lies the truth about Hawthorne.

Source: Thomas E Connolly, "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism," in American Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, November, 1956, pp 370-75. Connolly is an educator, editor, and critic.


Critical Overview


Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)