“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 dissenters and massacre Indians. Along the way, they also meet Goody Cloyse, Brown's childhood religious instructor, who clearly knows the Devil. In spite of her pious nature and respected position in Salem, Goody Cloyse turns out to be a witch. Brown realizes from their conversation that a meeting (a Black Mass) will take place that night in the forest. Further on, he sees that the minister and deacon from Salem village are also on their way to the Black Mass. As he finds himself full of doubts about good and evil and his Puritain beliefs, only the thought of his wife, Faith, sustains him. When Brown begins to pray, he hears Faith's voice, and soon discovers that she is about to be initiated into the Devil's party. At a crude altar in the forest, the Devil's congregation, a mixture of Salem's upstanding citizens as well as its corrupt, immoral denizens, sing their songs of worship. Brown cries out to Faith to resist the Devil, but then instantly finds himself alone again in the forest. He returns to town the next morning, turning away from everyone he meets, including Faith, believing that he now knows their true hypocritical nature. He never finds out whether he dreamed his experience in the forest or if it really took place, but from that time on, Brown is a lonely, distrustful man who rejects his wife and his religion. When the time comes for him to die, many years later, the narrator explains that “his dying hour was gloom.”
As many critics have pointed out, in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne is interested in exploring the psychological and social effects of guilty knowledge, whether or not that knowledge is founded on fact. At the outset of the story, Brown is self-confident and secure in the knowledge that the world around him is as he believes it to be. He particularly cherishes the knowledge that his wife, Faith, is innocent and good—an angel on earth. Believing that his place in heaven is assured by his wife's goodness, Brown disregards the consequences of making and keeping an appointment with the Devil. Hawthorne presents Brown's ordeal in the forest as his first brush with evil, but it is significant, leading him to reject his previous conviction in the prevailing power of good. His discovery that the people he admires and believes to be good Christians are actually hypocrites sets the tone for the rest of his life. Though he himself resists the Devil, he allows his newfound awareness of sin to fester and rejects what he believes to be a community of sinners. Hawthorne portrays Brown as the greatest sinner of all because he has turned away from the rest of humanity and has so easily given up his faith. Sin is an inescapable part of human nature, Hawthorne shows, and Brown's forest experience is symbolic of the spiritual journey from innocence to experience that is a part of emotional maturity. Because Brown cannot accept what he has learned, both his emotional and physical development is arrested and he stagnates spiritually until he dies. Additionally, there are parallels between “Young Goodman Brown” and the witchcraft hysteria that occurred in Salem in 1692, in which one of Hawthorne's ancestors played a significant role. The ambiguous narrator and the similarities in setting invite comparison between the historical events and Hawthorne's portrayal of evil lurking in every corner. “Young Goodman Brown” questions Puritan culture and the issues of conformity that led to the witchcraft hysteria by demonstrating how questionable, or spectral, evidence can so completely effect the course of an individual's life.
“Young Goodman Brown” ranks foremost among Hawthorne's short stories in both popular appeal and critical respect. Readers are drawn by Hawthorne's superb storytelling technique and by the theological, moral, psychological, social, and historical dimensions he develops in the tale. The story has also had its critics: in the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the allegorical elements in the story detract from its natural form, and Henry James posited that the presentation of the forest experience as a dream constituted Hawthorne's taking the easy way out of a narrative dilemma. More recently, critics such as Frank Davidson and Leo B. Levy have explored Hawthorne's handling of Brown's emotional crisis in the story. Going even further in this direction, Edward Jayne and Michael Tritt have written extensive Freudian readings of the tale, focusing on Brown's arrested psychological development and projection of guilt. The historical context of the story continues to attract critical interest, as well, with scholars delving into the Puritan belief system and seventeenth-century American cultural values for clues to interpreting “Young Goodman Brown.” Twentieth-century critics have also become increasingly interested in the narrative technique Hawthorne uses in “Young Goodman Brown” with such commentators as Harold Mosher, among others, discussing the storytelling aspect of the tale. The ambiguous sybmolism and the allegorical nature of “Young Goodman Brown” ensure continued interest and vigorous critical attention