“Young Goodman Brown” Nathaniel Hawthorne
The following entry presents criticism of Hawthorne's short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). See also Young Goodman Brown Short Story Criticism and The Minister's Black Veil Criticism.
One of the most frequently studied short stories in American literature, Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” has been a favorite of readers and critics alike. Hawthorne's masterful depiction of a young Puritan's discovery that evil lurks in all men, a theme he would later develop more fully in his novels, has led critics to deem him a pioneer of psychological fiction. Additionally, his masterful use of symbolism and allegory, especially in the figure of Brown's beribboned bride Faith, has recieved intense critical scrutiny. Of this ambiguous story, the American novelist Herman Melville, a friend and admirer of Hawthorne, wrote, “Who in the name of thunder would anticipate any marvel in a piece entitled ‘Young Goodman Brown’? You would of course suppose that it was a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to ‘Goody Two-Shoes.’ Whereas it is deep as Dante.”
Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1821 and returned to his mother's home in Salem, Massachusetts, with the intention of becoming an author. The next decade of his life, which marked his apprenticeship as a writer, was characterized by hard work, lack of recognition—both critical and monetary—and loneliness. As he wrote, he admitted to feeling like “the obscurest man of letters in America,” but he focused on developing his literary ability and in 1828 published his first novel, Fanshawe. Realizing that the novel was a mistake, he destroyed as many copies as he could locate; during this period he also prepared and then burned the first of several collections of short fiction that failed to find a publisher. “Young Goodman Brown” was written during this low point in Hawthorne's career, in 1828 or 1829. It first appeared in New-England Magazine in April, 1835, and was later included in Mosses from an Old Manse, a collection of short stories Hawthorne published in 1846 and revised in 1854. Like so much of his other short fiction, “Young Goodman Brown” attests to Hawthorne's symbolic habit of mind and to his interest in the past, myth, and human psychology. Yet by the time he included “Young Goodman Brown” in Mosses, Hawthorne already viewed his early tales as somewhat antiquated and obscure. He wrote in a letter to James T. Fields in 1854, “Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meanings in some of these blasted allegories.” Though he would eventually write more short fiction, Hawthorne's interest turned to novel writing, where he eventually resolved the tension between the past and the present still evident in the stories in Mosses.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in seventeenth century Puritan Salem, Massachusetts, “Young Goodman Brown” is recounted by an omniscient narrator who intentionally casts doubt over all the events he relates. As the story opens, Goodman Brown, a young, newly married Puritan, says goodbye to Faith, his wife of only three months, and is about to embark upon a mysterious overnight journey. Faith begs him not to go, but Brown says that he has a task that must be finished before sunrise. He walks down the main street of Salem and into the forest; as he proceeds deeper, he meets an old man who is actually the Devil in disguise. The old man looks a little like Brown and carries a walking stick shaped like a black snake. He invites Brown to walk on with him and to take the stick to make his journey easier. Although neither frightened nor surprised at meeting the Devil, Brown is reluctant to join him and mentions that his ancestors would never have gone on such a walk. To Brown's astonishment, the Devil explains that he is well acquainted with Brown's ancestors and that he helped Brown's father and grandfather punish religious...
(The entire section is 122,289 words.)